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Tony La Russa or Miguel Cairo: Who is the White Sox’ manager now? This year? Next year?

Vinnie Duber Avatar
September 14, 2022

“Today I’m the manager. Tomorrow I don’t know,” Miguel Cairo said Tuesday. “But that’s my job right now.”

Yes, the White Sox’ managerial position is day to day.

Just like a frustrating injury update, there’s no certainty past each new morning as to who will be serving as the South Side skipper as the White Sox try to chase down a second consecutive division title. Tony La Russa has not yet been cleared by his doctors to resume his duties as the team’s manager, and there’s no certainty when – or even if – he will be.

And so Cairo carries on as the man in charge.

The Cairo Way has worked wonders so far, with the White Sox winners of nine of the 13 games they’ve played since La Russa made a sudden and unexpected departure from the club at the behest of his doctors.

The same night the White Sox lost their manager, a new voice emerged, with Cairo delivering an emphatic message to the team after a loss to the division-rival Royals.

“I saw something that I didn’t like (in) that game, and I couldn’t let it pass,” Cairo said. “I just let them know how I felt about it and (said), ‘Are you in, or are you out? If you are out, let me know. If you are in, let’s go for it.’ … We have a really good team. We have a lot of talent. We have a good pitching staff, good hitters, good infielders. We have everything. And sometimes you need (to give) a little push. And I think that’s what I did, so they can go out and perform.

“I had it in my chest for a little while, the way we were playing and stuff. I saw the chance to do it, and I went for it. … It was boiling, it was boiling because I know we were better than what showed, we were better than the way we were playing. Taking away that we had so many injuries, it was frustrating we couldn’t play a little better than what we were showing. It was boiling. I think it was the right time. I made up my mind right after the game, ‘I’ve got to do it.’”

How did he think his players, who slogged through five months of disappointing baseball, unable to find the spark to restore their once-vaunted energy, attitude and swagger, would respond to the bench coach getting fired up?

“I don’t know. ‘Who are you?’” Cairo guessed to laughs.

A good line, no doubt. But the veteran of 17 major league seasons seemed to know what he was doing.

“I had managers and coaches that went off, yes,” he said. “Always helped.”

Indeed, it seems to have ignited something within this group. A return to relative health has probably aided their efforts, too, with the long-absent Eloy Jiménez and Yasmani Grandal back in the lineup, Luis Robert returning Tuesday night and Tim Anderson cleared to ramp up to a late-season return from finger surgery. But Cairo’s words to the team are already being cited as a difference-making moment for a team that spent the summer watching every supposed “turning point” turn into a mirage.

“It was a similar message (to the one) that Tony’s been giving (this season), it was just a different delivery,” Liam Hendriks told reporters Tuesday. “I think it really connected with a couple of the guys, really connected with kind of making their mindset. Since that’s happened, we’ve had more energy. … I think the energy level has kind of increased, and that’s something that has been brought around just on his little message of, ‘Look, if you guys don’t want to be here, get the hell out,’ in no uncertain terms.”

It’s unlikely that anything but a return to losing by a team that’s now finally gotten its act together will dissuade fans from the idea that the White Sox’ sudden surge has everything to do with La Russa’s absence. They made up their minds long ago that La Russa was the reason for this team’s months-long malaise, and the “Fire Tony” chants were present so early this season that no ending to this story other than his removal as manager would ever satisfy. Though surely no one was rooting for this specific outcome, those fans got what they wanted and are now seeing the team’s success under Cairo as confirmation.

Heck, even La Russa, someone superstitious enough to consistently invoke the “baseball gods,” is even starting to think that way after being around the team for the first time in two weeks on the day the White Sox received a 10-3 whooping from the A’s.

“(La Russa) pointed out that the one game he’s been to in the last couple weeks, in Oakland, we lost,” Rick Hahn said Tuesday. “He was taking that hard. And I tried to point out there’s a little difference between causation and correlation. ‘Let’s see how tonight goes, skip.’”

La Russa was indeed with the team again Tuesday and will be in the ballpark watching the two-game set with the Rockies from a suite. Cairo relayed that La Russa was in his office before Tuesday’s game, chatting with his coaching staff like it was any other day.

