In November 2014, six months after the Arizona Diamondbacks named Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa their chief baseball officer, the organization announced that it had hired Dr. Ed Lewis as its first director of baseball analytics and research. His experience in the field was nonexistent. His doctorate was in veterinary medicine. Lewis came to the Diamondbacks because he possessed a quality far more important than developing algorithms or building models: For 35 years, he had been Tony La Russa’s friend.
The hiring of Lewis prompted snickers around the game. At the time La Russa was stripped of power three years into the job, the Diamondbacks had gone 212-274. His handpicked GM, old friend Dave Stewart, had been fired. Lewis was replaced.
Cronyism in the game is as old as the spitball, and an inner circle of powerful men — they’re all men — has spent decades in the game fomenting it. When they want something, they tend to get it.
Jerry Reinsdorf, the Chicago White Sox’s owner for nearly 40 years, said he regretted trading Harold Baines because had he not, Baines would have reached 3,000 hits. He finished his career with 2,866, and his other numbers were well shy of Hall of Fame standards. So Reinsdorf found himself a place on a Hall committee voting on a special ballot with Baines-era players, argued vehemently on Baines’ behalf and rammed him through to Cooperstown. One of the other 11 votes came from Tony La Russa.
This is how it works. And this is how perhaps the most inexplicable news of the offseason unfolded at its outset Thursday: La Russa, now 76 years old, out of the dugout for the last nine, was named manager of the White Sox. He inherits a team brimming with young, dynamic talent — a team that, in many ways, represents a new epoch of baseball whose principles and priorities run antithetical to La Russa’s.
There was no more desirable job available this offseason than the White Sox’s — not even the big-market, big-money Boston Red Sox’s. The White Sox are a ready-made contender, a playoff team that fired its manager, Rick Renteria, with the publicly stated intention of taking a step forward via a replacement with recent championship experience. The opportunity was undeniable. The last time a playoff team fired a manager immediately after its season ended was in 2017, when Boston got rid of John Farrell and Washington Dusty Baker. The next year, under Alex Cora, the Red Sox won the World Series. The year after that, Davey Martinez helmed the Nationals to a championship.
Tony La Russa got the White Sox’s job this week because of another crony hire. In 1986, Reinsdorf moved Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, a former player, from the broadcast booth to the front office. General manager Roland Hemond was demoted and left. Harrelson dismissed a 29-year-old executive named Dave Dombrowski. And he purged the manager too.
Letting Harrelson fire La Russa, Reinsdorf said, was his greatest regret, even more than what happened to Harold Baines. And at 84 years old, given a chance to remedy that mistake, Reinsdorf wasted no time.
The White Sox recently contacted A.J. Hinch, the former Houston Astros manager, to determine his interest in their open managing job, league sources told ESPN. Hinch said the job very much appealed to him, according to sources. There was only one snag, which had become apparent inside the organization in recent days: Once La Russa expressed a desire to manage again, nobody else had a chance.
The White Sox’s announcement finally came Thursday — at the same time Hinch was interviewing with the Detroit Tigers, Chicago’s American League Central rivals. Now, sources say, Hinch is on the verge of agreeing to a deal to manage the Tigers, an up-and-coming team that expects to challenge the White Sox sooner than later.
Sarah Spain voices her concerns about the White Sox’s hiring of Tony La Russa, citing his traditionalist point of view compared to the team’s young roster.
Hinch, 46, was connected to the Chicago job immediately after Renteria’s firing. He had won a World Series with the Astros in 2017 and gone to another in 2019 before being fired in the wake of the team’s sign-stealing scandal. Hinch’s reputation in most quarters emerged unscathed, and his experience helping mold a young core into a championship-caliber group was almost too perfect a fit for a White Sox team that folded down the stretch of the shortened 2020 season and bowed out in the first round of the playoffs. It was so good, in fact, that the email the White Sox sent out to fans celebrating La Russa’s hire … included an image of Hinch’s signature.
