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Struggles at La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation Highlight a Pattern of Internal Feuding

The White Sox manager heads up two organizations where his version of the truth is at odds with those under his purview

San Francisco Giants v Arizona Diamondbacks
Tony La Russa and Grumpy Cat in 2015
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

As the Chicago White Sox continue a winning record in spite of injuries and clubhouse squabbles gone public, a different drama involving one of the most prominent White Sox staffers broke.

Tony La Russa’s Walnut Creek, California-based animal rescue and diversion non-profit, Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF), has been accused of harboring a “toxic and abusive workplace culture that included abusive and reliatory behavior.” While toxic work culture has recently been in the spotlight in other California-based non-profits, the case of ARF is even more complicated because it is a family affair. La Russa’s wife Elaine and daughter Bianca announced on April 21, 2021, their resignation from ARF. The following day, Tony La Russa released a statement on Twitter denouncing his family’s decision to step away from ARF. Simultaneously, news that many ARF employees have begun taking legal action was revealed.

Tony La Russa and family
Tony La Russa and his family — (from left) daughter Bianca, wife Elaine, daughter Devon — appear at the La Russas’ Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF) in Walnut Creek.
Photo courtesy of the Animal Rescue Foundation

Four ARF employees, including the organization’s former Human Resources Manager, are represented by attorney Mark Venardi. The existing case docket for the former human resources manager lists both Elaine Bicker, the current ARF executive director, and Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation as defendants. Venardi personally reached out to The Mercury News to describe ARF as operating “like a personal fiefdom at the expense of its loyal and dedicated employees.”

Venardi went on to say that the former human resources Manager was wrongfully terminated for “insisting on a full, complete and fair investigation of complaints of discrimination and retaliation from dozens of current and past employees.” Additionally, Venardi’s clients accuse Bicker of failing to act on employee complaints and participating in bullying and retaliatory behavior herself.

While specific details and incidents are unclear, there are a few details that have emerged to provide insight into why the rest of the La Russa family does not want to support ARF. Approximately one-third of ARF’s 100-person staff was fired in March 2020. As a result, former employees have complained of a toxic work atmosphere with Bicker and Greg McCoy, ARF board president, at the center. When an independent investigation was performed to understand staff complaints, McCoy was reluctant to reveal investigation findings to Elaine and Bianca La Russa.

The news and details of issues within ARF broke primarily on the West Coast in local publications five weeks ago and has received no further press attention since those initial reports. Additionally, while ARF may be scrambling internally, they have maintained silence towards the media and general public.

The scandal remains relatively unaddressed in circles related to the Chicago White Sox. While some outlets might judge news about ARF, DUIs, and La Russa as fodder, the troubles transpiring at ARF and within the White Sox are similar enough to show a pattern.

Before diving into the complexity of the current scandal at ARF and how it relates to the White Sox, it is important to review the beginnings of ARF and background of Tony La Russa and how ARF originated.

The Many Dimensions of Tony La Russa

Since the White Sox announced that La Russa would be returning as the White Sox manager for the 2021 season, discontentment has ebbed and flowed among fans and, reportedly, the clubhouse. Many fans were hopeful for a younger manager A.J. Hinch, who now manages the Detroit Tigers, and Alex Cora, who returned to manage the Boston Red Sox, to reflect the young but talented roster. When the 76-year-old La Russa (who had not been a manger for 10 years) was introduced as the new White Sox skipper and the oldest manager in the MLB, reactions were mixed.

When the dust of the hiring announcement settled, news broke that Tony La Russa had been arrested for a DUI and that White Sox leaders had moved ahead with hiring La Russa despite being aware of La Russa’s pending DUI trial.

MLB: Chicago White Sox-Workouts
Feb 27, 2021; Glendale, Arizona, USA; Chicago White Sox manager Tony La Russa looks on during a spring training workout at Camelback Ranch.
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

La Russa returned to the White Sox rife with baggage including a previous DUI, a defiant attitude (especially to the press), and a slew of questionable statements and managerial practices and comments.

It would be neglectful to not address that, yes, La Russa is a Hall of Fame manager who has had indisputable success in his career and contributed to the innovation and development of the game of baseball. It’s fair to debate how well his experience and breadth of knowledge transition to the contemporary version of the game, but what La Russa has prior accomplished in his career is in the history books.

Beyond La Russa, the Manager, is Tony, the Human. Tony, the Human, is a rich study of the troubles of painting an individual with broad strokes. As White Sox fans are currently and understandably frustrated with La Russa, he has been portrayed, at worst, senile and incompetent. While the mental and health status of Tony is unknown, there are volumes of evidence to support that Tony is incredibly shrewd, experimental, and creative.

While in the minor leagues in 1978, La Russa graduated from Florida State University College of Law with a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree. The same year, he became the manager of the Chicago White Sox Double-A squad before becoming the manager of the Chicago White Sox in 1979. At 35, La Russa was the youngest manager at the major league level. “His intelligence was the thing that first attracted me,” said then-White Sox owner Bill Veeck.

When GM Hawk Harrelson fired La Russa during the 1986 season, La Russa quickly hopped on board with an ascending Oakland Athletics team, where he went on to win his first World Series.

At the age of 45, La Russa had worn many hats and was ready to put on one more: animal activist.

