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The Chicago White Sox dusted off and propped up Tony La Russa Thursday, announcing him as the new manager of this young, loose, fun World Series-ready team built on talent and a vibe. And this city took the news the way a bunch of college kids would take it when the grumpy old neighbor who keeps calling the cops just showed up to DJ their party.
That’s because, well, La Russa actually is a grumpy old man, a 76-year old Hall of Famer who might start every sentence with “Back in my day. . .’’
And that is the problem. This isn’t La Russa’s day. The sports world has changed in the nine years since he left — after winning another World Series — because he thought the party was getting too loud. It has gotten louder. La Russa is from a day of authoritarian, top-down leadership. The sportsworld is now a bottom-up thing, with players in charge.
I actually think this is going to work out well. I do. La Russa is too old, but he’s also going to lead the White Sox to the World Series. He’ll learn to sit in his office playing Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett albums on his record player while the clubhouse party goes on outside his door.
While spending his time with modern players, he’ll learn to understand them and come to see them as family. And no matter how they feel right now, the players will come to feel the same way about him.
On top of that, La Russa still has a great baseball mind. Modern analytics is actually ruining the game, which now, thanks to excessive reliance on statistics, is all about swinging for home runs and nothing else. Baseball is going to adjust its rules to fix that; it’s going to bring back strategy and thinking. And La Russa will know more than the other managers.
In the final game of the World Series the other day, Tampa manager Kevin Cash took out starting pitcher Blake Snell, who was throwing an amazing game, in the 6th inning because some statistical probability shows that pitchers struggle the third time they go through a lineup. That move blew up in Tampa’s faces, and the Dodgers won the Series that night.
La Russa would’ve left Snell in. Guaranteed. He calls it “observational analytics,’’ which I think is a hilarious thumb in the eye to analytics geeks.
But something is going to have to give. In this era, athletes decide that they want to make a statement about a social issue or social justice, and they do it. And if that means the game isn’t going to be played tonight, then it isn’t going to be played. If it means that they want to take a knee to protest violence against black people in America, and do it when the national anthem is playing, then that’s going to happen too.
“I would tell (them): Sit inside the clubhouse,’’ La Russa said on “The Dan LeBatard Show’’ in 2016, talking about Colin Kaepernick. “You’re not going to be out there representing our team and our organization by disrespecting the flag. No sir. I would not allow it.’’
La Russa said at the time that he felt Kaepernick’s skills were fading and that his insincere protests were a desperate plea for attention.
Several White Sox players and coaches took a knee during the national anthem before the season opener a few months ago. That included Tim Anderson, Jose Abreu, Eloy Jimenez, Edwin Encarnacion, Luis Robert and Lucas Giolito.
How will La Russa get along with them?
“I know in 2016 when the first issue occurred, my initial instincts were all about respecting the flag and the anthem and what America stands for,’’ La Russa said Thursday. “There’s been a lot that’s gone on in a very healthy way since 2016, and not only do I respect, but I applaud the awareness that’s come into not just society, but especially in sports.
“I applaud and would support the fact that they are now addressing, identifying the injustices, especially on the racial side.’’
Anderson also has been known to flip his bat after a big hit, something that adds fun to the game. La Russa has been critical of bat flips as showy and disrespectful.
Times have changed. A few months ago, the Big Ten Conference said it wasn’t going to play football this season because of COVID fears. The players rallied and insisted that yes, they are going to play. At the time, I talked with Sonny Vaccaro, who created the shoe wars and is now maybe the strongest advocate out there for athlete empowerment.
“I’ve seen the evolution of the power of the athlete in America as well as anybody,’’ Vacarro told me. “I’ve watched the exodus from the way it used to be to the new beginning. The athlete was always the unconditional surrender guy.
“Where we are now is almost the end of the rainbow. . .They joined for a purpose, and they got the power. I think they broke the glass ceiling.’’
That’ll be fine with La Russa as long as they break it at a reasonable volume and clean up afterward.