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With everything going wrong for White Sox, how should Tony La Russa be judged?

Vinnie Duber Avatar
June 13, 2022

The White Sox brought Tony La Russa in to manage a rebuilt roster to a World Series win.

Right now, the White Sox look a million miles from achieving anything close to that goal, stuck in a nightmare where absolutely nothing can go right.

That understandably has plenty of fans frustrated, which is putting it lightly. La Russa, who was never a popular pick to lead the team following his hire in the wake of the 2020 season, has become the chosen target of much of that frustration, most noticeably exemplified during Saturday’s game, when chants suggesting he lose his job rained down from the stands at Guaranteed Rate Field.

If you’re of the school of thought that the buck stops at the manager’s desk, that a skipper losing his job is what happens when a team with such high hopes performs so underwhelmingly, then you might have a point. At least that’s what the brain trusts in Philadelphia and Anaheim recently decided, firing World Series winning managers Joe Girardi and Joe Maddon after disappointing starts – and they helmed teams that were not the clear-cut favorites to win their respective divisions entering the campaign.

La Russa has won three World Series and has taken teams to the postseason 15 different times, including last fall, when the White Sox made back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in their history. He’s also got a unique relationship with the most important member of the White Sox’ brain trust, a great friend of chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who righted what he deemed a personal wrong in hiring La Russa for a second go-round with the club.

For La Russa’s part, he welcomes fan criticism, or is at the very least not bothered by it. He sees boos and vitriol as preferable to a complete lack of interest. He calls second-guessing part of the “beauty” of baseball, that everyone can have an opinion, no matter the level of disagreement. And he says anyone who can’t handle all that should be in a different line of work.

If the White Sox continue to play well below their expectations and La Russa’s second South Side managerial stint ends up lasting not even two seasons, it wouldn’t be the first time a manager gets blamed for his team’s shortcomings. And certainly La Russa has played his part in the White Sox’ dismal start, some of his decisions going very much awry.

La Russa is currently taking as much heat for his 1-2 intentional walk in last Thursday’s loss to the Dodgers as he did last year for his disagreement with Yermín Mercedes’ home run that came on a 3-0 swing in a blowout win. That Mercedes was designated for assignment Sunday gave those who won’t give La Russa a moment’s pause reason to revisit that saga.

But the intentional walk, as La Russa said after Thursday’s game, did seem only to earn the scorn it did because of what followed: Max Muncy’s three-run homer that kept the White Sox from completing a comeback that afternoon. Obviously, that meant the decision to bypass the remainder of Trea Turner’s at-bat and face Muncy, a perennial source of pop for the Dodgers, did not work, and by definition that made it a bad call.

Fans harping on the choice made to issue three balls to a batter down 1-2 might not give La Russa the chance to explain that the decision only came due to Freddie Freeman’s sudden advancement into scoring position on a wild pitch. Had Freeman been there to begin the Turner at-bat, La Russa said, the White Sox wouldn’t have thrown to one of the game’s hottest hitters at all.

But whether it was that one decision – which because of its rarity and sour outcome gained quick national attention – or daily choices on how to line up his hitters or deploy his bullpen, La Russa can’t escape the ire of this fan base. Just the plain results, like a bevy of blown leads over the weekend, are enough to send everyone to La Russa’s house with torches and pitchforks.

Some of it can be justified, again, if you assume that the manager is blameworthy simply because of his job title, because of his standing as the man at the top. These White Sox are not scoring runs, not making plays in the field, not holding leads on the mound, not running the bases well. Nothing is going right, and while plenty looked at the just concluded home stand and could see a world in which the White Sox should have won five of their six games against the Dodgers and Rangers, it’s gotten to the point where folks should perhaps be surprised they won even two of those six.

Plenty of it, of course, is not La Russa’s fault, though, and it would be simply wrong to suggest that Yoán Moncada and Yasmani Grandal are underwater at the plate, that Eloy Jiménez and Tim Anderson are on the injured list, that Lucas Giolito has a 6.89 ERA in his last three starts, that Michael Kopech left Sunday’s game after eight pitches, that this lineup isn’t taking any walks and that this defense has committed the fourth most errors in the AL because of La Russsa. He’s not the one striking out, giving up homers, booting ground balls or getting hurt.

