The Chicago White Sox’s complicated coexistence with Tony La Russa

The Chicago White Sox have had a very interesting history with Tony La Russa, the franchise’s manager since 1992. Since he took over, the White Sox have been to the playoffs 13 times, but have never won a World Series despite appearing in the Championship Series a further seven times. The White Sox also won the World Series once under La Russa, but that is only when the team was known as the Chicago White Sox.

It is impossible to talk about the Tony La Russa era of the White Sox without talking about the Chicago White Sox’ famous Curse of the Billy Goat. When the White Sox owner Charles Comiskey banned the traditional goat-worshiping Billy from attending games during the 1919 World Series, the Chicago franchise lost the Series to the Cincinnati Reds. The Curse of the Billy Goat has been a topic of conversation ever since, and it has even led to a book about the curse and its effect on the White Sox (I Hate Eddie Port. The Curse of the Billy Goat on the Chicago White Sox, by Kevin Glenn).

In the early 90s, when the White Sox were at their peak, a young Tony La Russa was a pitching coach for the team. But he couldn’t stay long for he had to leave to pursue a different career opportunity. Since then, he has risen to fame as a manager and he has become a truly legendary figure in baseball.

THIS IS IT: one last stand against the stenographers and yes-men, bean counters and figure crunchers, button pushers and script readers. One final fight against people who live in constant dread of being wrong, who put their faith in statistics rather than their intuition, and who lack the courage to defy the odds and deal with the consequences.

Everything is for them: every bunt based on a hunch, every defense of an unwritten rule. It’s for any man in the dugout who doesn’t have the knowledge or experience to realize that a one-run game may creep up on you in the fourth or fifth inning. It’s for the men above who can’t take their eyes off their screens long enough to see that a real-life game with real-life people is going place. It’s for anybody who doubts the predictive power of experience, how one game predicts another, or who fails to see the competitive benefit of a fastball to the ribs on occasion.

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This is Tony La Russa’s quest: a 76-year-old Hall of Famer trying to prove that a big-league manager can still be an active participant rather than just a curator. La Russa has many of the same beliefs he has had throughout his managerial career, which everyone — including himself — assumed ended when the Cardinals won the World Series in 2011. He thinks that pushing a batter to swing on a hit-and-run can help him break out of a rut. He thinks that giving away an out to get a base is both essential and smart at times, and that anybody who disagrees is either uneducated or scared of making a mistake.

His players are among those who do not follow his faith’s principles. Yasmani Grandal, the Mets’ catcher, is so analytical and pitch-sequencing obsessive that he’s been known to sit down at a computer to analyze a just-completed game before removing his spikes. Carlos Rodón, a first-time All-Star, resurrected his career this season with the assistance of Ethan Katz, a new-agey pitching coach, and a gadget called a core velocity belt, which allowed him to integrate his bottom half into his action.

“We use analytics all the time,” Rodón adds. “Spin rate, carry, and perceived velocity are all factors to consider. Knowing how to utilize your tools entails all of this.” In his second start of the season, he pitched a no-hitter, and his strikeouts are up while his walks are down. His 106th and last pitch of the night, against Toronto on June 8, was 97 mph.

Liam Hendriks is one of baseball’s greatest closers, ranking second in the league with 23 saves, a 0.74 WHIP, and a remarkable 16.3 K/BB ratio. He reviews his arm’s extension rates and vertical data on each of his pitches after each game. Reduced extension shows that his arm is becoming fatigued, and a lack of rise on his fastball suggests that he is getting under his pitches and leaving them flat in the zone.

La Russa’s stance in the dugout embodies his go-to-hell mentality, a defense of the way the game used to be and never will be again. EPA/Jason Szenes

The White Sox aren’t the only ones that rely on sophisticated analytics. They do, however, play for a guy who mocks front-office quants, stating, “I don’t believe they understand that those percentages are just that,” according to La Russa. “When you enter a game’s world, the game becomes the reality.” And these players, with their extension rates and perceived velocities, play for a guy who, as he has shown on many occasions, is not beyond openly chastising his own players if they want to break an antiquated rule that less and fewer people feel the need to enforce.

For a variety of factors ranging from strategic to sociological, La Russa’s style of management is almost extinct. The guy in the dugout has lost a lot of authority to front offices, mainly because choices based on probability have shown to be more accurate than predictions. And today’s players are less receptive to the paternalistic, martinet style, in which one guy is in charge of both establishing and enforcing rules for adult men.

And yet, Tony La Russa, whose hire was regarded as either funny or ridiculous, is now in charge of one of baseball’s greatest teams, one that has a slew of big personalities and strong views, and one that has a chance to make it all the way to October. Managers and players coexist, trying to reconcile their differences in the pursuit of a shared goal: victory. La Russa would not be standing in the dugout, hands in his back pockets, a familiar lean toward the field as he rocks side to side, his stance the physical expression of his go-to-hell mentality, if this club didn’t have so much promise. In human form, he is a clenched fist aimed towards the game, defending the way things were once and will never be again.

