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As the Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves prepared to play Game 2 of the World Series on Wednesday night, Tony La Russa was watching the Chicago Bulls going through a practice on the West Side before their Thursday night game against the New York Knicks.
I ran into La Russa while covering Bulls practice at the Advocate Center and asked the question I already knew the answer to:
“Are you back?”
“Oh, yeah,” he replied. “I’m coming back.”
While it was presumed La Russa would return to the White Sox dugout next season, general manager Rick Hahn has yet to publicly comment on his status. After the season-ending loss to the Astros on Oct. 12, La Russa said it was up to management and the players to decide.
“If (management says) yes, then you ask the players,” he said that day. “They should choose who they want to manage.”
It was an unusual way to end the season, as players really have no say in whether the manager will return. Team leaders José Abreu and Tim Anderson both endorsed La Russa during Zoom interviews later in the week, but no official announcement was made.
It was obvious the players were on board, so why was La Russa’s status a question?
“I’ve done it for however many years,” he said. “I’ve seen situations where the players don’t want you, and the owner doesn’t know it. I don’t want to be there then. I don’t care what the contract says. If you don’t want me, hey, I’ll leave. If the players don’t want you, you leave. You’re going to lead people that don’t want you to lead?”
So La Russa got that assurance?
“Yeah, it happened right after the season was over,” he said. “We’re making plans, talking about next year, absolutely.”
La Russa expects the American League Central to be stronger in 2022 and knows what moves have to be made for the Sox to improve as well.
‘We’re working the process: ‘What did we do right, What to we have to do better?” he said. “All the coaches are looking at it, and I am, and once you identify what it is, that’s really the most exciting part. You look at things we were not good enough at, and we just played a season, now we know.
“We didn’t know that at the start of spring training. We had an idea, but now we know. You fix them. There isn’t anything that’s not fixable, so I’m excited and very lucky.”
The Sox had a successful season, winning their first division title since 2008 and creating excitement on the South Side that hadn’t been seen in years. But the American League Division Series loss to the Astros was disappointing, particularly the 10-1 shellacking in Game 4.
Asked how long it took for him to get over the playoff loss, La Russa grinned.
“Who’s gotten over it?” he said.
Still, he said, the first-round exit didn’t erase all the accomplishments from 2021.
“You value the season,” he said. “It’s irritating (to lose), but just think about it. Tampa Bay and the (San Francisco) Giants won in healthy numbers (during the regular season). It’s just the beauty and the excitement of the postseason.
“It’s so unpredictable. But if you minimize what you worked for six months for — all the trials and tribulations of the regular season, and you win the division — it’s really not fair. But it’s the reality that some fans and media think, ‘Well, you got in, but if you don’t go farther, go all the way, (the season is) disappointing.’ ”
“But if that bothers you, don’t do it for a living. You do the best you can. I talked to the team about it already. Look at the Giants. They won 107 games. If you’re good enough to get to the playoffs, you’re good enough to win a short series.”
La Russa pointed to his 2006 St. Louis Cardinals team that won 83 games and beat the Detroit Tigers in the World Series and his 2011 Cardinals who started on the road in the NLDS and NLCS but ultimately got into the Series and beat the Texas Rangers.
As we’ve seen in 2021, it’s basically a crapshoot once you get in.
“But an exciting crapshoot,” he said.
La Russa plans to spend part of his offseason in Chicago while also traveling and doing work for his Animal Rescue Foundation. La Russa was at the Bulls home opener Friday, and team vice president Artūras Karnišovas invited him, pitching coach Ethan Katz and bullpen coach Curt Hasler to practice, at which La Russa had a long conversation with coach Billy Donovan, an old friend. On Monday, La Russa and Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf will be in attendance as former GM Roland Hemond is honored by the Arizona Sports Hall of Fame in Phoenix.
Was his return to the dugout everything La Russa expected it would be?
“It was even better,” he said. “It was such a unique situation to walk into, a club that had been put together like that, that had gone through the growing pains. A bunch of guys that really enjoy each other that like to practice and to compete.”
He pointed to the blending of the staff he inherited with new coaches Katz, Jerry Narron, Miguel Cairo and analytics coordinator Shelley Duncan.
“Everybody in the organization said, ‘We’ve got a job to do — put players in a position to win so fans are entertained and pay to watch them play,’” he said. “Well, that staff embraced that, and that’s why it was a great experience. I watched Cairo, Narron, Shelley and Ethan, and they made their mark.”
La Russa, the oldest manager in baseball, turned 77 this month. But he still has years to go to catch Connie Mack, who managed until he was 87.
Just how long can La Russa go?
“I know if we don’t win in spring training I won’t make opening day,” he said. “That’s my attitude.”