When Tony La Russa stood on the stage in Cooperstown, N.Y., on July 27, 2014, about to join Al Lopez as the only Tampa natives enshrined in baseball’s Hall of Fame, he naturally assumed his managing career was over.
He was 69 years old. Had spent 33 years in the dugout with the White Sox, A’s and Cardinals before retiring after the 2011 championship season. Had won the third-most games of any manager, 2,728, three World Series and four manager of the year awards.
He figured he might get asked to manage again but didn’t expect he would feel any reason to want to do it.
But spending the last nine years in a series of executive-level jobs, first with Major League Baseball, then with the Diamondbacks, Red Sox and Angels, made La Russa relalize he didn’t like that view.
“Being upstairs for nine years watching the game closely it was — I described it to my friends as torture, because you’re seeing it and you can’t do anything about it,” he said. “Soon thereafter, I realized I was either going to have to stop complaining about being upstairs, or go downstairs.”
There had been some inquiries, but Thursday he finalized a deal that presented what he considered a tremendous opportunity, signing a multi-year deal to return as manager of the White Sox.
La Russa is 76, which will make him the third-oldest manager ever, behind Connie Mack (who finished at 87) and Jack McKeon (80). He also joins Mack as only the second to come back after being put in the Hall as a manager.
“I’m fired up,” La Russa said on a media Zoom call. “I’m ready to go. I’m anxious to get with the players. I want to show them what I represent as a person and as a professional. I want to do the same with our staff. My answer is I was concerned, I faced it and I passed my test.”
La Russa is returning to a game that has changed, with a significantly greater reliance on analytics and players who expect to be allowed to express themselves on the field and off more freely then before.
La Russa was considered an advanced thinker when he managed previously, credited by many with creating the concept of specialized bullpen roles.
The proliferation of analytical and advanced statistical data available now, he said, will just further enhance his ability to put players in a position to succeed. “I embrace it,” he said.
But, La Russa said, he also believes that a manager has to have the ability and freedom to adapt that information, however great it is, to what he sees happening on the field at a given time.
“Once the game starts, there is no formula that can measure the head, heart and guts of a player that day or even before,” he said. “So what I believe you have to do is you have to invest your manager and your coaches in the ability to react to, I use the term ‘observational analytics’ — what you observe.”
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Rays manager Kevin Cash, also a Tampa native, said he hasn’t had much chance over the years to talk with La Russa — though one of his cousins was Cash’s second-grade teacher at Lake Magdalene Elementary. “I have so much respect for him," Cash said. "What an opportunity to manage against a Hall of Fame manager in the other dugout.”
Former Rays manager Joe Maddon, who had La Russa as a senior advisor with the Angels this past season, expects him to do well in Chicago. La Russa started there, managing the Sox from 1979-86, then was fired in what Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf has often called his biggest mistake.
“'Well thought out' does not adequately describe his level of thinking," Maddon said Thursday. “Tony loves to compete, that will be obvious. He will communicate with his guys thoroughly. His enthusiasm has not waned. The White Sox X’s and O’s will be checked and re-checked, and the T’s shall be crossed. I anticipate a good result for everyone involved.”
La Russa said the opportunity to take over a contending team like the White Sox made the job more appealing, and the pressure to win more exciting.
“On Cooperstown (induction) day, I thought I might get asked but I didn’t think I’d come back, and it’s slowly been changing,” he said. “I never thought I would get this opportunity, not just to walk back into a club so ready to win, but to come back to Chicago.”
On Kevin Cash’s decision
Tony La Russa was asked whether he agreed with the decision made by Rays manager Kevin Cash to lift Blake Snell in the sixth inning of Game 6 of the World Series.
“So that situation — my hat’s been off to Kevin ever since he joined the American League,” La Russa said. I watched him (when I was) in Boston for a couple years. If I had a chance to ask him, I’d (say), ‘Okay, break down what you were thinking at the time.' If it’s just because there was a script that said that by the time that Mookie (Betts) came up that time (Snell) had to go, then I would disagree with it. My guess is that Kevin processed other thoughts, and it had to do more with adjusting. It wasn’t just strictly bound by the script."