EVEN SO, it’s probably not completely fair to claim that La Russa is the enemy of good times. For instance, on June 5, he stood in the dugout at Guaranteed Rate Field in his black-and-white-pinstripes South Side jersey and heard shortstop Tim Anderson make an announcement:

Anderson said, “I can’t wear this hat straight.” “You’ve got to have a little tilt,” says the narrator.

La Russa turned from his position, one step to the right of the dugout steps, and faced the dugout as he heard the news. He took the bill of his hat with his right hand and rotated it 30 degrees to the left with considerable ceremony.

He questioned, “Is this slanted enough, TA?” before turning it a couple more degrees. “Can you tell me, TA, whether this is enough?”


The MLB season of 2021 will be broadcast on ESPN and the ESPN App.

All timings are in Eastern Standard Time.

Cubs vs. Cardinals, Wednesday, July 21 at 8 p.m. on ESPN

White Sox vs. Brewers, 7 p.m. on ESPN, Sunday, July 25

Monday, July 26th, 7 p.m. on ESPN, Blue Jays vs. Red Sox

Everyone in the dugout chuckled, not just because it was surprising and hilarious, but also because it fit in with Chicago’s season’s continuing comedy. Anderson is the team’s undisputed leader, a gifted player, and one of the game’s most engaging characters. When La Russa was appointed in October to replace Rick Renteria after the White Sox’s best season in almost a decade, all eyes were on Anderson, who La Russa described as “bringing more energy and enthusiasm before, during, and after a game than any player I’ve been around.” In addition to being out of the dugout for ten years, La Russa’s appointment brought up problems unrelated to baseball. His two DUIs, one of which was not made public until after he was hired, seem to show that he lacks the self-control he teaches. And his social beliefs — he questioned Colin Kaepernick’s sincerity, a charge he has subsequently tempered — are diametrically opposed to those of many of his teammates. “Since today is D-Day and because I’m a patriot,” he says, “I placed ‘The Longest Day’ on the television in the clubhouse at 9:30 this morning.” He has maintained for years that he would not allow a player to sit during the national anthem. How could he connect with Anderson, a vocal member of The Players Alliance off the field and a vivacious performer on it?

“I have a terrific connection with him,” Anderson adds. “I have full access to his office and can tell him anything.” He’s there when we need him, just like a father, but we know he’s not going out on the field to play those games. We’re both aware of what’s going on. He’s in the vicinity. No worries, we’ll take care of it. It’s a large family with a diverse group of individuals, and we enjoy ourselves.

“We’re aware. We’re aware. That’s all I have to say: we’re aware.”

Anderson chuckles and declines to elaborate. The season has been full of irritation, perplexity, and laughter. It’s also featured much more victories than defeats, as well as a 9.5-game lead in the AL Central, easing the White Sox and La Russa into a truce. Anderson’s “We know” contains a lot of information, the most of which dates back to May 17, when Yermin Mercedes hit a home run off Twins position player Willians Astudillo on a 3-0 pitch with the White Sox ahead 15-4. The game’s two roundest symbols uniting in joyful cooperation to convert a 47 mph pitch and a tremendous swing into a memorable moment was funny on many levels. Mercedes’ batting average rose to.364 with the home run, adding to the Rule-5-draft, eight-years-in-the-minors, five-home-runs-in-April mythology that had swept baseball in the early weeks of the season.

Yermin Mercedes was one of the early season’s feel-good stories, but the public spat with La Russa after his home run on a 3-0 pitch generated even more headlines. AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

Not surprisingly, La Russa was less enthused. He chastised Mercedes for swinging at a 3-0 pitch and reportedly disregarding a take sign, calling him “clueless.” He swore to wreak some amorphous kind of retribution. “I didn’t have an issue with what the Twins did,” La Russa remarked the following night, when Tyler Duffey of the Twins tossed a pitch behind Mercedes. Major League Baseball, on the other hand, imposed a three-game ban on Duffey.

“They’re not pleased if they’re being pounded,” La Russa tells me a few weeks later. “Why would you give them a cause to retaliate against our player by giving them a reason to do so? Why bury teams and give them a chance to upset if you believe you have enough runs? I was just protecting the family when I stated what I said. This is when the unwritten rules come in the way. People have a good time with it. But, with two or three minutes remaining in a game, are people putting up three-point plays to put up 30 points? Do you hold your career in high regard? Would you do anything to make it seem bad?”

