Column: White Sox return to disco era to hire La Russa
One bit of advice to any team searching for a manager: Don’t hire a guy who began his career the same season as “Disco Demolition Night.”
Especially if you’ve got a team with swag. A team that is magnificently diverse. A team that isn’t afraid to speak its mind or challenge the game’s silly, outdated traditions.
In a move that only makes sense if they plan to hold Throwback Night all season long, the Chicago White Sox resurrected Hall of Famer Tony La Russa from the retirement home to take over a budding powerhouse that made the playoffs for the first time in a dozen years.
We can’t wait to see the 76-year-old La Russa’s reaction the first time Tim Anderson launches one of his epic bat flips.
La Russa tried to sound hip.
“If I see that it’s sincere and it’s directed toward the game, that’s the display and kind of emotion that you want,” he insisted. “As a coach, what you want to do is you want to get players passionately involved with the competition. And if you do that, you get exciting games. You’re entertaining.”
We’re guessing it won’t be long before La Russa is screaming, ”Get off my infield, you crazy kids!”
How baffling was this hiring? Let us count the ways.
— La Russa last ran a team from the dugout in 2011. He will be the third-oldest manager in baseball history and, judging from some very middling stints in several front offices, is completely out of a touch with the modern game. We’re still checking into rumors that the White Sox hired La Russa only after learning both Connie Mack and Casey Stengel were dead.
— The White Sox have a core of young players on team-friendly deals, including Anderson, Eloy Jiménez and Luis Robert. José Abreu is one of the front-runners for AL MVP. Lucas Giolito pitched a no-hitter. This is a group that cries out for youthful, relatable leadership. Instead, Chicago went with the search firm of Indiana Jones & Associates to seek out the ark of managerial relics.
— General manager Kenny Williams spoke out eloquently this year on social-justice protests that roiled the nation and the burden of being a Black man in America. It’s hard to believe that Williams — one of just two Blacks in charge of baseball departments this past season (the other, Michael Hill, has since parted ways with Miami) — looked around at the field of qualified candidates, especially those of color, and signed off on recycling the old boys club. This is yet another reminder of how hard it is for minorities to make managerial inroads in baseball and nearly every other sport.
— La Russa’s hiring actually took some of the heat off the Detroit Tigers announcing A.J. Hinch as their manager Friday. Hinch was welcomed back to the game as soon he completed a one-year suspension for his role in the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal. Any outrage at that move — and such a reaction is not out of line — was overshadowed by the White Sox’s shocking decision.
La Russa was once of the brightest young minds in baseball, but that was 1979. Jimmy Carter was the president. “Three’s Company” was all the rage in prime time. And the White Sox, trying to do their part to stamp out the scourge of disco, blew up their own field and sparked a riot.
Less than a month after “Disco Demolition Night,” the White Sox fired playing manager Don Kessinger and promoted La Russa to the lead spot in the dugout, making him the game’s youngest skipper at age 34. The rest, as they say, is history. Or at least it should’ve been.
La Russa won an AL West title in Chicago before heading to Oakland in 1986, where he guided the “Bash Brothers” to four division championships and a World Series crown. He moved on to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1998, where he captured two more World Series titles.
La Russa was certainly ahead of his time in many ways. In Oakland, he made Dennis Eckersley a one-inning closer. Hundreds of times, he wrote out a lineup had the pitcher batting eighth. He was a master of getting the best pitcher-batter matchup.
But — and this certainly doesn’t bode well in his new job — La Russa ridiculed the concept of “Moneyball” and its emphasis on statistics and analytics over human scouting and observation. He also largely received a pass for earning many of his wins with the help of admitted steroid users Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco.
More troubling, La Russa made it clear he’s not a fan or social-justice movements such as the one sparked by Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem.
“You’re not going to be out there representing our team and our organization by disrespecting the flag,” La Russa said in 2016. “No, sir, I would not allow it.”
The White Sox had several players kneel this past season, including Anderson, Abreu and Giolito.
La Russa now says his views have evolved.
“There’s been a lot that goes on in a very healthy way since 2016,” he said. “Not only do I respect, but I applaud, the awareness that’s come into not just society but especially in sports.”
La Russa was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014. Not surprisingly, those who are charged with immortalizing the game’s greats were caught off guard by his return to managing.
“If you’re asking me if that’s disturbing, my answer is yes,” Jack O’Connell, secretary-treasurer of the Baseball Writers Association of America, told MLB Network. “We were all assuming his career was finished and the body of work was complete.”
Indeed, La Russa seemingly called it a career after a thrilling World Series victory in 2011. He retired as the third-winningest manager in baseball history, and the first to step down immediately after winning it all.
“This just feels like it’s time to end it,” La Russa said at the time. “When I look in the mirror, I know I’d come back for the wrong reasons, and I didn’t want to do that.”
Well, he’s doing it now.
For all the wrong reasons.
Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963. His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paulnewberry
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