It was like the White Sox were trolling their own fans. (They blamed the snafu on a graphics glitch.) The job opening gave the club a perfect opportunity to acquaint itself with young, talented, diverse candidates to run a team that includes Cuban (Luis Robert, Jose Abreu, Yoan Moncada, Yasmani Grandal), Black (Tim Anderson) and Dominican (Eloy Jimenez) stars. Other teams have capitalized on the opportunity to do the same. Of the dozen who reportedly have interviewed for the Tigers job, five are Black, five white and two Latino. They range in age from 38 to 61. Boston has interviewed at least seven candidates: three white, two Black and two Latino.
White Sox officials said they interviewed candidates other than La Russa, but USA Today named just one other: Willie Harris, the longtime White Sox utilityman, who is Black. With the makeup of its clubhouse, front office (Ken Williams, who is Black, serves as executive vice president) and the prior hiring of Renteria, the White Sox have been far more progressive than other teams when it comes to hiring minorities. It was jarring nevertheless to see Reinsdorf essentially flout the Selig Rule, named after his longtime collaborator and former commissioner Bud Selig, which calls for teams to interview minority candidates for high-level positions.
Nobody was going to come in and blow Reinsdorf away. His mind was made up, even as others balked. Players as well as rank-and-file employees told ESPN they were dumbfounded. Sure, they all respect La Russa’s managing acumen. His accomplishments — 2,728 wins, six World Series appearances, three titles — speak for themselves.
So do his words. And that’s what the players and employees were having trouble getting past.
Managing a team in 2020 is, despite the perception that front offices write lineup cards and serve as puppet masters, perhaps the most trying day-to-day job in baseball. The best managers are polymaths: strategist, public-relations specialist, politician, therapist, mathematician, motivational speaker, innovator. The crusty manager who cared about baseball, baseball and baseball and gave not a moment of his time to much else is an anachronism. Or maybe was.
Before he spent even an hour as White Sox manager for the second time, La Russa addressed the intersection of his present and past. Four years ago, when Colin Kaepernick first took a knee to protest police brutality against Black people, La Russa unleashed a screed to Sports Illustrated about how his protest disrespected the constitution, the soldiers, the country, the American flag.
“I really question the sincerity of somebody like Kaepernick,” La Russa said.
In the years since, the protests that once were limited to the NFL have spread to baseball. On Opening Day this year, Anderson, Abreu, Robert, Jimenez and star pitcher Lucas Giolito were among the eight uniformed White Sox personnel who knelt during the national anthem. Even more radical a change since La Russa’s last game managing, a World Series-clinching victory with St. Louis in 2011, is the style of on-field play. The bat flips — Anderson is among the best — and the displays of emotion. The embrace, for the most part, of the “Let the Kids Play” ethos MLB marketed. That is these White Sox. That is their identity. And considering La Russa pooh-poohed Fernando Tatis Jr.’s grand slam on a 3-0 pitch this summer in an interview with The Washington Post, it was fair to ask how, exactly, he would police his team.
“If it’s sincere, I didn’t have a problem with it,” La Russa said.
If it’s sincere.
“What I see now is that with players that are being more exuberant — I take Tim Anderson for an example — now it’s people showing that, hey, I’m coming through,” said La Russa, who in Oakland managed the homer-pimping Rickey Henderson and forearm-smashing Bash Brothers. “In fact, Major League Baseball is encouraging them to do so. And if I see that it’s sincere and directed toward the game, that’s displaying the kind of emotion you want.”
If I see that it’s sincere.
“If your team celebrates and their team celebrates,” La Russa said, “neither team can be upset when you see celebrations, as long as everyone’s doing it sincerely.”
As long as everyone’s doing it sincerely.
La Russa couldn’t help himself. He kept retreating to that crutch, the same one he had used four years earlier, when he attacked Kaepernick’s motives with falsehood-filled broadsides.
Sincere. Sincerely. Sincerity. All the same concept, the idea that whatever is under La Russa’s microscope — be it a protest or a bat flip — is fine as long as it comes from a noble, honest, real place. Except that this nobility, this honesty, this reality — it is not objective. It can’t be. What’s sincere to one man may be insincere to another, and when that was pointed out to La Russa, he fell back on that same tired philosophy — when he sees it, he knows it — the sort of incurious hubris that would lead someone to hire a veterinarian who flexed his math muscles stock-picking for a data science job.
