Mark Gonzales: Tony La Russa's wisdom and passion overshadow his age, making him the perfect leader for the White Sox

CHICAGO — The president of the United States is in his 70s.

Of course, the Chicago White Sox’s managerial position isn’t as important as the leader of this country. Well, at least to those outside of Guaranteed Rate Field.

Which brings us to Tony La Russa, the 76-year-old baseball lifer who will try to lead the Sox to the World Series despite not having managed since 2011.

Despite his curious retirement from the St. Louis Cardinals that capped a Hall of Fame career, La Russa’s competitiveness never deserted him. That should serve the Sox well — they have the opportunity to maximize top-notch talent and an edge in the dugout for the first time since Ozzie Guillen led them to their last World Series title 15 years ago.

The mutual man crush between La Russa and Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf spans four decades — La Russa’s first managerial stint was with the Sox from 1979-86 — and the two have a chance to complete baseball’s ultimate goal together.

With 2,728 career victories, six league championships and three Series titles, La Russa has nothing to prove. But La Russa wouldn’t be all-in unless he felt he still had the energy and intelligence to manage a bona fide contender to the promised land. Since his name surfaced shortly after the Sox and Rick Renteria mutually parted ways Oct. 12, La Russa has researched the possibility of returning to the dugout with several of his associates, according to sources.

The opportunity for a run to the World Series won’t be much better for the Sox than it is now, and La Russa realizes there’s no time to waste. He led the Cardinals to within one win of the World Series in his first year in St. Louis in 1996, and he wore jersey No. 10 to reflect the franchise’s drive toward a 10th championship as well as to honor fellow Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson.

Anderson is one of a select few managers from whom La Russa learned, although that was supplemented by his interest in statistics well before the sabermetrics craze.

Any worries about La Russa’s ability to communicate with the Sox’s young stars, particularly their Latin players, should be quelled immediately. La Russa speaks fluent Spanish. More important, he talks baseball through his strategy and words as well as anyone.

Harold Baines, one of the most storied hitters in Sox history, knew he would have comfortable at-bats early in his career because opposing teams faced retaliation if they threw at him with La Russa as the manager. That should bode well for sluggers Eloy Jimenez and Jose Abreu, whom the Cubs’ John Lackey hit twice with pitches in a 2017 game before a warning was issued.

At the same time, La Russa won’t coddle his players, instead doing what’s ultimately in the best interest of the team. He did that in his first game as manager of the Sox, changing his lineup after learning the Toronto Blue Jays switched starting pitchers.

In his first season with the Cardinals in 1996, he moved shortstop Ozzie Smith into a backup role, which angered the future Hall of Famer. The Cardinals still advanced to the National League Championship Series.

One former coach marveled at the manner in which La Russa deftly conducted team meetings. One “gathering” was through a pre- or postgame media session. Another, according to a former player, consisted of a team dinner, at which the manager picked up the tab but had the last word after players expressed any issues.

The last nine seasons have allowed La Russa to absorb more facets of the game, from his two seasons as a special assistant in Commissioner Bud Selig’s office to chief baseball officer with the Arizona Diamondbacks to special assistant with the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Angels.

One unusual move that paid off was La Russa advocating for David Peralta, who made the jump from Double-A to the majors with the Diamondbacks in 2014 after failing as a minor league pitcher and transitioning to the outfield in an independent league. Peralta developed into one of the Diamondbacks’ steadiest players.

La Russa’s age, particularly in the COVID-19 era, will raise concern. But the Houston Astros’ Dusty Baker, 71, and the Angels’ Joe Maddon, 66, navigated their respective seasons by taking the necessary precautions.

This hiring understandably will be perceived as a daring move, but La Russa has thrived on challenges. He resurrected Dennis Eckersley’s career by converting him into a one-inning closer in 1987, and that paved the pitcher’s way to Cooperstown. In Game 1 of the 2006 World Series, La Russa started Anthony Reyes, who went 5-8 with a 5.06 ERA in 17 starts during the regular season but pitched eight innings of two-run, four-hit ball to beat Justin Verlander.

The Sox have a singular mission of winning a World Series, and La Russa has ample passion and wisdom to fulfill that goal.


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