Mercedes’ teammates and most of the baseball world sided with him, perhaps because most functioning families do not set up their own athlete to be attacked — and then fail to protect him when it occurs. Lance Lynn of the White Sox supported Mercedes and proposed that the unwritten rules be abolished completely, prompting La Russa to retort. He replied, “Lance has a locker.” “I have a place to work.”

When starting pitcher Lucas Giolito was ejected from a game in early June for arguing balls and strikes from the bench, La Russa decided not to defend him. Giolito “made a mistake,” La Russa claimed he informed crew chief Greg Gibson. It’s not a new concept. After Sierra attacked A’s general manager Sandy Alderson for never having played the game, he dubbed his right fielder with the A’s, Ruben Sierra, a “village idiot” in 1995.

The Mercedes incident is the defining event of the White Sox’s first half, and La Russa is obviously upset that it has detracted from a club that is dominating the AL Central despite having a third of its starting lineup out with injuries. He adds, a chilly undertow in his voice, “All I had to do was have one meeting to explain everything, and Mercedes was OK with it.” “Then I read in the same article how nobody has ever swung at a 3-0 pitch with that big of a lead” — 557 batters have faced a 3-0 count with at least a 10-run lead in the last 20 years, and Mercedes was the first to swing — “and then I read in the same article where the writer said, ‘That doesn’t mean the tradition is wrong.” Really? Let’s face it, dude.

Tim Keown has more to say.

“I don’t blame the players because Major League Baseball wants more personality in the game. It’s something that [the league] encourages. I usually support anything MLB says, but this time it’s different. They’ve made a concerted effort to appeal to young people and demonstrate that these men are passionate and charismatic. Everything is positive, but as a manager, you must do what is best for your squad.”

While the White Sox’s primary talking point is to publicly downplay any tensions between the club and its manager — “Tony has a lot of respect,” Katz adds, “and the players respect him” — Anderson responded to La Russa with biting wit. He remarked a few days after the Mercedes home run, “We’re like the naughty kids that don’t listen.” “We’re going to go out there and play the way we want to play at the end of the day. We’re going to have a good time with it.”

I questioned Anderson three weeks later whether he regretted making that remark. “No, it was the ideal quote at the ideal moment. Dad was irritated for a short while, but he’ll get over it.”

ANDERSON IS ONE OF THE FEW PLAYERS WHO IS WORTH WATCHING ALTHOUGH HE DOESN’T DO MUCH. It’s as if he’s heard everyone’s complaints about how dull baseball is and has devised a solution: I’ll simply play a new sport. Every game starts with him drawing a cross in the infield dirt and saluting the umpires, who don’t always return the salute. At second, a basic force with him flying over the bag like a hummingbird to receive a throw is art. When he throws across his body, particularly from deep in the hole, the action is so fluid and the throw so powerful that it’s as if all of his bones dislodge themselves. He emits a feeling that is so seldom articulated that it may make you take a second look. What exactly is this — happiness?

“Being a nice person and making a favorable impact on others is simple,” Anderson adds. “My kids are pleased when I wake up. I come to the field and win, and I’m pleased with myself. After that, I return home, and my children are once again happy. There is no time for sadness. We’re not just playing baseball here, and I want everyone to be as pleased as I am. With the exception of the other team, I want them to despise playing against me.”

Anderson, who earned his first All-Star Game appearance in 2021, is one of those rare players who is interesting to watch even when he isn’t doing much. AP Photo/Aaron Doster

The White Sox don’t make a lot of sense as a club. In a three-true-outcome universe, they have the second-fewest home runs in the American League, a fact due, at least in part, to injuries that have held Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert out for the whole (Jimenez) or the most of the season (Robert). Mercedes’ stock plummeted following the iconic 3-0 homer, which had already begun to cool after his record-breaking start. He batted an MLB-worst from that day to his demotion on July 2. In 123 plate appearances, he has a batting average of 162 with one home run. Only three White Sox players, Anderson, Yoan Moncada, and Jose Abreu, are in the top 80 OPS players. Grandal tore a tendon in his knee in early July and may miss more than a month. His offensive numbers (.188 batting average,.824 OPS) are their own category of absurdity. They have one of the lowest fielding percentages in all of baseball. Their pitching, particularly their beginning pitching, has helped them to the top record in the American League and a commanding lead in the heartbreaking AL Central.

On the other hand, there’s a lot about La Russa that doesn’t add up. He was ahead of his time at one point. He pioneered the one-inning save alongside Dennis Eckersley and often used three pitchers to close out a ninth inning, introducing the world to the granular usage of the bullpen. White Sox third-base coach Joe McEwing adds, “He was analytics before analytics.” As a result, it seems that La Russa dislikes the regulation that requires a reliever to pitch to three hitters.