“I evaluate players’ commitment to our team,” La Russa said. “And based on watching them closely, you can detect the sincerity of when they say ‘I’m all-in for helping the team,’ and then you look around and see that they are not all-in. So I think you look at actions.
“Words are words. I would look at actions, and what I’m seeing, one of the reasons I’m so encouraged by what I’ve seen the last bunch of years, is how players are backing up their words with actions.”
He’s right. Words are words. And it was particularly interesting to hear him revisit his about Kaepernick from four years ago.
“I know in 2016, when the first issue occurred, my initial instincts were all about respecting the flag and the anthem and what America stands for,” La Russa said Thursday.
“There’s been a lot that’s gone on in a very healthy way since 2016. Not only do I respect but I applaud the awareness that’s come into not just society but especially in sports. If you talk about specifically baseball, I applaud and would support the fact they are now addressing [and] identifying the injustices, especially on the racial side. And as long as it’s peacefully protested and sincere … I’m all for it.”
There it was again. Sincere, as if sincerity is more important than injustice, as if one need exist to validate the other, as if his opinion means any more than Tim Anderson’s or Jose Abreu’s or Lucas Giolito’s or anyone else’s. As if he’s got the monopoly on sincerity.
In fact, go back not four years ago but nine months ago to when La Russa told Graham Bensinger in an interview: “I was so upset when the kneel-down [sic] in the NFL. It’s not that you don’t have something that you dislike. There’s a different way to protest it. When you kneel down, you disrespect the flag, the country and the anthem. Men and women are fighting and dying for that. It’s the wrong way to protest.”
Maybe George Floyd changed things for La Russa. Maybe it was something else. Or maybe it’s fair to wonder whether someone who just got hired for a job that needs him to be a politician and a public-relations specialist was just saying what he had to say and not necessarily being sincere. What a shame that would be.
It is very possible that Tony La Russa is a smashing success as White Sox manager. For all the consternation about the hire, which even La Russa acknowledged in a tweet Thursday night, the White Sox are an extremely talented team, and La Russa is a historically competent manager. His hiring neither dooms nor damns Chicago. What so deeply frustrated White Sox fans was the rationale behind it, the process behind it and the unfortunate commonality that ties them together.
Nobody, in fact, put it better than La Russa: “How rare is it to get an opportunity to manage a team that’s this talented and this close to winning?”
Extraordinarily, especially a team that general manager Rick Hahn so expertly put together — one with Anderson, Robert, Moncada and Jimenez all signed to long-term deals, with a core that for the next half-decade should at very least keep the White Sox in contention and at best compete for multiple championships. That kind of team, the logic goes, should have the kind of manager who will grow with it, a manager chosen not by an owner trying to right an almost-four-decades-old wrong but by the GM and staff that put the team together in the first place. That is how functional organizations work. The baseball people make the baseball decisions. The owners let them.
This isn’t about age. It’s more a question of execution. Joe Maddon, 66, has managed winners in 11 of the past 14 years, so that’s what the Los Angeles Angels hired him to do. The Astros needed a reputation rehabilitation, and few know how to charm the media and public like Dusty Baker, 71. What is La Russa today? More Jack McKeon or Bobby Valentine? Joe Gibbs or Dick Vermeil? Is he still a brilliant tactician — clearly better than all those people who weren’t interviewed because cronyism-gone-wrong, which at this point might as well be in the fossil record, necessitates some recompense?
Either Reinsdorf didn’t recognize there would be widespread opposition internally as well as externally to handing over the Corvette they’d built to someone who hadn’t gotten behind the wheel in a decade — or he didn’t care. The former would be sad. The latter would be infuriating.
Especially because in the interview nine months ago, Bensinger asked Reinsdorf whether La Russa would ever manage again, and Reinsdorf said: “Managing, it just takes an awful lot out of you. There’s nothing else for him to accomplish. He’s won three World Series. He’s in the Hall of Fame. There’s no reason to go back to managing and have to try to deal with people who are 22 years old when you’re 75 years old.”
Clearly there was a reason, because here was Tony La Russa, Chicago White Sox manager (1979-1986, 2021- ). He wanted something, and Jerry Reinsdorf gave it to him, like they always do. Now we’ll see just how sincere he was about making the most of it.