Tony, the Animal Rescue Champion

La Russa’s foray into the animal rescue world began on May 7, 1990, in a nationally televised game between the Oakland Athletics and the New York Yankees. A tortoiseshell cat scampered onto the field and darted across the grass before finding a hiding spot in the Oakland dugout.

In the footage, La Russa attempts to corral the cat in the dugout. It was reported he eventually herded the cat into the Athletics’ team bathroom. The ARF website describes what occurred next:

“Tony and his wife Elaine, a life-long animal advocate, discovered there was not a single no-kill shelter in the East Bay region of the San Francisco Bay Area and that the little cat would likely be euthanized. They took her under their wing and exhausted every lead in hopes of finding a safe haven. At last, they were able to place ‘Evie’ — named after Oakland A’s team owner, Evie Haas — in a permanent, loving home where she could live out her natural life.”

This incident inspired Tony and, his wife, Elaine, to co-found ARF less than a year later.

A’s manager Tony LaRussa looks down at the cat that stopped play during a game between the A’s and the Yankees at the Oakland Coliseum on May 7, 1990. LaRussa ended up herding the cat into the team’s dugout bathroom.
A’s manager Tony LaRussa looks down at the cat that stopped play during a game between the A’s and the Yankees at the Oakland Coliseum on May 7, 1990. LaRussa ended up herding the cat into the team’s dugout bathroom. (Jon McNally/ Contra Costa Times Arch)
Jon McNally/Contra Costa Times via Getty Images

Since ARF was founded, it “has re-homed more than 45,000 dogs and cats saved from public animal shelters, performed more than 40,000 spay and neuter surgeries to combat pet overpopulation, and is home to an array of innovative outreach and education programs bringing people and animals together to enrich each other’s lives.”

It is unclear which La Russa is primarily responsible for the idea of ARF, but ARF serves as an important aspect in softening Tony’s image. While many White Sox fans have decried La Russa’s hiring, especially after news of his pending DUI trial was revealed, ARF has served as the Queen in the chess match of public relations. He has an animal rescue foundation with thousands of rescued animals attached to his name. While that information does not offset the damage done by any of his other poor decisions, it serves as a useful exception, excuse, or justification when people attempt to paint La Russa in extremes.

Tony, the Troubled Leader

Despite a winning record with the Chicago White Sox this season, it seems La Russa is plagued by troubles both on and off the field. Most recently, many of his players (Lance Lynn, Tim Anderson, and others) have publicly disagreed with La Russa about his handling of Yermín Mercedes and the breaking of an unwritten rule.

Some of La Russa’s public comments have been in sharp contrast to a quote in his very own Hall of Fame profile: “Every successful manager has players. That’s the No. 1 message. Coaches and managers don’t decide baseball. Players decide it. But what you do as a coach or coaching staff is you have a responsibility and opportunity to help put the players in their best position to compete.”

While the news of struggles within ARF broke before the most recent Chicago White Sox clubhouse drama, family infighting and public divergence from the teams appear to be a disturbing theme within Tony’s life at the moment.

In a somewhat ironic and contextually-lacking tweet — at least for those outside of regional news that broke the ARF story — La Russa publicly denounced his family’s decision to separate from ARF because of toxic operational leadership.

Scott Ostler with the The San Francisco Chronicle was able to contact Tony La Russa for more context on April 22, the day after La Russa’s family announced they were splitting with ARF.

Responding to allegations of a toxic work environment within ARF, La Russa said, “Every offseason I’m in there every day, almost, since 2003 when we built the building. I’m around the volunteers. I’m around the staff. You can’t accomplish what we’ve accomplished when you’re toxic.”

La Russa chalked up the toxic environment as a consequence of layoffs during the COVID-19 pandemic:

“The stuff about ARF and the (work) environment started appearing exactly after the COVID hit all organizations,” La Russa said, adding, “I really believe you could trace a lot of the discomfort and complaints to people having to deal with the unfairness of the virus. And that has escalated into claims of retaliation when someone was let go.”

However, former ARF employees disagreed with Tony. When Ostler tweeted the link to his interview with La Russa, a former ARF employee refuted Tony’s statements. Both tweets by the former employee were liked by Bianca La Russa.

Bianca La Russa’s likes include other former employees have been attempting to reach Tony La Russa via Twitter to refute his statements.

In both the case of the White Sox and ARF, Tony seems to be detached from the truth as well as those he leads.

This begs the question “Can you lead successfully and maintain respect while creating such public divisions?”

The truth is, no one not knows yet, though many will assert as much.

Even Experts Must Continue to Learn

A distinction must be made that no one is questioning La Russa’s historical career and contribution to both the game of baseball and animal rescue community. He is a Hall-of-Famer for a reason, but like all historical greats, a day comes where you have peaked and have the opportunity to be self-aware enough to pass the torch. It is difficult to not consider this quotable and cliché Friedrich Nietzche quote: “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

While La Russa is hardly a villain or monster, many broad strokes of extremes of the public narrative might make you believe otherwise. La Russa is successful, but like all of us, he also has his own troubles and makes mistakes. He lets his ego and focus on personal brand get the best of him at times.

At his worst, La Russa lacks self-awareness and appears to not respect how valuable and powerful silence can be when protecting and supporting your family, your team, and even yourself.