PHOENIX – Tony La Russa is sitting outside a golf resort, wearing a New England Patriots cap and talking about the sensation searing through his body that he hasn’t felt since, well, six pennants, three World Series championships and 5,097 games ago.
It’s not so much nervousness as it is anxiousness. He’s confident, but jumpy. He’s relaxed, but hardly peaceful.
He goes to bed with a notepad and pen on his nightstand. He wakes up in the middle night to jot down notes. He drinks coffee in the morning, his mind racing, desperately searching for anything he might be missing.
La Russa may be one of the greatest managers to put on a uniform but as the Hall of Famer prepares to enter the Chicago White Sox’s complex for their opening workouts Wednesday, he feels as if he’s a pimple-faced teenager instead of a 76-year-old manager entering the 49th spring training camp of his career with 34 years of big-league managerial experience.
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And a manager who is under more scrutiny than perhaps anybody else in the game this year.
“I know what’s at stake here,’’ La Russa tells USA TODAY Sports in his first sit-down interview since being hired, discussing racial injustice, analytics, the state of the game and his DWI arrest.
“I know there’s going to be pressure. My understanding is if I don’t do a good job in spring, I won’t make it to opening day. That’s just a little tongue-in-cheek, but not a big tongue-in cheek.
“There are expectations, a lot of expectations when you have a good team. That’s one of the beauties of being downstairs. You can’t hide from pressure. You’ve got to embrace it.
“I know people have expressed their doubts, but in the end, I’ll hold myself accountable for everything that happens.’’
It has been 3,400 days since La Russa last wore a uniform, clutching the 2011 World Series trophy after the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Texas Rangers in Game 7 at Busch Stadium.
Now, 35 years since La Russa was fired by the Chicago White Sox in 1986 – which owner Jerry Reinsdorf called the worst mistake of his career – here they are, coming full circle.
“Really, it’s a Hollywood story,” says Walt Jocketty, the Cincinnati Reds adviser who won seven division titles, two pennants and a World Series together with La Russa in St. Louis. “This could have a terrific Hollywood ending with a World Series title. If that happens, they better make a movie out of it.’’
If it fails, it becomes a horror flick, with critics believing he is over the hill, out of touch and won’t survive in today’s game.
“I know there are a lot of people who have their doubts,’’ says La Russa. “I heard all the questions. And not one wasn’t a legitimate question. I’m fine with that. I know how I’m going to be judged.’’
‘This one was ideal’
If the White Sox win the American League Central Division and make a deep run into October, it will be viewed as an overwhelming success. If they don’t win, it’ll be a failure.
First things first, he’ll be meeting his players in person for the first time this week, knowing only starter Lance Lynn and closer Liam Hendriks, with other introductions relegated to phone calls this winter.
“When it first happened, I was definitely not open,’’ shortstop Tim Anderson said recently on the “White Sox Talk Podcast.” “Moving forward, I’m open. I get it. I understand it. … He’s been around baseball for a while, and he’s been successful for a while. So it goes back to, ‘Why wouldn’t you want to learn from a guy who’s been successful for a while?’
“We’re trying to win a championship, and he’s going to be a part of it.’’
The biggest question is why. Why come back and open yourself to scrutiny? Why risk tarnishing the Hall of Fame legacy?
The truth, La Russa says, is that while he may have walked away as manager, he never left the game. He went to the commissioner’s office for two years, spent four years with the Arizona Diamondbacks (heading baseball operations for three of them), was an adviser with the Boston Red Sox for two years and another year with the Los Angeles Angels. The longer he was out as manager, the greater the itch to return. He fielded a couple of inquiries in the first year after leaving the Cardinals, but nothing was serious.
Then, 11 days after the White Sox were eliminated by the Oakland Athletics this past season, they fired manager Rick Renteria.
Reinsdorf called La Russa, who said he was intrigued and would get back to him.
La Russa talked to his family. He reached out to his closest friends in the game. He even called Hall of Fame President Tim Mead, asking if he would be stripped of his Hall of Fame status. After all, no player or manager was inducted into the Hall of Fame and returned to their same line of work.
“The first inquiry, he couched it pretty good,’’ Mead says. “He said in-the-event type of thing. I told him that nobody’s excluded from returning.”
And if La Russa was told that he would be stripped of his Hall of Fame status by returning to the field?
“If this opportunity, as great as it is, cost me the Hall of Fame,’’ La Russa says, “I wouldn’t have taken it. The Hall of Fame is beyond everything else.’’
Really, it was the only stumbling block preventing La Russa’s return, his friends say. It was the perfect job at the perfect time, inheriting a playoff team that’s on the verge of greatness.
“He wasn’t going to just go anywhere, but this one was ideal,’’ says former manager Jim Leyland, who speaks to La Russa nearly every day. “He needed to manage again. He was so just antsy sitting up there and being in that box. I knew his patience was growing thin and the fire was burning.
“He saw the game the way it was going and didn’t like it. He told me, ‘I really don’t have the right to complain if I don’t do something about it.’ So now he’s in position to do something about it.’’
Former Angels GM Billy Eppler, who watched most home games sitting alongside La Russa last season, understood his frustration.
