Welcome to Part 3 of our South Side pandemic coverage here on South Side Sox. I’d have written this sooner, but occasionally I need a break from thinking about the absolute horse shit that is the 2022 White Sox and everything that’s led them to this point. But, having taken both ownership and the front office to task for their respective roles in the organization being more viral than Gangnam Style, it’s time to focus on the guys in the dugout.
Defenders of the White Sox organization (aka water carriers) spend an awful lot of energy defending the indefensible. Any criticism, however valid, is instant cause for derision and scorn in their eyes. The “true fans” will just accept mediocrity and keep spending money to get it, because sports, I guess. It is not atypical for them to haul out the classic line:
“Oh, like YOU could do any better?”
Yes. I’m a fucking idiot, and I still think I can make better decisions in real time. I interact with many fans in person, in the SSS community, and on social media, who can execute more intelligent in-game strategies. Heck, I think the players could just be left to their own devices and probably figure it out better than most of our recent managers.
It’s debatable how much of an impact managers have on a game. Good ones tend to just be good at managing personalities, sticking to highest-probability decisions, and mostly go unnoticed. They’re like umpires in that you barely notice they’re a part of the game if they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing.
Bad ones, however ... oh man, do we ever notice the impact. When the manager routinely makes the wrong calls in game or the third base coach is getting his runners murdered at home every week, it’s kinda hard to ignore.
But why? Why does this organization keep running headlong into guys who are such net negatives?
No choices, just decisions
The first, and probably most obvious issue is this team has not done an actual search for a manager since 2004, to horrifying effect. For as well as Ozzie Guillén turned out, even he likely never would have received any consideration were it not for his preexisting ties to the team.
Instead of casting a net for the most qualified candidates, the organization just hauled in another former player in Robin Ventura in 2012, despite zero professional experience managing and no expressed interest in doing so. The four-star general looked more Washington General after four straight losing seasons and managing his team out of its one shot at a postseason. Despite being as overmatched as Marc Trestman was for the Bears, Ventura lingered on whereas the McCaskeys at least had the sense (!) to cut bait quickly.
Ricky Renteria was as close as the White Sox came to searching for a manager, but after a season as the bench coach it was really just an internal promotion. Given the unenviable task of guiding a rebuilding club, Renteria was not impressive in the early going. However, growing alongside a crop of young players brought improvement, and after four seasons Renteria had grown to a point where he did not seem to be detracting from the on-field talent, resulting in the team’s first playoff berth in 12 years.
His reward, as we all know, was to be ignominiously fired and replaced by the current incumbent, Tony La Russa, a man no other team would have considered hiring in 2021. The only competition Tony ever had for the job was A.J. Hinch’s signature. Go figure, a Hall of Fame resume doesn’t go a long way when it’s been gathering mold for a decade.
Insular hires make for impossible fires
Renteria was the best White Sox manager since Guillén (pre-feud with Ken Williams). Ricky had a rough start, but navigated a lot of young personalities through early struggles and coalesced them into a winning unit. By the time the talent had begun hitting their potential in 2020, Renteria had upped his own game as well, being a lot more savvy with bullpen management and defensive positioning than he was in his first few seasons.
Unfortunately for Ricky, success doesn’t mean much when you aren’t a sentimental favorite in the organization. As attached as players were to him, the front office and owner did not share those feelings, and he got the boot. Amazingly, old sentimental favorite Don Cooper, who had long outstayed his welcome by that point, got the boot as well.
Cooper’s ouster looked at first like a step in the right direction, until La Russa’s hiring made it clear that the owner wanted the bench cleared for his good buddy to rule unencumbered. Indeed, Cooper had become a power player to the extent that even after feuding openly with Guillén, two more coaches would be saddled with him and have no say in the pitching coach’s continued presence.
The feeling now, justifiably, is that Tony is here for as long as he wants to be. Nobody believes the GM is empowered to fire him of his own accord (nor does it seem Hahn hired him of his own accord in the first place), and as long as Jerry owns the team that’s how it is. Ventura, for as useless as he was, pretty much had to fire himself, even with his replacement already in the dugout.
Hahn’s infamous, “mired in mediocrity,” quote lingers in part because the franchise continually chooses stagnation over growth, and willingly commits to unqualified leaders for esoteric qualities that never manifest in a practical way.
Galaxy brains, thimble thoughts
This gets to the primary issue: game day performance. Despite his Hall-of-Famer Baseball Person bona fides and a septuagenarian’s lifetime of baseball knowledge, La Russa’s game strategies are arguably worse than Ventura’s, a man who had no experience managing and was utterly overmatched on the field. In Renteria’s four seasons, fans got maybe a a year-and-a-half where they could point to something other than his personality as a net positive.
Being in baseball at any level is unforgiving. The best hitters are unsuccessful 60% of the time. Great teams lose 60-70 times a season. Sound decisions play out terribly all the time. In a world where everything is second-guessed, it’s generally good policy as a fan not to get too upset about bad things happening when the process that leads to them is sound.
The problem is, White Sox fans have been first-guessing things for years, and getting proven right way too often for people who aren’t getting paid for it. When Ventura spent September 2012 managing his bench like Ray Olmedo was having an All-Star season, nobody saw any logic to it. When Tony bats Leury García in the top third of the order while his OPS+ hovers around zero, there is absolutely no process by which that decision is sound. Fans spent two seasons begging Renteria to be faster with his hook for starting pitchers before he finally kinda got the memo.
The truth is, I would kill to have a milquetoast manager who adds nothing, if he just wouldn’t subtract from the team’s performance. I mean, mistakes happen, but jeez, the point is to learn from them.
I’m sure there are still Tony La Russa supporters out there who are going to be apoplectic that I had the temerity to write this. Fine, release your anger, because clearly the bullshit that’s happening on the field is all my fault. Winning organizations do what it takes to win, not what it takes to keep their friends employed. If you don’t think this team’s managing hires have been more of a hinderance than anything over the years, then I don’t think you’ve been watching very closely.
Well, I have, and so have the writers on this site, and I don’t think a single one of us believes the latest hire isn’t managing them right out of contention. Sure, there’s plenty to blame, from injuries to poor performance. But when difficulties arise, it’s up to the manager to find wins on the margins, not losses.