It’s been over a year since I’ve posted on this website. I’ve been busy—settling into my first job in the professional world, searching for (and ultimately, getting admitted to one of the best) graduate programs (if not for everyone seeking a career in analytics, then at least for me), and spending too much time playing FIFA for a grown person.
But today, the White Sox announced Tony La Russa as their new manager for the 2021 season, and that spurred me into writing again. I didn’t feel retweeting other people’s frustrated tweets really did justice to how I feel about this; I recognize that I, like many other dedicated fans, do not have a platform, and that this will be just one opinion lost in the void of the insanity that the next few months of off-season will surely be, but… I’m writing it anyway. I’m that frustrated.
Let’s start with the initial statements released by the team’s brain trust, starting with principal owner Jerry Reinsdorf. This is very clearly a decision that the principal owner made unilaterally because of his friendship with the 76-year-old La Russa, regardless of what he was quoted as saying when the hiring was announced.
GM Rick Hahn, who, between him and Kenny Williams, seems less likely to be a “yes man” for Reinsdorf, said in his press conference that there was “consensus” between himself, Williams, and Reinsdorf that La Russa was the best man to help them win ballgames. His written statement said that La Russa’s hiring brought the team “a step closer to our goal of bringing White Sox fans another championship.”
From a pure baseball perspective, La Russa is an improvement over Rick Renteria, a good man who was perfect for integrating the team’s numerous Hispanic players and encouraging improvement of the young core but far out of his element when it came to setting lineups and managing a bullpen. So in that regard, the team is a step closer to a championship.
It’s too bad that this hiring also seems to take the team three steps backward.
I’ll go in order of what I think are the biggest issues with this hiring, from least to greatest. First, let’s start with going over who La Russa is as a person; this is the only one of the three “backward steps” that La Russa’s press conference (and subsequent discussion with Jason Benetti) had me feeling better about than where I started. Even then, though, La Russa is firmly established as one of baseball’s old heads, one that believes in the game’s “unwritten rules” and has a hearty distrust of using analytics in-game. Having been in the game for so long, I have a hard time believing that those traits are going to change. The most damning thing about La Russa in this regard was, to me, his previous statements against protesting the national anthem (or really being overly emotive at all) and how it would sit with players like Tim Anderson, who have been exceptionally vocal in these regards. La Russa said that his thinking around these things have changed, and that he will be supportive of protests, but I, for one, will need to see it to believe that he really believes those things now.
The ability to connect with the players, especially ones like Anderson, should have been an important consideration in hiring the team’s next skipper; baseball is increasingly a younger man’s game, and catering to that is crucial for any team to be successful. There’s a reason that the North Siders won their World Series in 2016, beyond the immense talent the team had; Joe Maddon allowed the players to be themselves, as quirky as necessary, and that allowed nearly every player to excel when they were most needed. Renteria seemed to have a decent connection to his players, too, with a sort of paternal connection to the younger Latin contingent. What does La Russa have over Renteria in this regard? Grandfatherly instinct? The man is 76; I get along well with my grandparents, but the most “modern” and “tech savvy” of them still refers to Google as “the Google” and once bought me something from England because he didn’t realize the price he was paying was in pounds. He certainly has no awareness of millennial or Gen Z culture, and I doubt La Russa does either. Only three Sox currently on the roster were alive when La Russa last managed in Chicago. This doesn’t seem to be the right guy to
This brings me to my final point: I feel that La Russa’s hiring hinders the franchise’s future. “Next year” has frequently been a rallying cry for this club, which has made the play-offs only 10 times since its inception in 1901, including its loss to Oakland this year. The talent level, at both the minor and major league level, is at its highest that it has been in years, and the club seemed well positioned to continue making strides towards being an elite ball club. It would behoove management to do a diligent search on who would be the best person to lead the team from the precipice of greatness to a World Series trophy. And yet, according to Bob Nightengale of USA Today, who flagged the team’s interest in La Russa earlier than anyone, La Russa was the team’s only interview. That’s entirely inconceivable; younger candidates—ones with less proven experience but incredibly talented in their own right—such as AJ Hinch, Matt Quatraro, or my personal pick for the job, Sandy Alomar Jr, never even got in the door. Going with La Russa instead ensures that other teams (the division rival Tigers, who have a deep farm system of their own, are reportedly front-runners for Hinch) will have an opportunity to grab those other managers when their time comes, while the White Sox are left hoping that having La Russa onboard will provide enough short-term results to account for the fact that they will surely back on the market for a new manager within a couple of years.
Of course, I could be viewing this all wrong: maybe it will come out that the team consulted with Anderson, Yoan Moncada, Lucas Giolito, and Jose Abreu before making this hire, and they were confident enough in what they’ve seen and heard from or about La Russa that they approved of the new guy. Maybe his consistent involvement in the game means that he has an idea of how to relate to the younger guys and how to incorporate analytics into his decision-making. Maybe the hiring of an older boss is evidence that Reinsdorf is ready to break the bank to get whatever other pieces he needs to put the Sox over the edge, and the experience that La Russa has winning championships with multiple franchises in a variety of unique environments is exactly what this team needs right now.
As things stand, I just don’t see it.
I am still hopeful for the future of this club—that its young studs will continue to mature, that the stars-in-waiting make a splash upon their arrival, and that La Russa, and whoever he hires to fill out his staff, are the right people for the job. I just hope that this hiring doesn’t force Hahn out the door—for all of his mistakes in his eight years at the helm, he seems to have made all of the right decisions lately (yes, some moves haven’t panned out, but that doesn’t inherently mean they were bad moves!). He built up a lot of good vibes around the organization, only to have the big boss seemingly skitter them a lot of them away with this move. Hahn clearly seemed uncomfortable praising the team’s path moving forward during his press conference, even though he’s the one that should, in theory, be setting that path. Reinsdorf is making this move because he thinks it will get him the World Series he craves before he dies. If this works out, I will be the first to admit I was wrong, and celebrate the success this, and whatever corresponding moves that are made, will bring; if it doesn’t, the Sox will not only lose Hahn, will also transform all of the glory that Reinsdorf seeks into hatred so strong that he will be a pariah for the fans of his greatest joy in sports.