“He cares so much and is so passionate about the game,’’ Eppler says. “But if you’re not in the dugout or on the field itself, you are powerless. Every once in awhile, he’d say, ‘It’s awful watching games up here. I can’t stand it.’ “
La Russa, who was baseball’s youngest manager in 1979 at age 34, understands the trepidation now. He isn’t trying to set the game back to the days of flannel uniforms and realizes he must make adjustments and address the major concerns.
A new era
How can a 76-year-old embrace today’s game filled with celebrations and personality?
Please, he says, he managed some of the most colorful and outspoken players in baseball decades ago, including Rickey Henderson and Dennis Eckersley. Not once did he tell them to tone it down.
And he’s not about to start.
“If you have an emotion that’s sincere and competition-related,’’ La Russa says, ‘I’m good with it. If you get (teed) off and trashed a dugout because you left the bases loaded, I’m OK that you did it. But sometimes you see some phoniness.
“I know that MLB wants more flair, and that’s what they’re going to get, so I try to balance sincerity. I just don’t ever want us to lose some basic sportsmanship and respect for the game and your opponent.’’
It’s going to require communication and understanding.
“We’re going to see what happens,’’ Anderson said on the White Sox Podcast. “I don’t know Tony. Tony doesn’t know me. So I can’t go off what they say about this man, and he can’t go off what they say about me, because he doesn’t know me and I don’t know him.
“So really, the conversation we’re going to start at zero and just see where it goes.’’
Can La Russa accept the data-heavy aspects of modern baseball?
He’s not going to be unplugging computers in the clubhouse and shredding spreadsheets, not after his longtime pitching coach Dave Duncan counseled him two years ago about the value of analytics. Yet he wants to return the human element to the game, not relying on metrics to prevent second-guessing.
“If you make a pitching decision, and if it didn’t work, they’ll say it’s because you didn’t check the metrics box,’’ La Russa says. “But if you follow the metrics and it doesn’t work, then they should be blamed. You have tons of information, but you have to trust yourself and the staff to make decisions. It’s too dynamic of a game not to have the ability to make an adjustment.
How can he possibly communicate with today’s modern-day players?
“That’s a joke,’’ says Angels slugger Albert Pujols, who spent the first 11 years of his career with La Russa. “You want that experience, don’t you? When (White Sox first baseman) Jose Abreu called me to ask about him, I told him, ‘Trust me, Tony can communicate with anyone. Put him a room with old men, young kids, he finds a way to communicate. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.’
“He’s a winner, and if you were going to come back, what better team than the White Sox. The team is loaded. They’re not far from winning the World Series, and he’s the perfect guy to get them over the top.’’
Is he simply too conservative in his beliefs?
Yes, he openly criticized former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision in 2016 to kneel during the national anthem. Last year the White Sox had five players kneeling at the start of the season.
La Russa would prefer that everyone stand for the national anthem but insists he’s open to anyone expressing their beliefs. It’s a discussion, he says, he plans to have with his team.
“If you are around servicemen and women, they will tell you the meaning of the national anthem and the flag,’’ La Russa says. “I just don’t want to disrespect all of those people. …
“But when you talk about racial injustice, I’m with you, hand in hand. I’ll explain my thoughts to the guys on the team. We’re a family. If the family wants to have some expression of racial injustice, I’ll be there with them.’’
How do you provide leadership after being arrested for drinking and driving less than a year ago?
La Russa, after dining with Angels employees in spring training last February, was charged with driving under the influence while returning home. It was his second drunken-driving arrest after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor DUI during spring training in 2007 with the Cardinals.
La Russa informed Angels owner Arte Moreno of the arrest the following day and offered to resign. Moreno kept him all season. When the White Sox started the interview process with La Russa in October, he also told Reinsdorf of the incident. Reinsdorf didn’t share it with anyone.
The arrest became public in November in an ESPN report. The White Sox, who hired him only 11 days before, never wavered in their support but cautioned the next time would be his last as a manager. He pleaded guilty to reckless driving, sentenced to one day of home detention, 20 hours of community service and a fine of $1,383.
“I made no excuses, it was an inexcusable mistake,’’ La Russa says, his voice dropping. “It has cost as much embarrassment personally as possible. Anyone to think that this wasn’t something that had a very negative impact. …
“I mean part of the embarrassment and negative feelings is the impact on the organization and the fans and the people that hired me. There were already enough questions of me managing, and then this. It has been torturous.”
So now here he is, knowing these questions will surface throughout the spring and likely seep into the season. He will have to win the trust of his players, the organization and the White Sox fans that he is the right man.
Everyone will be watching as La Russa takes one last ride, putting his reputation on the line, with the belief he can make a difference.
“I don’t see how a Hall of Fame manager coming back to a game he never left won’t do a great job,’’ says Dave Stewart, a four-time 20-game winner under La Russa in Oakland. “Hell, he’s one of the best to ever do it. I really don’t see any way he fails.’’
The phone rings. La Russa hurriedly gets up from the table, grabs his cellphone and notebook. He’s running late for a Zoom call.
As he leaves, he says, “I’ve always said I was the luckiest manager in baseball. This is the first time nobody disagrees with me.’’