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The Last Straw for Tony La Russa

The experiment has failed, so it’s time for him to fade back into the shadows of baseball past

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Seattle Mariners
Tony La Russa has done enough damage to the Chicago White Sox; it’s time for him to fade back into the shadows of baseball past.
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

If there’s one thing more than anything else that Chicago White Sox fans and players have had to painfully endure, it has been the management.

From ownership blindness and front office bumbles down to the guys on the field, management has been a constant source of frustration for the South Side faithful. Lately, though, it’s the on-field manager who is receiving the brunt of the vitriol from fans across social media, and deservedly so.

Not to say that this is all going without proper attribution to the Guy at The Top, Jerry Reinsdorf, but we all know he will sit quietly and let this continue, so I won’t even waste words on him.

The end of Ozzie Guillén’s tenure as manager marked the beginning of what has now been nearly a decade of bad managers — and even the tail end of Guillén’s time at the helm was hard to watch. Robin Ventura’s years filling out the lineup card were laughable, and yet somehow the White Sox were able to develop a young core of position players and pitchers in the minors while Ventura trotted out barely-serviceable guys like Jeff Keppinger and Dayan Viciedo on a daily basis. Tim Anderson’s rise to the big leagues under Ventura signified the start of the next generation of White Sox players — players we had all been hearing about and waiting to see. While it may have taken Anderson a couple of seasons to really dig in and become what he was advertised to be, he’s here now, and he’s a bonafide leader on this 2021 team.

Ricky Renteria’s time with the White Sox started out rocky, and many people speculated that he was on the same path with the White Sox as he was with the Cubs. Come in, fill time for a year or two while the developing team waits for an elite manager, and then watch from home as your former team hoists the World Series trophy. Fortunately (or unfortunately?) for Renteria, that wasn’t the case. Ricky stuck around for a full four years with the White Sox, each year increasingly better than the previous, and was a finalist for American League Manager of the Year in 2020 after leading the White Sox to a division championship in a COVID-shortened version of a Major League Baseball season. Funny thing, though, is that he was nominated for that award after having been relieved of his duties as manager of the White Sox, while his pending replacement hadn’t managed a game since 2011.

When Tony La Russa’s name started being kicked around, it was painful. Twitter brought it up way beforehand, seemingly as a joke. Like, “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if?” and then we all slowly started to realize what was about to happen. Say what you want about the other options available at the time and their respective track records in baseball, La Russa should not have been the guy from the outset.

La Russa was retired from the game for 10 years, a by-the-books manager who we all knew would have a short tolerance for the big personalities on the South Side, but still a “Hall-of-Famer baseball person,” or at least that’s what he told the police officer when he was pulled over for driving under the influence of alcohol. Despite being on the hook for his second DUI charge, the White Sox organization handed him a jersey and the keys to one of the most electric and promising rosters in all of baseball.

I’m all for giving people second chances and not holding someone’s past over their heads, but this is not the kind of start to the White Sox World Series Fantasy Year that fans had been envisioning. Truth be told, La Russa needs help outside of the world of baseball, and as of recently he’s not doing himself any favors within the world itself.

La Russa’s negative impact on the White Sox started immediately. One of the big names on the free agent market, pitcher Marcus Stroman, outright said he wouldn’t take any amount of money to pitch for La Russa, meaning that in some eyes, the South Side of Chicago went from attractive to avoid-at-all-costs, overnight. Tony addressed one of the more major concerns by saying he would let the boys play their brand of baseball: Anderson’s bat flipping, the gold chains with the players’ jersey numbers and initials, the hand signals on and around the base paths ... all of the things that make the team fun to watch. Tony’s assurance may have briefly eased some tension and bought him some time in the eyes of Sox fans, but we now know that his sentiment was smoke and mirrors.

Ask any White Sox fan, and they will tell you that the first month-and-a-half of La Russa has been insufferable, from bullpen mismanagement to admitting not knowing the rules of the game to questionable lineup construction. All of it could easily be swept under the rug as the White Sox continued to push themselves to the top of the leaderboard in several statistics, including best winning percentage and top run differential in baseball, despite La Russa falling asleep at the wheel on several occasions. Through all of that, though, the most recent case that has him all over headlines and Twitter accounts is, and should be, the last straw.

With the White Sox leading 15-4 over the Minnesota Twins, rookie sensation Yermín Mercedes found himself in the batter’s box to face Willians Astudillo in the ninth inning. Astudillo is normally a catcher and first baseman, but Twins manager Rocco Baldelli sent him to the mound to conserve his bullpen with the game far gone. After lobbing a few 45 mile-per-hour “fastballs,” Astudillo worked Mercedes to a 3-0 count. Mercedes swung at the next pitch and sent it over the fence in center field.

This is where things started to get hairy. Supposedly, La Russa gave the “take” sign for the 3-0 pitch, and was even yelling at Mercedes to take the pitch — but Yermín clobbered it, anyway.

