In early May before a series against the Chicago Cubs, Tony La Russa referred to the White Sox as being in “survival mode.”
“We’re four under, got a chance to win two in a row, but there’s no script for the season,” La Russa said. “That’s probably the most entertaining part of it. You can’t say what’s going to happen. You have to go out there and make things happen.”
If there was a script for the 2022 season, no one would’ve believed it. From beginning to end it has been a series of unforced errors by players, management and La Russa. They always were one hot streak away from living up to expectations, never showing the urgency to make it happen.
Heavy favorites to win the American League Central, the Sox remained in survival mode through August, when La Russa left the team to deal with a heart-related issue. After a brief surge under acting manager Miguel Cairo, they reverted to form over the last week, getting swept by the Cleveland Guardians to fall out of contention.
With the Sox now playing out the string, the announcement was made Saturday that La Russa would not return this season on orders of from his doctors.
Whether this is the end of the story or just a pause is unknown.
It would seem unlikely for general manager Rick Hahn to bring La Russa back in 2023, but crazier things have happened, such as Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf hiring his old friend in the first place after La Russa retired from managing in 2011.
La Russa might have thought it was a push-button job with all the young talent in place. He would walk off with another ring by the time his deal was up after 2023, a second happy ending to a Hall of Fame career. The players seemed to believe the hype as well, as did the media hyping them.
But in the end we were all wrong, myself included. They began Saturday’s game against the Detroit Tigers one game over .500 with 11 to play, the picture of mediocrity.
How much blame La Russa deserves for the Sox downfall is in the eye of the beholder.
But there is no debating his effect on the Sox culture, once considered the swaggiest in baseball.
For all the talk about how he would relate to Tim Anderson and a group that enjoyed fighting the “fun police,” La Russa let the players do their own thing and had only one publicized incident — throwing Yermin Mercedes under the bus in 2021 in Minnesota for homering on a 3-0 pitch in a Sox blowout.
La Russa came up with excuses for players who didn’t hustle, saying they needed to preserve their legs to avoid injuries. When Anderson bumped an umpire this season to earn a suspension, La Russa falsely claimed the umpire was walking toward Anderson — as if the shortstop were blameless.
It’s no wonder Sox players never had a discouraging word to say about La Russa. He defended them like family and in fact often wore a T-shirt that said “FAMILY” in case the message wasn’t clear enough.
It was only after he left, however, that the family began to play up to its potential and give Sox fans hope the season could be salvaged. That turned out to be false hope, and now the question is what can be done to fix things in 2023.
Hahn on Saturday declined to discuss next year’s plans to reporters at Sox Park, though he lauded Cairo and the coaching staff for “flashes of playing at the level we thought was capable over the course of the entire season.”
Unfortunately for Cairo, those “flashes” provided too small of a sample size to fairly assess whether he would be the right man to take over if the Sox move on from La Russa — or if La Russa moves on from the Sox.
Having Hahn’s endorsement was nice, and Cairo surely has many of the players in his corner. But after the bitter disappointment of this season, there’s a growing sense the Sox will need to do something big this offseason to make amends to the fan base for their suffering.
Does Cairo move the needle with Sox fans? Or do the Sox need to go for a bigger name with experience, gravitas and the ability to help market the team?
The reaction to the La Russa news was, well, the same as it has been all season. Even his health issue hasn’t evoked much sympathy, and most fans were happy he would not return.
If the Sox do decide to bring La Russa back next season, it would be considered a slap in the face to the fan base. But Reinsdorf has done it before, notably with former Sox manager Terry Bevington and former Chicago Bulls general manager Gar Foreman. Few owners of professional teams seem as oblivious to fans’ wishes as Reinsdorf has been over the last four decades.
From a media perspective, La Russa’s return would be bonus points. His fame and strong personality make for good reading, and he’s the king of generating a frenzy on sports-talk radio. La Russa is many things, but boring he’s not.
The Sox haven’t had anyone generate this much publicity since Ozzie Guillén left after battling with then-GM Ken Williams in 2011. After tiring of all the controversies, Williams hired the low-key Robin Ventura in 2012 before Hahn replaced Ventura with the amiable and cliche-spouting Rick Renteria in 2017.
Giving Guillén another shot would be a move that should be considered. It’s doubtful Sox players would be given the go-ahead to jog to first base under Guillén 2.0. But it probably won’t happen. No one has skewered this Sox team more than Guillén on the NBC Sports Chicago pre- and postgame shows. I’m guessing Hahn and Williams would be wary of Guillén upsetting someone’s delicate ego and creating headlines.
Hiring a veteran such as Joe Maddon, Bruce Bochy or Joe Girardi would seem to make perfect sense. Or if Reinsdorf wants a respected former Sox player without experience, A.J. Pierzynski or Jim Thome, a special assistant to Hahn, would be at the head of the list.
There will be plenty of time to debate the candidates once the season ends and La Russa’s fate is announced.
The ending to this strange script has yet to be written.