(670 The Score) In an hour-long news conference Thursday explaining one of the oddest Chicago baseball moves ever, White Sox general manager Rick Hahn expected us to believe the decision to hire 76-year-old Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa was a consensus.
And nobody bought it.
That doesn’t mean hiring one of Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf’s closest friends can’t work. That only means the Sox gave everyone reason to question their credibility just when the organization had regained some. They doubled down on disingenuousness, incorrectly thinking all their words somehow masked actions that met any loose definition of cronyism.
“It's easy to fall back on some old narratives that this was about friendship or potentially righting old wrongs,’’ Hahn said. “In the end, Tony was the choice because it is believed that Tony is the best man to help us win championships over the next several years.’’
Maybe, but it still looks from here like the architect of the Sox's rebuild was handed the boss’s blueprints to finish the job in a hurry.
Hahn spent the last decade on the job proving to the baseball industry that he’s more intelligent than this façade suggested, that he’s more independent than this, having outgrown Kenny Williams’ considerable shadow since his promotion in 2012, that he deserved the autonomy during a process that deprived him of doing little more than following orders from above.
The criticism of Hahn has been so heavy, in part, because the articulate Ivy Leaguer had convinced everyone he had grown beyond the point of being an executive puppet powerless as Reinsdorf pulled the strings. Perhaps there once was a day Reinsdorf used to let the qualified people he hired do their jobs without meddling. Thursday wasn't one of those days.
Let there be no illusion or ambiguity: Regardless of all the rhetoric, the Sox hiring La Russa is all about Reinsdorf.
It’s all about Reinsdorf, who will by 85 by next Opening Day, trusting a bosom buddy more than any other available candidate to deliver a World Series while he’s still around to enjoy it. It’s about Reinsdorf making one last power play, taking over and telling his baseball executives exactly where the search will lead. It’s about Reinsdorf interrupting any organizational timeline to win now and worry about what it all means later, about the man who approved La Russa’s firing in 1986 risking the Sox’s future by nostalgically reaching into the past.
It’s about taking an unnecessary, unorthodox and illogical risk, not because La Russa is 76 but because he hasn’t filled out a lineup card or commanded a clubhouse in nine years. It’s about La Russa, who earned his reputation as a taskmaster, trying to adapt to leading a team full of bat-flipping young guys who thrive in a loose, carefree environment. And it’s about the Sox targeting La Russa with other World Series-winning managers available who might have been better fits according to the profile Hahn described on the day he fired Rick Renteria.
The Sox can justify hiring La Russa more easily than they can neglecting to interview A.J. Hinch, the former Astros manager who would've created less controversy even with the cheating scandal that resulted in a year’s suspension.
On the short list of ways to forget 2020 as soon as possible, the Sox checked every box. Alienate the fan base. Threaten clubhouse chemistry. Renew doubts about organizational hierarchy.
Will the Sox now change their slogan from “Change the Game” to “Kill the Buzz’’? When is “Back to the Future” night scheduled at Guaranteed Rate Field? Is pivoting to a manager who says he has yet to speak to any Sox player a smarter choice than retaining the one who created a culture conducive to winning? It’s as if the Sox gathered all of the goodwill created by a 35-25 season and the team’s first playoff berth in 12 years, put it in a box and incinerated everything into ashes.
Seldom do you see professional sports organizations make a single move that so quickly turns faith into doubt, confidence into conflict, prosperity into uncertainty. If anybody carved a Mount Rushmore featuring bizarre Chicago sports hires, La Russa’s face would be chiseled alongside Marc Trestman’s, Jim Boylen’s and Robin Ventura’s. It’s historically outrageous.
The last time La Russa managed a game was Game 7 of the World Series on Oct. 28, 2011. Theo Epstein still was introducing himself to Cubs employees days after taking over, Mike Martz was calling plays for the Bears and the Sox were on the verge of hiring Ventura as their next manager. If hiring Ventura without any experience was a stretch for the Sox, reuniting with La Russa 34 years later is a quantum leap. Both reveal how insular Reinsdorf has allowed his organization to become.
“I don’t think a guy who has won World Series rings elsewhere is an insular hire,’’ Hahn countered.
Many fans vehemently will disagree – and perhaps even some Sox employees. Respected ESPN reporter Jeff Passan, for example, tweeted: “The hiring of Tony LaRussa has ruffled feathers in the White Sox organization. A number of employees have concerns about his ability to connect with younger players and how he will adapt to the field after being away nine years. This was a Jerry Reinsdorf decision. Simple as that."
Pushing back at that narrative, Hahn appeared ticked off at times during the Zoom session. For his part, La Russa seemed tired. Building trust will challenge La Russa more than managing games. Making bullpen moves won’t be as hard as making Sox players believe he’s changed from the guy known to cringe at exuberance and who criticized former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016 for kneeling during the national anthem.
Asked directly, La Russa adequately explained his evolution on the topic likely to come up the first time he sits down with Sox shortstop Tim Anderson, a proud role model and community activist.
“Not only do I respect but I applaud the awareness that’s come into not just society but especially sports,’’ LaRussa said, adding he would support Sox players using their platform to peacefully protest. “There’s not a racist bone in my body.’’
As for how he would adapt to the enthusiasm the Sox often show, especially after home runs, La Russa underscored the importance of sportsmanship – he recalled the famous Carlton Fisk vs. Deion Sanders incident from 30 years ago, his frame of reference – but sounded open to the way stars like Anderson express themselves these days.
“That’s displaying the kind of emotion you want,’’ LaRussa said. “You want players passionately involved with the competition.’’
LaRussa spoke of “observational analytics,’’ which surely made some baseball nerd somewhere throw his laptop. He talked about balancing numbers during games with the “head, heart and guts of a player that day.’’ He made comments that reminded the audience how accomplished the manager with a plaque in Cooperstown is, especially when he rattled off the names of great players he’s managed over his 33-year career. Memorably, he announced the Sox’s plans to compete for a championship immediately.
“Why not us?’’ LaRussa asked.
It was a fair question – as is wondering if the Sox know what they’re doing here. Of course, winning provides the ultimate answer, and the Sox return enough talent to make some of the concerns moot. The truest test for this version of La Russa will come when tension mounts, as it inevitably will, if for whatever reason the Sox struggle meeting the enormous expectations that will greet them in spring training.
Everything about the past two weeks screams “WIN NOW!” from 35th and Shields. Now that Reinsdorf has his manager, he can make La Russa’s job easier by allowing Hahn to be aggressive as necessary pursuing elite free agents, from outfielder George Springer to Cy Young award candidate Trevor Bauer. Throw whatever money is necessary at whatever roster weakness. The Sox need Reinsdorf to show the same urgency spending that he demonstrated in manipulating his managerial choice, pandemic economics be damned.
“This will be a unique winter,’’ Hahn said.
It already feels colder on the South Side.