Paul Sullivan: Motivating young players is no different to Tony La Russa now than it was during his 1st spring training with the Chicago White Sox in 1980

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Paul Sullivan, Chicago Tribune
·5 min read
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Before his first spring training as Chicago White Sox manager in 1980, Tony La Russa made it clear that returning right fielder Claudell Washington would have to move to left to make room for lanky outfielder Harold Baines, the new team phenom.

“Unless he absolutely plays himself out of a job in spring training, I am looking for Harold Baines being our regular right fielder in 1980,” La Russa told Tribune reporter Dave Nightingale.

La Russa knew Washington wouldn’t like hearing the cold, hard truth. The 25-year-old outfielder was an established player entering his walk year, a relatively new concept at the time after arbitrator Peter Seitz’s 1975 decision eliminating the reserve clause eventually granted six-year players free agency starting in 1976.

La Russa was a 35-year-old manager entering his first full season, trying to establish a winning culture on the South Side while also letting the players know who was boss.

“Even if Claudell was to get a bit upset over losing his right field job, I still look forward to a great season from him,” he continued. “He has twin motivations, you know: me and the fact this is the final year before his free agency option. If I can’t motivate him, then the thought that his 1980 numbers will have a lot to do with the size of his future contract should motivate him.”

Though Baines went on to enjoy a Hall of Fame career, the preemptive strike didn’t work out as La Russa has hoped. Washington had just one home run when he was dealt to the New York Mets on June 7 for minor-league pitcher Jesse Anderson, who never made it past Double A.

“I tried to play him a lot earlier to boost his trade value,” La Russa said after the deal was announced. “But he did nothing spectacular and I want to win. The others did things to help us win.”

Forty-one years later, La Russa is back in a Sox uniform at the age of 76 with the same win-first philosophy and the same penchant for straight talk.

As the White Sox hold their first full workout Monday at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz., it’s mostly the same team from 2020 with a new manager and a few new acquisitions. Only the COVID-19 protocols are making the introductions more awkward.

“Being the new guy and everybody having a mask on, it’s hard to know who’s who,” newly acquired starter Lance Lynn said.

But there’s no question of who’s in charge — or what the Sox’s goals are entering the 2021 season. One of the biggest unknowns is whether La Russa will be able to communicate as well with a generation of players who could be his grandkids. Recall that after 2018, the Cubs’ brass made manager Joe Maddon study up in the offseason on how to manage millennials, as if they were all from another planet.

The Sox have no qualms about La Russa’s ability to motivate millennials, and when I asked him if today’s players are that much different from the ones he managed four decades ago, he noted they were fairly similar.

“If you think about when I started managing, which was August of ’79, free agency had been there after the Seitz decision, and ESPN had just started,” he said. “My point is players already could be distracted by the amount of attention they could get, or their chance to make money. The constant reminder was that this wasn’t golf or tennis — this was a team sport.

“I haven’t been down here (long), but I’ve been around teams and they’re very similar. A lot of a talent, and they want to make their mark, whether they’re pitchers or hitters. And the ones I’ve been around, just like here, they understand it’s a team game.

“The better the team, the more productive you are. Really, I don’t see something significant about the (difference in the) way they enjoy competing and practicing.”

Most everyone concedes the talent is there, and would’ve been even had the Sox retained manager Rick Renteria, whose forte was communicating with his young players. Renteria’s undoing came after his team fell from the top seed of the American League playoffs down to No. 7 after clinching a postseason spot with a week left.

During their final-week implosion, I asked first baseman Jose Abreu after a loss to the Cleveland Indians if the Sox had taken their foot off the gas.

“From my point of view, I agree (with that),” Abreu replied. “We relaxed a little bit, and that’s why we got caught in this moment.”

That narrative was seconded last week by starter Lucas Giolito.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say we let our foot off the gas, but it was kind of like a relief, like, ‘We made it, we got in the playoffs,’” he said. “And then we all know that we went on a bad stretch immediately after that. That was definitely a big learning experience.”

General manager Rick Hahn conceded last week the Sox played “some of our worst baseball” after the clincher, and need to develop a “killer instinct” that separates the great teams from the good ones.

Shortstop Tim Anderson endorsed La Russa, saying he’s behind his new manager “110 percent.”

“I can tell him anything I want to,” Anderson said. “I ain’t afraid of him. Tell him that.”

Enter La Russa, who only needs to show a highlight reel of his old A’s teams with Dave Stewart, Rickey Henderson and Dennis Eckersley to prove exactly how that’s done. Upon arriving at camp, La Russa spoke of having a family atmosphere, not to mention his need to gain the players’ trust following the offseason news of his DUI arrest from last February.

“I have a goal of making them respect me because I can help them, and I’ll show that I care for them,” he said. “And the advantage coming in is that was the strength of this team last year, they talked about their chemistry. And so far, in my relationships that I’ve had with the guys, I see them being open to my facing and meeting that challenge.”

Times change, but motivating players remains the same as it ever was.