La Russa was out of the dugout and on the field shaking his head and gesturing at Mercedes before the guy even hit third base. Adam Eaton was seen talking to Mercedes in the dugout, presumably lecturing him on the unwritten rules of baseball and what it means to respect your opponent. In Zoom question after Zoom question, La Russa doubled down on his stance that Mercedes was wrong, and disrespectful to the Twins. La Russa went as far as to say that Mercedes was “clueless” but “now he has a clue,” that Mercedes will have “consequences he will have to endure,” and that he “sent the message that that was unacceptable,” tiptoeing around as if he’s a 1920s gangster who just told some rival overlord to be careful where he sleeps.

In a game that clearly didn’t matter to the Twins, La Russa decided to turn nothing into something.

Sox fans speculated on what kind of retaliation would come from the Minnesota Twins, if any, as this type of thing is usually followed up with a fastball to the thigh or the ribs. You know — good, old-fashioned, boys-will-be-boys, baseball stuff. Normally that would happen in a player’s first trip to the plate, but it didn’t. Twins relief pitcher Tyler Duffey took it upon himself to throw behind Mercedes in the seventh inning, and after a brief umpire meeting Duffey was tossed from the game, followed quickly by the ejection of Baldelli. Anderson perched himself at the top of the White Sox dugout, yelling at whoever would listen as he defended his teammate, while La Russa stood motionless at his end of the dugout. To the credit of Ventura and Renteria, at least they would come out to defend their players when something went wrong, even if their guy was mostly to blame. For La Russa to not only kiss up to Minnesota, but then stay in the dugout after his player was thrown at is inexcusable.

Following Tuesday night’s loss, La Russa said that he had no issue with what the Twins did, and then all of Twitter broke loose.

Tony has gone on to repeatedly defend baseball’s holy and sacred unwritten rules and apologize to the Twins in the 48 hours since Monday’s game, and the distance between La Russa and his players has grown from a crack to a chasm. In what could have so easily been a comment about how Mercedes missed a sign and it has been handled, La Russa put on makeup and a red wig and went full clown.

You never go full clown.

From this point forward it will most likely be a divided clubhouse. How can players play under a guy who will apologize to the other team before defending his own player? If you want to make a big deal about signs being missed then go ahead, admit that it’s been an issue with the team as of late. Call an emergency Signs 101 class and move on.

La Russa has wasted so much breath apologizing to his biggest division rival, and hasn’t even said one thing in defense of Yermín, almost as if he’s hoping to stifle Mercedes’ success, who arguably has been the biggest storyline of the White Sox so far.

Making La Russa look even worse, current and former players, and other baseball personalities have weighed in on the situation.

White Sox pitcher Lance Lynn shared some on-field insight, saying, “If a position player is on the mound, there are no rules. Let’s get the damn game over with. And if you have a problem with whatever happened, then put a pitcher out there.”

Former Twins third baseman Trevor Plouffe said in a tweet, “I took the temp of the Twins clubhouse and it doesn’t seem like anyone cares about the swing. This is a ton of unnecessary self-inflicted drama for TLR.”

And in one of the best Tweets I’ve seen on the subject, our own Dick Reillo (@SavesTuesday on Twitter) said, “Tony La Russa was [so] concerned about not embarrassing his opponent that he was perfectly fine with embarrassing his own player.”

The worst part of this is that we all know nothing will be done about it, and if something is done I’ll be first in line to admit my shock. There are La Russa defenders and unwritten rules defenders, and you all can have fun shouting into your respective echo chambers, but this has gone beyond those two independent issues — this is now a ballclub vs. manager issue that needs to be addressed.

Rick Hahn and Ken Williams have been radio silent on the matter. Again, not that I was expecting them to speak up, but you would figure if your prized manager is in the crosshairs, you might want to take a stab at defusing the situation. I don’t even know what a baseball mutiny would look like, but from the way things are going with current players on the roster being so outspoken against La Russa, we are getting close to finding out. Players-only meetings? Forfeiting games? What will that look like?

For a brief period of time this offseason, Carlos Rodón didn’t know where he would be pitching. When the phone rang and the White Sox were on the other end, Rodón was ecstatic to be coming back. In the postgame interview after Rodón’s no-hitter earlier this season, Carlos said he wanted to come back to the Sox and be part of this team as they close out this rebuild.

The players who have been around for a while — Rodón, Anderson, Leury García — know that this season is supposed to be special, that this is what they have all been working towards through years of terrible managing and awful seasons, and even without Eloy Jiménez and Luis Robert they are doing everything they can to get to October. Those two injuries were major blows to this team and yet they are still one of the top three teams in baseball. To have your manager turn into the bad guy is not what this team needs.

La Russa’s presence in that dugout is now one of the biggest stumbling blocks there can be to a team as talented and determined as the 2021 Chicago White Sox. Maybe they will win it all in spite of La Russa, or maybe La Russa will bring this team crashing to the ground. Tony has already been fired by the White Sox once before, in 1986, but this time Hawk Harrleson might not be the knight in shining armor.

If the White Sox organization is smart, they won’t wait until the end of the season to see the result. It’s time to end this experiment and let the kids play.