Cairo might have been able to fire up the White Sox by delivering La Russa’s message in a different way, but much of what he said Tuesday, in his most open and forthcoming media session since taking over as acting manager, reflected someone who’s still leaning heavily on his Hall-of-Fame boss.

“I’m glad he’s around because I always ask him questions about what I could have done better or different or stuff like that. He got experience. He’s a mentor. He’s like a father to me,” said Cairo, who played for La Russa with the Cardinals and spent years working in the Reds’ front office with La Russa friend Walt Jocketty. “He’s the manager. He’s our skipper and I’m his bench coach right now. I’m just being the manager because he was absent, but I don’t think it’s going to change.”

Cairo’s been making the White Sox’ lineups – “Heck yeah,” he responded, when asked if that was the case – but he’s been getting plenty of advice and feedback from La Russa on that front and plenty of others.

“Tony is extremely smart,” Cairo said, asked about his working relationship with La Russa when both men were in the dugout together. “He’s more prepared than a lot of managers in the big leagues. And he’s always (thinking) ahead. He’s got his mind prepared. Mentally, he’s unbelievable. And sometimes he’s got his numbers, he knows what he’s going to do, and a thing happens, he goes through what he believes and he’s got something to back it up. A lot of times, we go through his things, I will mention some stuff, like a pinch-runner or someone to play defense, and he will listen or he already knew he was going to use and when. It’s crazy. It’s amazing.”

Cairo’s descriptions of La Russa reflect a similar awe to the ones players have offered up over the past two years. As much as fans might want La Russa to stay away from the dugout for the remainder of the campaign, there’s never been anything but a positive review of La Russa from the guys who wear the uniforms.

So what happens, then, if La Russa gets cleared to return to his managerial duties?

It’s a great question with seemingly no answer right now.

“We’re going to understandably follow the advice of medical experts on this one,” Hahn said of the White Sox’ approach to that decision.

Here’s the question fans wanted the answer to, though: Are medical expertise and how La Russa’s feeling the only determining factors in the decision to return him to the dugout this season?

“I think it’s a conversation once we get to that point. But we’re not at that point,” Hahn said. “So for now, it’s just taking it day by day and following the lead of the medical professionals and talking to Tony.”

It makes sense Hahn and the White Sox wouldn’t want to put the cart before the horse, and no matter what you think of La Russa’s ability as a major league manager, certainly getting him healthy is at the top of everyone’s wish list. But it offers little clarity to whether he’ll be back to work before time runs out on the White Sox’ season.

The White Sox themselves seem to be confident that, regardless of what sparked it, their current success was what was always supposed to happen. A La Russa return shouldn’t topple a precarious Jenga tower because this is what this team was always capable of – and with him at the helm.

That’s what they’re thinking inside the clubhouse, anyway.

What are they thinking up in the front office, though?

If the season ended today, the White Sox would miss the postseason after starting the year with World Series expectations. The disappointment of such a failure to match preseason hopes has colored this entire season, pretty much from start to finish, with only this current run providing a respite from calls for everyone’s job at the corner of 35th and Shields.

Whether they make the postseason or not, there will need to be an evaluation about the manager’s job moving forward. And if you’re of the opinion that the buck stops at the manager’s desk, that the price to pay for such disappointment is a managerial change, then the White Sox will be thinking about who manages this team in 2023.

And certainly La Russa, under contract for next season, dealing with health issues and Cairo getting the best out of this group right now would figure to play sizable roles in that thought process.

But not yet, says the GM.

“I think it’s way too soon for that,” Hahn said. “Look, we’ve been trying to navigate the last few weeks under unique circumstances, and I think the team has done very well. And obviously, everyone’s noted that. But as for what lies ahead for next year, it’s simply too soon for that.”

An expected answer, for sure, especially in the middle of a playoff race.

But really, there’s no clarity to who will be managing this team in the middle or at the end of said playoff race. There’s no clarity to who will be managing this team should it reach the postseason. There’s no clarity to who will be managing this team next year. There’s no clarity to who will be managing this team two days from now.

And yet, these White Sox are enjoying their most successful stretch of the season.

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