White Sox fill manager slot by exhuming anti-activist, anti-analytics Hall of Fame corpse of Tony La Russa

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This guy again?!

This guy again?!
Image: (Getty Images)

It is impossible to accurately describe how confounding the White Sox hiring of Tony La Russa as manager is. That adjective is not even close to properly illustrating the shock, confusion, and anger of just about anyone around the club today. It’s like staring at a car crash, but both vehicles were clown cars. The wreckage is mountainous and spread over a staggering amount of ground, and yet you can’t possibly fathom where each was going in the first place, while having no choice but to marvel at the once-in-a-lifetime nature of it.

To do it best, you have to separate out the sides. On the one, the White Sox are the most exciting young team in the American League and look to be set for years of contention and fun. They are filled with not just young stars, and not just stars that are either Black or Latino, but filled with stars that are Black and Latino and boisterous and confident, and loud. And it’s wonderful! Not only that, but they are active in the community — trying to change how baseball is viewed by minorities, not just in Chicago but everywhere.

And that’s not even enough to attempt to get your arms around this. You have to understand how the White Sox finally got here. It took them far too many years to wrestle control of the front office from Kenny Williams, a Jerry Reinsdorf favorite (and remember that — it’s important) who couldn’t fathom the idea of not doing everything to win in the season that was right in front of him. There was no long-term plan, ever. There was only the next game, the next series, the next division to be claimed. While Williams did catch lightning in a bottle in 2005, the Sox spent the next 10 years floating in the baseball netherworld of 75-90 wins, winning just one playoff game in that time in their only appearance.

Finally, Rick Hahn was allowed to replace Williams as the GM, and replace the vision of the club to something sustainable instead of the five inches in front of their nose. Out went Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, Jose Quintana, and a host of others in return for the players that now give the Sox this incredibly fascinating core. It has been a process to build perhaps the most dynamic team, including personality-wise, in the AL.

And on the other side of all this? A white man three days older than water who owns the team in Reinsdorf (bet you thought after “older than water” it was going to be about La Russa) not giving a flying fuck about any of it and hiring his fellow old white man friend.

And not just his friend, but a manager who stands in complete opposition to everything the Sox are supposed to be about, both on and off the field. The Sox fired manager Ricky Renteria just a few weeks ago, even after their first playoff appearance in 12 years, for myriad reasons that La Russa doesn’t solve. Renteria clashed with the front office about creative use of the rotation and bullpen, staunchly refusing to even try an “opener” or eschew the idea of a closer. La Russa invented the closer.

Renteria was old-school to the point of throwing at hitters on other teams when he thought they were out of line, and was admonished by his own GM on the Chicago airwaves! La Russa is the headmaster of The School For Curmudgeonly Baseball Rules.

Renteria was a terrible in-game manager. That is something La Russa can claim to improve … at least he could when we last saw him a decade ago. A manager famous for his incredible determination in getting every matchup just right is now going to have to deal with a three-batter minimum that was designed specifically to keep managers like La Russa from turning a game in the middle of July into a lab experiment.

La Russa, emperor of The Way The Game Should Be Played, will take over a team filled with joyous bat-flips, outrageous gold chains, and Eloy Jimenez basically playing shirtless. He might have a heart-attack seeing it on the first day of spring training.

La Russa, as anti-protest as a human can be, will be the boss of Tim Anderson, one of the more defiant and inspiring voices in MLB when it comes to normality and what should happen outside the lines.

And all of it to satisfy merely the wishes of an owner so out of touch he’s trying to right a perceived wrong in his head from 34-years ago. Sox fans didn’t want this, the Sox front office didn’t want this, Sox players almost certainly don’t want this, and Jerry Reinsdorf did it anyway. It could not be a bigger middle finger to his organization, his players, his fans, and really society in general.

If you wanted to, and I most certainly do, this could be used as yet another example of baseball missing true leadership where a Manfred-sized cipher is instead. The optics here are simply awful for baseball as a whole. If Manfred was any kind of marketer, or had any sense of pulse around the game and country, the Sox should be something of a beacon as to what the game should, or at least could, look like and be. Swaggy, fun, and most of all diverse. In a sport that is far too white, far too staid, and unable to relate itself to younger generations, here’s a team that can absolutely do all of that. And onto that is a septuagenarian being projectile vomited into the dugout next to them. Where were the minority candidates? Where was any candidate who’s not a threat to soil himself in the dugout? A real commissioner would have placed some back-channel calls as soon as this rumor broke out a couple weeks ago and snuffed it out.
It is just another example of an Old Boys network, which is one of baseball’s biggest problems. And yet nothing about it changes.

The White Sox will probably still win under La Russa. His game-management can waiver from forward-thinking to asleep and drooling, but this roster is as close to turn-key as it gets. If he tries at all to quash the overflowing personality of this team, it won’t take long for an all-out rebellion. If the game has passed him by in the past 10 years, the Sox will suffer at the exact time they shouldn’t. This is not a guy who ever looks at a spreadsheet, and while those who don’t may champion Game 6 of this World Series as their ultimate victory, teams that aren’t run and managed by those who consider every angle will get left behind.

Reinsdorf has completely neutered his front office, who are already barking, and should there be an exodus there, qualified replacements are not going to be lining up to take a job where their biggest decisions will be usurped by an owner who might still think it’s 1985. It is bewildering, but then the White Sox have always been kind of bewildering.

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