There are real-world pressures that can be much more profound than the pressure found in major-league baseball, which is to real life what the ukulele is to the cello. Paying rent, for example. Or having major surgery.
But there have to be moments when Tony La Russa experiences constricted breathing, excessive sweating and anything else related to being the White Sox manager and having one of the most talented rosters in the game. Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf should have some of those moments, too.
The questions about whether Reinsdorf made the right decision by hiring the 76-year-old La Russa as his manager can only be answered in the affirmative if the team has major success this season. That’s it. Nothing else. There are too many good hitters and too many good pitchers in the clubhouse for there to be any other expected outcome. The Sox made the playoffs last season. More, please. A lot more.
The baseball world is going to judge La Russa on wins and losses. If there aren’t enough victories as the season rolls along, the questions will press in harder from the outside. Does the three-time World Series champion still have it? Is he still sharp? Can he physically keep up during the trudge of a 162-game schedule?
And, most of all, what could Reinsdorf have possibly been thinking by hiring someone who hasn’t managed since 2011?
If La Russa succeeds this season, if the Sox get within breathing distance of the World Series, then Reinsdorf will look like a genius and his manager will look 20 years younger.
If La Russa doesn’t succeed, if the season is a disappointing ride, everybody will be wise to stand back. The abuse will be ugly.
So, no. No pressure. No pressure at all.
The Sox opened their season Thursday night in Anaheim, Calif., and for some reason it seemed right that La Russa’s first game as skipper of the 2021 team would come against the Angels’ Joe Maddon, the most recent manager to win a World Series in Chicago. Maddon won a title with the Cubs in 2016 and three seasons later was sent on his way.
He’s a reminder of how a manager can own this town, for a time, if he plays his cards right. Despite his sometimes-maddening, in-game decisions, Maddon was hugely popular in Chicago.
Will La Russa play his cards right? For now, it’s the great unknown and one of the bigger questions in baseball. He knew how to deal with the Cards, upper case, but his success in St. Louis feels like a lifetime ago. Now he has to deal with the baggage of an offseason DUI arrest, the possible burden of advanced age and the perception that Reinsdorf’s famous, sometimes infamous, loyalty is the only reason he has the job.
Looked at from any angle, it’s a lot.
La Russa is an extremely proud man, so expect him to come out with fire in his eyes in April. You could already hear some of it in his recent comments about perceived cronyism in his hiring. He managed the Sox from 1979-86, and Reinsdorf has said many times that OKing La Russa’s firing was one of the decisions he regrets most. The two remained friends, leading some to wonder whether that friendship got in the way of smart decision-making when it came to hiring a manager to replace Rick Renteria after last season.
La Russa is insulted by the accusations of cronyism, but I’m not sure what he expected. He wasn’t exactly a hot candidate for other managerial openings.
“The disrespect to the person that they’re commenting about is a very serious comment to make, and you have to have a lot of substance and proof to make that and they don’t,” La Russa told the Sun-Times. “Jerry Reinsdorf, he’s got trophies and a World Series ring. He loves the game. We’ve been close ever since I got fired. But it’s disrespectful and insulting to say somebody like Jerry, the owner of the Chicago White Sox, is going to put a personal relationship anywhere close to the priority that is the team’s chance to win. It’s an insult, and it’s disrespectful. You have to know Jerry better.”
Again, success in 2021 will make any potential ugliness go away. No one will be talking about an owner taking care of a friend. No one will be dissing the old-guy manager. There will be cover stories about La Russa proving that age is just a number (although, to be fair, so is the national debt). He’ll be lauded for getting the most out of a team that was without gifted hitter Eloy Jimenez, who is expected to miss most of the season with a chest injury.
That’s how the story will be told if a talent-heavy team wins big in 2021. If the Sox don’t meet expectations, La Russa will want to duck, provided he still has the flexibility and reflexes to do so.