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I asked Kyle Crick to describe Tony La Russa.
I wasn’t expecting to be whisked away to Middle Earth.
“Mystical,” the White Sox relief pitcher said on Opening Day in Detroit.
A week later, I told La Russa about it.
The Hall-of-Famer was equally thrown off.
“Is that like ‘jerk’?” La Russa said, laughing. “Mystical? Why don’t you ask him to try to define that, if he means it as a compliment.”
Whether you want to use that word or not, Crick is hitting on something with that description. Because what La Russa is doing, again, in his second year at the helm of these White Sox seems downright supernatural.
Smacked in the face with a wave of early season injuries, the White Sox have not wilted. They’ve played three series against three good teams and won them all. Without Lance Lynn, Lucas Giolito, Yoán Moncada, Joe Kelly, AJ Pollock, Garrett Crochet and Ryan Burr, the White Sox are 6-3 through the season’s first nine games, winning sets against the Tigers, Mariners and Rays and doing it in impressive fashion.
With a MASH unit that looks like the Toon Squad’s bench midway through “Space Jam,” these White Sox are on pace to win 108 games.
Credit the manager. Credit the culture. Credit the front office’s long-term team-building efforts.
Whatever it is, it’s working. Again.
It was just last year when the White Sox faced similarly grim injury odds. Eloy Jiménez, Luis Robert, Nick Madrigal and Yasmani Grandal were all sidelined for months at a time with significant injuries. A parade of fill-ins kept the team’s season afloat long enough for the stars to return, in most cases, and win the division by 13 games.
The White Sox will tell you that every team deals with injuries, and just by watching the bottom line scroll on MLB Network, you know they’re not lying. But continually playing in the face of injuries — big-deal injuries — this team has seemingly cracked the code on that cliched “next man up” mentality.
It’s one thing to regurgitate it. It’s another to live it and succeed at it.
“It’s just that ‘next man up’ mentality,” Jake Burger told CHGO this weekend. “Tony does a great job of, ‘We’re going to play hard for all nine. It doesn’t matter who’s on the field. All nine, we’re going to play really hard.’”
“Every day’s about winning,” Michael Kopech said. “So as long as we’re not making it about ourselves, I think Tony appreciates everything we bring to the table, just like we appreciate him and his presence that he brings to this team. As long as you know that the ‘next man up’ mentality is for the sake of the team and not for the sake of you getting your shot, then I think we all blend well. Everybody in here wants to win, and that’s the goal every time we take the field.”
For all the questions — most of which La Russa himself called legitimate — that swirled around his shocking hiring after the 2020 season, La Russa has been successful, first and foremost, at ingratiating himself to this team. He made a point to step into an already established culture rather than try to blow it up and set a new way. He talked about trying to win the players’ respect, and they’ve said, to a man, that his best attribute has been letting them be themselves.
Tim Anderson, the heart and soul of this group, admitted that he wasn’t on board with La Russa’s hiring at first. But there’s no zealot like a convert, and Anderson has described La Russa as the right man for the job at every turn.
Maybe. But the guy’s been managing since the year “London Calling” came out, and he’s learned a thing or two about doing this job.
“One of the healthiest things that I’ve been taught, it ain’t anything about what’s happened in the past. It’s about 2022. It’s about today,” La Russa told CHGO on Sunday. “You’ve got to earn your respect and trust. So whatever good vibes (a player has) got now, I’ve got to make sure I work on, don’t take anything for granted.
“It’s what you hope for, you hope that the whole team — including the coaching staff and manager — that we’re all respecting and trusting of each other.”
Whether during the season or back in spring training, the La Russa experience has been an overwhelmingly positive one for these White Sox players. The South Side skipper is intent on blocking out the past. But that World Series ring he wears on his finger is hard to ignore.
“A sense of calmness and steadiness, to be honest,” Aaron Bummer told CHGO, asked what La Russa brings to the team. “He’s out there every day, he’s out there with us, and we know what he’s thinking. He has this presence about himself that he expects to win, and at the end of the day, all it is is about winning. That’s the only thing that matters.
“He’s won a few World Series, he’s been in the Hall of Fame. If you can’t take anything away from that guy, then I don’t know what we’re doing. Getting to know him as a person and as a coach, he’s definitely leading us in the right direction.”
Whether fans have been as won over as the players is up for debate, though the vitriol that accompanied La Russa’s hiring and first weeks on the job has greatly subsided. Players were fortunate enough to be able to pick up a phone and text their peers, guys who played for La Russa in St. Louis.
Albert Pujols notably guaranteed José Abreu he’d enjoy playing for La Russa. Crick got a similar assurance from David Freese this offseason, and the reliever cited La Russa’s presence as one of the reasons he was happy to join the organization.
“He’s cool, man,” Crick said of La Russa, “just getting to pick his brain and learn how he wins and how he consistently wins. It’s a mindset. He has a purposeful mindset, and everyone under him does, too. He acts with purpose, and it’s really cool to see.
