PHOENIX — Tony La Russa may be a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest managers in baseball history, but his introductory press conference for his return to the Chicago White Sox on Thursday was contentious, even combative at times.
He repeatedly was questioned, in different ways, how he could handle the job as a 76-year-old. Never mind that Joe Biden will be 78 if he’s elected president, and would be running an entire country, not a baseball club.
He was asked his views about the new-age players and White Sox star Tim Anderson’s passion for bat flips, as if Rickey Henderson didn’t strut and Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire didn’t bash when he was their manager with the Oakland Athletics.
He was grilled on his approach towards analytics even though this was the man who virtually invented the modern bullpen – and has always been one of the most creative thinkers in the game.
He was asked if he’s out of touch with the game since retiring as manager in 2011, ignoring the fact he was running the Arizona Diamondbacks entire baseball operations department for three years, was a vice president with the Boston Red Sox for another three – including their World Series championship year – and spent the past year as a special advisor with the Los Angeles Angels.
And it took only two questions deep into the press conference to be asked about his view towards players kneeling during the national anthem, recalling his criticism of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016.
Certainly, the most sensitive subject was race, with La Russa answering three different questions about it during his 50-minute Zoom call at the White Sox's spring-training headquarters at Camelback Ranch.
“When that first occurred,’’ La Russa said, “my first instinct was respecting the flag and what America stands for. There has been a lot going on since 2016. I not only respect, but the awareness that comes into society and into sports. I applaud and would support what they are now addressing, identifying the injustices, especially on the racial side.
“And as long as it’s peacefully protested and sincere, like the Players Alliance, when your protests have action-oriented results, the way you impact and make things better, I’m all for it.’’
La Russa then reeled off several of the Black players who has played for him in Chicago, Oakland and St. Louis, and dared anyone to say they were treated differently than anyone else.
“There is not a racist bone in my body,’’ La Russa said. “I do not like injustice. Anything that is peacefully done and sincerely thought of, and especially the action at the end of it, there will not be a problem.’’
Please, La Russa says, don’t believe he’s not attuned to analytics, welcoming the information – but not letting it control every managerial decision.
“The wealth of information that helps you prepare,’’ La Russa said, “I embrace it. We were always information seekers. You take the value of that information, and it gives you a better chance for success.
“But once the game starts, it’s a very volatile experience, they are players, not machines. You watch the game and how to put people in there to win.’’
Tony La Russa prior to a game at Tropicana Field in July 2019. (Photo: Kim Klement, USA TODAY Sports)
Oh, and those bat flips by Anderson?
Bring ‘em on.
“I do believe that sportsmanship is important, and having respect for your opponents,’’ La Russa said. “(But) I always reasoned that if its sincere, I don’t have a problem with it. For players who are more exuberant, people are showing, 'Hey, they’re coming through.’ MLB is encouraging them to do so. If I see that it’s sincere and directed towards the game, then it’s ok to display the kind of emotion you want.
“We are encouraging players to be more expressive… The only thing I say is if your team celebrates, and their team celebrates, neither team can be upset, as long as everybody is doing it sincerely."
That's not to deny that times have changed since La Russa last managed in 2011.
La Russa had no plans to return to managing when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2014, but being upstairs and watching games from the executive suites, was torturous.
“My heart,’’ La Russa said, “was always in the dugout.’’
He greatly missed the competition, and after the White Sox approached him, it took him three weeks to decide he wanted to do it.
So, can he actually take one of the most talented young teams in baseball and bring home the club's first World Series title since 2005?
“I think this is going to be really good for the White Sox,’’ said Dave Stewart, a former 20-game winner under La Russa in Oakland and later his GM with Arizona. “You have managers in this game that are good to a certain point, and then you need a guy that pushes you over the top. I think Tony will be the finishing touches for the White Sox.’’
Yes, just like when the Chicago Cubs fired Rick Renteria for Joe Maddon, resulting in a World Series championship two years later, the White Sox believe they are doing the sequel, firing Renteria for La Russa.
And, yes, besides his becoming the third-oldest manager in baseball history, Stewart believes there’s no doubt La Russa can relate to players young enough to be his grandkids.
There’s not a single active player who was born when La Russa first was hired to manage the White Sox in 1979.
“Modern players are modern players,’’ Stewart said, “but the game is still played the same. I think the moment Tony walks into the room he has a totally different respect than anyone else managing the game today.
“I don’t know why people don’t think he can relate with today’s modern players. Even today’s players respect the game, and respect how it is played. One thing Tony is good at is that he’s good at how the game should be played. I think the adjustment will be from both sides, some give from Tony and some give from the players, and there will be a happy medium.’’
Now, here is, a three-time World Series champion who has won the third-most games in baseball history, back in the dugout where he first started, re-joining one of his closest friends, White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf.
“Friendship or righting old wrongs,’’ White Sox GM Rick Hahn said, “Tony was the choice because we believe Tony is the best man to help us win championships, and help us usher in the next phase of the White Sox baseball.’’
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