Tony LaRussa answers his critics the best he can

CHICAGO — At 76, Tony La Russa still has the energy to patrol the outfield during batting practice before every game. Fungo bat in hand, he stops to visit with his players, just as he did with the A’s more than a quarter-century ago.

La Russa still has the fire, too, to go nose-to-nose with an opposing player. When White Sox slugger Jose Abreu was hit by a pitch July 30 against Cleveland, La Russa got in the face of Indians catcher Roberto Perez,

There are signs of him softening, though. Or maybe it is an attempt to bridge the generations-gap when he occasionally turns his cap around, wears it backwards like the kids, during those batting practice tours of the outfield.

Winning has always brought out the best in La Russa, and he is winning big. The White Sox, who host the A’s for a four-game series starting Monday, are 68-50 and running away with American League Central despite injuries that have limited star outfielders Luis Robert and Eloy Jimenez to 43 games between them.

“What kills me is that as many games as he’s been part of and has won, how nervous he is before every game and before every pitch,” said Sox third base coach Joe McEwing, who played for La Russa in St. Louis.

“He hangs on every pitch because he knows how important each pitch is and how it can change a game. It doesn’t matter what the lead is or how far we’re behind. He’s so locked in on every pitch.”

 

La Russa with his Hall of Fame plaque in 2014. 

La Russa’s return to the dugout after a nine-year hiatus was met with ridicule and scorn when it was announced Oct. 29. The outcry grew louder days later when news broke that La Russa had been charged with driving under the influence, his second offense, after a one-car accident in February 2020.

Still, the White Sox hired him, making him the third-oldest manager in MLB  history. Only Connie Mack (87) and Jack McKeon (80) managed later in life.

La Russa had retired in 2011 after winning the World Series, his third, with the Cardinals. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2014. He stayed in the game as an executive with Major League Baseball, the Diamondbacks, Red Sox and Angels, but said he felt “tortured” by watching games from a suite without a chance to make an impact.

“My heart always was in the dugout,” said La Russa, who expected offers to manage but didn’t plan to accept any.

That was until the Sox called to measure his interest after the firing of Rick Renteria following a frustrating loss to the Athletics in the first round of the 2020 American League playoffs. Several sources from his Oakland days sensed La Russa was all-in after talking to them and measuring his passion to return.

“It was a combination of looking forward to getting back down there and checking myself, to have the energy, and the White Sox making the call with a chance to win sooner rather than later,” La Russa said on the day his hiring was announced.

The criticism of his hiring peaked again in May when La Russa had to admit he didn’t know a rule governing extra-inning play. He left pitcher Liam Hendricks as the second-base runner when he could have subbed, and the Sox lost 1-0.

“Now I know,” La Russa said after the game.

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