With 21 crucial games to go entering Tuesday’s game against Rockies at Guaranteed Rate Field, the White Sox were three games behind the first place Guardians in the American League Central.
Who will lead them in their last-ditch effort to salvage a disappointing season, and who would in the postseason should they get there, remained uncertain as bench coach Miguel Cairo managed the team for the 14th game in a row while Tony La Russa, awaiting medical clearance to return to his job, watched from a suite in street clothes.
The Sox caught fire after Cairo’s first game, a 9-7 loss to the Royals on Aug. 30. Cairo found out he was managing an hour or so after La Russa was ordered by cardiologists to take the night off, and, as it turned out, all was well in the managerial department.
In fact, maybe better. The Sox are, after all, enjoying their best stretch of the season at the most important time.
Cairo’s passionate words for the team after that loss to the Royals hit home.
“I saw something I didn’t like that game and I couldn’t let it pass,” Cairo said Tuesday. “I just let them know how I feel about it and … are you in or are you out? If you are out, let me know. If you are in, let’s go for it.
“I had it in my chest for a little while, the way we were playing and stuff. I saw the chance to do it and I went for it.”
His message “really connected with a couple of the guys, really connected with kind of making their mindset,” closer Liam Hendriks said.
“Since that happened, we’ve had more energy … brought around just on his little message of, ‘Look, if you guys don’t want to be here get the hell out, in no uncertain terms.’ ”
Two weeks later, La Russa, 77, was at the ballpark before the game, in his office, conferring with Cairo and other coaches, and having input on decisions.
“I always ask for his opinion,” Cairo said. “If I got a doubt about a position in the lineup, he gives me his opinion and after that, I do my decision. But of course, his opinion really matters.”
If La Russa gets a favorable medical opinion granting clearance, general manager Rick Hahn said “it’s a conversation once we get to that point” about whether he will manage.
“But we’re not at that point. So for now, it’s just taking it day by day and following the lead of the medical professionals and talking to Tony,” he said.
La Russa’s superstitious baseball leanings and respect for “the baseball gods” prompted him to take Sunday’s loss hard, Hahn said. La Russa was in Oakland for a 10-3 loss that stopped a four-game winning streak.
While Hendriks noted Cairo’s impact, he also said there’s no excuse for the good vibe in the clubhouse to be lost if La Russa comes back.
“It should [stay the same]. It does for me,” Hendriks said. “I have complete faith in everything he’s able to do. He’s one of the main reasons I came to Chicago. If it does [change] that’s just someone looking for an excuse within themselves.”
Hendriks said La Russa and Cairo have had similar conversations with players, but “it’s like when your dad tells you something to do, sometimes you don’t always listen and then your weird uncle tells you the exact same thing and all a sudden it clicks and kind of ratifies in your own head a little more.”
In any event, it’s Cairo for now and maybe for the rest of the season. And what of next year, when La Russa is in the final year of his three-year deal?
“Look, we’ve been trying to navigate the last few weeks under unique circumstances, and the team has done very well,” Hahn said.”And obviously, everyone’s noted that. But as for what lies ahead for next year, it’s simply too soon for that.”