“Everything we (did) within the camp has a purpose to get us better. And if you’re taking it seriously, it will get you better. That was something he stressed, not just the work that we do but who you’re doing it with, your brothers. You’re creating that good team camaraderie and that chemistry. He’s big on that, he’s big on loving your brother. And that’s a team, that’s chemistry, that’s how you do it.”
How about that? Is that mysticism?
La Russa’s going to earn the same daily gripes that any manager will from a fan base. White Sox fans always have something to say about the lineup or a pinch hitter that could have been deployed or a pitcher that should have come out sooner. That’s baseball and part of the fun of following your favorite team.
But fear not, the team is in good hands with La Russa, who’s showing why. It would have been difficult to anticipate that Yermín Mercedes, Brian Goodwin, Billy Hamilton, Jake Lamb and others could have successfully filled in for Jiménez and Robert last summer. But that’s what happened. Now the team’s riding high without another batch of injured players.
Of course, this is among the smallest of sample sizes, and you can’t draw any grand conclusions from a week, even when the competition was the team expected to give the White Sox fits in the Central this season and a pair of playoff-caliber clubs. Asked about measuring his team against other AL contenders last Tuesday, Rick Hahn dismissed the idea pretty quickly.
“Look, man,” he said, “if you’re saying how we do in a four-game set in May against the Yankees is a measuring stick, it’s fun for fans to look at it, and when you get the playoff-like environment, you feel that added energy. But in the end, this is a six-month marathon, and at any given snapshot, whether it’s the home opener or mid-May or early June, you’re probably dealing with some things that you won’t be dealing with come October.
“Sure, maybe it’s nice to get a little snapshot for where you sit at a given point in the season, but in the end, where you end up is all that really matters.”
But it’s also true that the White Sox have spent years crafting a culture that helps them through the types of in-season challenges that can get them to October in the first place.
La Russa has added to it, fit in nicely, but he’s not the only one. We heard stories last year about Anderson’s role in pumping up Hamilton, stressing “Billy the hitter” to a guy who was starting to think of himself as only a one- or two-tool guy. It’s still happening, with other veterans joining the coaching staff in getting those filling in for their injured teammates ready to play and ready to contribute.
“It’s been incredible,” Burger said. “Last year, Yasmani Grandal took me into the video room and showed me what he does for his scouting. Took a lot of bits and pieces from him. You’ve got guys like Kendall Graveman, who’s taken some of the younger pitchers into the video room, explaining to them the scouting reports. … Getting to work with José Abreu, Tim Anderson every day, that’s incredible just talking approach with them and picking their brains for a little bit.
“It starts from the moment we get to the clubhouse. It starts Day 1 of spring training. It’s been incredible to have those guys kind of take you under their wing and show you the ropes.”
That’s a team effort.
La Russa will be the first to tell you he’s not the mastermind in that department, and he was extremely complimentary of the culture that existed before he showed up. But it’s also right in line with everything he talks about, teammates playing for each other and focusing on winning each and every day.
There’s a reason La Russa doesn’t like being asked how he’s doing. His mood truly depends on the outcome of the game. But with these White Sox, he’s got reason to believe he’ll be in a good mood more often than not.
“I think it’s contagious once you see it. These guys can’t bottle it up,” Crick said. “It’s not just confidence, it’s real, it’s genuine. It’s not fake. And that confidence is the contagious part, the genuineness of the confidence. Like, ‘Wow.’
“You look around, we’re going to win. (We’ve got) winners, and they expect to win. Very, very cool. Expecting to win, trusting the work that you’ve done, it’s another big part. Man, I’m just lucky to be here, lucky to be in the room.”
Even with guys on the shelf, there’s no ding to that White Sox confidence.
“(The amount of injuries) makes you show early what your depth is like,” Josh Harrison told CHGO. “Looking around this clubhouse at guys who have come up and stepped in, we’re in a good position. And at the end of the day, that’s all you can ask for is ‘next man up,’ guys step in and contribute any way they can.”
La Russa’s White Sox have seen those kinds of contributions, last year and already this year.
Is that mysticism?
I asked Crick to define it, and even he couldn’t quite land on what he was talking about.
“That’s a tough one, man,” Crick said. “He’s just stoic. It seems like he’s got a lot of good info in there. And the way he goes about his business is what I think is mystical.
“I’m like, ‘Wow.’ I’m just kind of in awe sometimes. I just stand back (and say), ‘I’m playing for a Hall-of-Fame manager.’ It’s pretty special.”
The difficulty of defining the term might keep La Russa from adding “mystical” to his business cards anytime soon.
But the second winningest manager in major league history was undoubtedly intrigued by the description, hoping it was a good thing.
“I’ll remember that one,” he said of Crick’s terminology. “If it’s further defined, if it’s negative, don’t tell me.
“If it’s positive …”
He trailed off on his way back into the well-oiled White Sox clubhouse. Into the mystic.
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