CHICAGO — Tony La Russa didn’t envision returning to the dugout when he stood at the podium in Cooperstown six years ago and took his place alongside baseball’s greats.
That started to change the past few seasons. And he simply couldn’t resist the opportunity the Chicago White Sox gave him.
La Russa, the Hall of Famer who won a World Series with the Oakland Athletics and two more with the St. Louis Cardinals, is returning to manage the White Sox 34 years after they fired him.
The 76-year-old La Russa rejoins the franchise where his big-league managing career began more than four decades ago. He takes over for Rick Renteria after what the White Sox insisted was a mutual agreement to split.
“How rare it is to get an opportunity to manage a team that’s this talented and this close to winning,” La Russa said. “Most of the time your chances are the opposite. The combination of looking forward to getting back down there and … the White Sox making the call with a chance to win sooner rather than later, I’m excited that they made that choice and looking forward to what’s ahead.”
La Russa inherits a team loaded with young stars and productive veterans that reached the postseason for the first time since 2008, only to sputter down the stretch and get knocked out in the wild-card round. The White Sox have never made back-to-back playoff appearances. But after ending a string of seven losing seasons, they are in position to change that.
La Russa becomes the oldest manager in the major leagues by five years. Houston’s Dusty Baker is 71.
La Russa, who started his managing career with the White Sox during the 1979 season, is returning to the dugout for the first time since 2011, when he led St. Louis past Texas in the World Series. He also won championships with Oakland in 1989 and the Cardinals in 2006.
La Russa is 2,728-2,365 with six pennants over 33 seasons with Chicago, Oakland and St. Louis. He was enshrined in Cooperstown in 2014. Only Hall of Famers Connie Mack (3,731) and John McGraw (2,763) have more victories. He and Sparky Anderson are the only managers to win the World Series in the American and National leagues.
LaRussa got his first major league managing job at age 34 when the White Sox promoted him from Triple-A to replace the fired Don Kessinger. He took over that August and led them to a 522-510 record over parts of eight seasons.
The 1983 team won 99 games on the way to the AL West championship – Chicago’s first playoff appearance since the 1959 Go-Go White Sox won the pennant. But he was fired in 1986 by then-general manager Ken Harrelson after the White Sox got off to a 26-38 start.
Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf has long regretted allowing that move and remains close with La Russa. Now, they’re reuniting.
“His hiring is not based on friendship or on what happened years ago, but on the fact that we have the opportunity to have one of the greatest managers in the game’s history in our dugout at a time when we believe our team is poised for great accomplishments,” Reinsdorf said in a statement.
The move is a surprise considering how long it’s been since La Russa was in the dugout. General manager Rick Hahn had said the White Sox were looking for someone who has “experience with a championship organization in recent years.”
Former Houston manager AJ Hinch and ex-Boston skipper Alex Cora fit that description. Both were suspended by Major League Baseball for the 2020 season for their roles in the Astros’ sign stealing scandal, and both lost their manager jobs. Their punishments ended this week.
Hahn insisted it was a consensus decision between him, Reinsdorf and executive vice president Ken Williams to go with La Russa.
“Tony was the choice because it’s believed that Tony is the best man to help us win championships over the next several years and usher us into what we expect to be a very exciting phase for White Sox baseball,” Hahn said
Though he hasn’t managed in nine years, La Russa has remained a part of the game.
Shortly after retiring, he went to work in the league office for two years assisting former Yankees manager Joe Torre in on-field discipline issues.
In May 2014, he was hired by the Arizona Diamondbacks to oversee their baseball operation. They signed Zack Greinke to a $206.5 million deal following the 2015 season. La Russa got demoted to an advisory role following a 93-loss season in 2016 and joined Boston’s front office as a special assistant to then-president Dave Dombrowski in November 2017.
La Russa was with the Red Sox when they hired Cora and won the World Series in 2018. And he spent last season as a senior advisor for baseball operations with the Los Angeles Angels, assisting in player development. Whether any of manager Joe Maddon’s fun-loving ways rubbed off on him remains to be seen.
La Russa, of course, was known more for his scowl than his smile. Now, he’s taking on a vibrant and outgoing team, where sky high bat-flips by Tim Anderson seem almost as common as pop flies.
Then again, his closer in Oakland – Dennis Eckersley – was known to pump his fist, point at opponents and fire imaginary guns at them after strikeouts.
“If I see that it’s sincere and it’s directed toward the game, that’s the display and kind of emotion that you want,” La Russa said. “As a coach, what you want to do is you want to get players passionately involved with the competition. And if you do that, you get exciting games. You’re entertaining.”
La Russa also said his views on athletes kneeling during the national anthem to protest social injustice have evolved. He criticized then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in several interviews in 2016, questioning his sincerity and accusing him of disrespecting the flag.
The White Sox had several players kneel this past season, including Anderson and stars José Abreu and Lucas Giolito.
“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. “There’s been a lot that goes on in a very healthy way since 2016. Not only do I respect, but I applaud, the awareness that’s come into not just society but especially in sports. If you talk about specifically baseball, I applaud and would support the fact that they are now addressing, identifying, the injustices – especially on the racial side.”
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