The question the “fire Tony” chanters need to answer is whether all that changes if La Russa goes. It seems hard to believe it would.

But they likely don’t care.

La Russa’s unpopularity outside the White Sox organization was not extinguished thanks to a division championship in 2021, merely quieted, it seems. Last year, despite injuries, La Russa and the White Sox kept winning, until a disappointing defeat in the ALDS. This year, on the heels of that playoff exit, there has been even worse injury luck, but the White Sox are not winning. And the opinions that never changed are now finding opportunity to be amplified.

Rarely, if ever, has one of those opinions emanated from the White Sox’ clubhouse, it should be reminded. Fears of La Russa’s style clashing with the carefully assembled roster were almost instantly proven unnecessary, with team leaders Anderson and José Abreu – the latter with Albert Pujols’ vote of confidence in tow – trumpeting La Russa as the right man for the job at every turn, someone who let the players be themselves and stepped into the already established clubhouse culture instead of attempting to foist his own on this group. He talked about having to earn their respect. He talked about it being on him to answer what he deemed justified questions from the fans.

The assumption from the national baseball reporters seems to be that La Russa’s job is safe, if for no other reason than that aforementioned relationship with the chairman. If Reinsdorf believed allowing then-GM Hawk Harrelson to fire La Russa in the mid 1980s was the greatest mistake of his baseball career, then surely he wouldn’t repeat it, right?

Time will tell.

“There is not some sort of organizational edict that we do not let people go midstream,” Rick Hahn said last week, presented with the suggestion that the White Sox would never fire a manager in season. “You want people to have the information about how they need to get better before you make a change. You don’t want anyone to be surprised by making a change. That applies to not just in the dugout or coaching staff. That’s the scouts, the player-development (people), the people in the front office.

“So we are conscientious about making sure people have the information before a change is made so it gives them a chance to improve. There certainly is no organizational edict against change or something like that.”

These White Sox still consider their World Series expectations to be realistic, and indeed there’s plenty of time left to make the way they’re playing now ancient history. The reigning World Series champs, the Braves, were under .500 when the calendar turned to August last summer before catching fire and marching all the way to the end of October. With this roster – getting healthier with the returns of Anderson and Jiménez nearing and Lance Lynn making his 2022 debut Monday in Detroit – there’s nothing precluding the White Sox from doing the same thing.

Certainly things will have to get mathematically dire for Hahn – who’s not escaping fans’ criticism at the moment, either – to launch into an unexpected trade-deadline sale. Presented with that hypothetical last week, he quickly did away with the very idea.

“I really don’t hope I have to sit here in six weeks and eat these words,” he said, “but I don’t foresee us being in sell mode come the deadline, even with the run differential (as bad as it is).”

That run differential is pretty bad, at minus-56 as of Monday morning, worse than that of all but six teams in baseball.

But Hahn’s not wrong, not with the White Sox firmly in their contention window. This team was built to win and win big in 2022, as well as in the years to come. Disassembling this group in some dramatic fashion makes no sense.

Therein, though, lies how nasty things have been, how nasty they’ve looked, through the first 58 games of this season, one that started with a “World Series or bust” mentality. Remember Hahn’s other words from March.

“I’m not real good at feeling that we’ve met our expectations or satisfied our expectations if it doesn’t end with us winning a championship,” he said.

That’s the thing La Russa was brought in to do. He has the postseason experience, he has the championship experience that the White Sox lacked. He was supposed to be the difference come October, come the times that the players – who do far more than a manager to determine a team’s record by the end of the regular season – didn’t have experience handling. It figured to be a plus to have someone with La Russa’s unmatched resume making the decisions in Game 7 of the World Series.

But the White Sox aren’t close to Game 7 of the World Series right now. Not only because, duh, it’s June. But because they aren’t playing like a team that can make it to the World Series. Heck, they’re not playing like a team that can make it to the playoffs at all.

Certainly that could be viewed as the manager’s fault. That’s where the buck stops.

But it’s also quite possible that White Sox fans, if they were to get what they’ve been chanting for, could be just as frustrated with someone else calling the shots. It’s not a reason not to do something. But it’s a reason to be aware that doing something might not solve anything.

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