“No, I really enjoy it a lot,” he says. “Otherwise, these people would just follow the script. ‘There goes George, here comes Tony; there goes Tony, here comes Joe,’ it would be. Because of the matches, I went ahead and did it. It’s no longer about the matches as much as it is about what a formula says at any particular moment.”

Although La Russa may not want to hear it, there is little doubt that his brilliant use of Eckersley would have followed every contemporary pattern. Despite this, he makes no concessions. In a changing world, he is baseball’s pope, upholding tradition.

“A lot of people above will tell you that your batting average doesn’t matter,” he adds. “And that RBIs are something that can be accumulated rather than something that requires a particular skill. I disagree, but if you go into that debate, you come off as anti-analytics. There is a lot of useful material available, but you must strike a balance. Allow me to give you an example: Give me a chemistry-measuring formula. There isn’t a measure for it, but you best believe you’ll need it if you want to win, and we have it. It’s an intangible that can be touched. It’s palpable.”


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He views the game as a living creature that changes shape and form, and the management must keep track of it. The job title may have changed from almighty CEO to something more akin to middle management, but La Russa does not have to change with it. Who needs skill if the game’s mystique is gone, if everything from filling out the lineup card to choosing whether to pinch hit is decided by probabilities? In certain cases, a manager may sit in his office after a game and wait for the general manager to arrive with a laptop to go over the previous night’s choices.

McEwing says, “Nope.” “With Tony, it’s not going to happen.”

The sacrifice bunt is a great example. In the AL, only the Angels have bunted more than the White Sox. They’ve had 18 successful sacrifice bunts through 94 games, compared to just one in last year’s 60-game season under Renteria. The measurements indicate that the only time a bunt improves a team’s chances of winning is in the eighth or ninth inning of a tie game with a runner at second and nobody out.

On June 5, the White Sox were defeated by the Tigers in a one-run game when La Russa ordered Danny Mendick to bunt. In the sixth inning, Chicago was down by one run with runners at first and second and no one out against reliever Derek Holland, who has struggled to get anybody out all season. The White Sox didn’t score because of Mendick’s bunt, which resulted in a force at third.

“The beauty of the game is what’s going on with your team and their team on that particular day,” La Russa adds. “You can’t put percentages of what you’re thinking — how you’d write it — into a game. You’ll have to wait and see what happens throughout the game. Do you have a hunch that this will be a tight game? Is there a crooked-numbers game in the air?”

Of course, this may be a self-fulfilling prophesy; if you determine that a game could be a one-run game and plan accordingly, your chances of producing a one-run game skyrocket. It’s a war that La Russa fights: intuition against the world’s godlike technology. He’s here to show that a man who tilts his head just so, smelling the fresh fragrance of an impending one-run game, then orders a bunt in the sixth inning with runners on first and second and no outs can still have a place in baseball. The simple way out is to sit back and wait for the big inning to arrive, then shrug if it doesn’t. The more difficult route, which La Russa considers to be much more gratifying, is to take the initiative, forego an exit in order to gain a base, and enforce your will.

La Russa remarked to reporters the day after the unsuccessful Mendick bunt, “Many individuals in positions of power don’t believe in giving away an out in order to establish a foothold. It isn’t anything I can agree with.” La Russa said Paul Richards, a former player and businessman who died in 1986 “You don’t hide your butt. You trust your instincts. Because you’ll never know whether you’re good enough if you cover your butts with any of these choices and get defeated. I’m not scared since I’ve been well-trained and believe in what I believe.”

“The connection between Tony and the players has been greatly exaggerated,” adds closer Liam Hendriks. “There are times when we listen and others when we don’t,” says the author. Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

WE ARE AWARE. Those remarks are an acknowledgement as well as an acceptance. They’ve figured it out, which is a win in and of itself, and it’s enabled them to relax into a comfortable resting position. Sure, La Russa is an old-school guy who points to the sky and screams at the clouds every now and then, but he’s their old-school dude pointing and screaming. Hendriks adds, “Overall, this is a clubhouse that can tolerate a few of leaks here and there.” “I don’t want to put it to the test, but that’s the feeling I’m getting. The players’ and Tony’s connection has been greatly exaggerated. There are moments when we listen and others when we don’t listen, as Tim said.”

They are aware of the situation. They know the season is long, the team is strong, and the men in the clubhouse screaming at each other in a fun manner will determine where and how it all ends. They’ll worry about spin speeds, arm extension, and launch angles until then. Grandal will continue to squint at the computer screen, looking for hints. And their manager will sometimes tilt his head just so and inhale the delicious scent of a one-run game, the bill of his hat military-straight.

“No matter what happens, you have to appreciate it,” Anderson adds. “The game is difficult enough, and we’re going to play again the following day.”

Solidarity is where you’ll find it, and they’re all striding bravely ahead — with the exception of one — into whatever the game’s future holds.

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