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Chicago White Sox manager Tony La Russa had a long talk during batting practice Tuesday with the man who controls his fate.
General manager Rick Hahn was there too.
The strange dynamic that brought La Russa back to the Sox after 34 years is the same reason he doesn’t have to worry about being fired, no matter how much his team struggles to live up to expectations.
Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf is one of La Russa’s best friends. La Russa is not going anywhere.
Hahn knows it. La Russa knows it. And Sox fans know it.
Reinsdorf didn’t fire Rick Renteria to rectify what he once called “the biggest mistake” of his baseball career — allowing Hawk Harrelson to fire La Russa in 1986 — just so he could fire La Russa two months into his second season.
But that hasn’t stopped Sox fans from tweeting about it or talk-radio hosts from yakking about it or newspaper columnists from writing about it.
And unless the Sox show some consistency, the subject is not going away, so La Russa should be resigned to hearing about it for the time being.
[ Rick Hahn admits the 1st 2 months have tested his patience, but the White Sox GM also sees ‘reasons for optimism’ ]
Every time a manager gets fired, as Joe Maddon was Tuesday by the Los Angeles Angels, the obvious question around baseball is “Who’s next?” And as manager of a sub-.500 team expected to compete for a championship, La Russa knows he’s a person of interest.
In truth, La Russa doesn’t deserve to be fired after 53 games. The Philadelphia Phillies’ Joe Girardi and Maddon were fired for a collective inability to win over the last two-plus seasons. La Russa’s team has underachieved, but injuries and a lack of hitting by key players — including Yasmani Grandal, Yoán Moncada and Josh Harrison — have been the root causes of the Sox malaise.
But La Russa is the perfect punching bag for disgruntled Sox fans, and 90% of them seemingly have blogs. Just Google “Fire La Russa” and you’ll get the following headlines from various blogs:
“Tony La Russa Tries His Best to Get Fired, As the White Sox Beat the Rays.”
“Tony La Russa Should Be Fired Immediately.”
“ChiSox Should Fire Out-Of-Touch Manager Tony La Russa.”
“Woke Mob Wants La Russa Canceled for Patriotic Stance on Anthem.”
(OK, I made up that last one, but you get the picture.)
Some of the “Fire La Russa” stories were from last season, but the Google algorithm still keeps them near the top, along with a change.org petition from 2020 calling on La Russa to resign.
Hahn was asked before Tuesday’s 4-0 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers if the Sox philosophy is not to fire managers during the season, a roundabout way of asking him whether La Russa is on the hot seat.
White Sox manager Tony La Russa has a laugh with Steve Stone as Stone is honored for his 40th year in broadcasting before the Sox-Dodgers game at Guaranteed Rate Field on Tuesday, June 7, 2022. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)
“Uh, no,” Hahn replied. “I’m trying to come up with a counterpoint to show my ‘no’ is appropriate and I can’t come up with one immediately in my couple of decades I’ve been here. Gene Lamont. I think I was in high school (in 1995), so I can’t take responsibility for Gene Lamont.”
Fortunately, I was covering the White Sox when Lamont was fired 31 games into the 1995 season. Like La Russa, he was coming off a season in which the Sox were in first place, though Lamont’s ‘94 team was denied a chance to go to the playoffs when the players strike ended the season in August.
General manager Ron Schueler blamed the players for Lamont’s exit, saying the team lacked fire during a showdown with Cleveland.
“I gave them the benefit of the doubt,” Schueler said. “But if the team can’t get up for a series like the Cleveland series, obviously I thought I’d have to do something to change the atmosphere.”
Trying to shake up a team usually is a good excuse to fire any manager, but this team doesn’t need shaking up. It needs better performances by talented players — and for Tim Anderson, Lance Lynn and Eloy Jiménez to return healthy and stay off the IL the rest of the season.
The Minnesota Twins are a .500 team playing over their heads. When the real Sox show up, they should catch the Twins by the All-Star break and put them in the rearview mirror by Labor Day.
Of course, waiting for the real Sox to show up has been agonizingly difficult, which is why the bandwagon has been much lighter in 2022 and why La Russa has borne the brunt of the criticism. It’s part of the job, which he knew coming in.
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Managers are hired to be fired, except perhaps managers who were hired 34 years after they were fired by the same owner who let him be fired in the first place. They have to leave on their own.
It’s good to remember why the Sox let La Russa leave in the first place. Harrelson, whose one-year reign as general manager in 1986 set the franchise back five years, had a well-known rift with La Russa when he decided to pull the trigger in June.
“The club has not responded,” Harrelson said that day. “It’s a baseball decision. He understood it. It was the overall standings and the performance of the club. We’re not talking about a personality conflict.”
No one believed Harrelson then or now. Reinsdorf quickly regretted the decision and no doubt also regretted replacing the great Roland Hemond with Harrelson — who also fired vice president Dave Dombrowski, the bright, young talent who went on to win championships with the Florida Marlins and Boston Red Sox. Fortunately Reinsdorf also fired Harrelson after the season, saving the franchise from a total brain drain.
La Russa was discussing his return to managing Sunday in Tampa with Sox beat writers, joking that if he had any business sense, he would’ve started a business after he retired from managing to keep busy.
“But this is the only thing I know how to do,” La Russa said with a grin. “Kind of. We’ll see if I still know how to do it or not.”
This always was a World Series-or-bust season for La Russa and the Sox, and they still have four months to right the ship.
“Whether it’s Jerry, Kenny (Williams), myself, the coaches, any White Sox fan — we’ve all had our patience tested,” Hahn said. “But the fundamentals of who this team is remain. We’re fortunate that baseball is a long season, and over the course of a long season, things tend to play out the way the talent permits. And we feel good about this talent.”
But it’s going to be a turbulent voyage, so everyone should get used to the occasional tidal wave along the way.