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The news that the White Sox are considering Tony La Russa for their vacant manager's position resulted in near panic last week from some Sox fans and writers. You'd have thought that the ballclub was doing something as dangerous as holding a public rally at The Grate so kids could run the bases sans masks or social distancing.
The responses came quickly. "He's too old. He hasn't managed since 2011. He wouldn't be able to relate to the players. He couldn't work well with the front office. I repeat, he's too old."
These are challenging times for all of us, but especially for folks who were born in the 1940s, of which La Russa and this writer are guilty. People who know about deadly viruses have warned us for months that we are most susceptible to COVID-19. Much about our lives has changed. Like our vocabulary. Words such as "morbidity" have entered into daily conversation right alongside launch angle and exit velocity.
Suggestions are not uncommon that our perceived frail condition dictates that we are expendable. A few particularly uncaring, heartless and ignorant individuals have reasoned that older folks, being closer to our demise than the general population, should not prohibit others from pursuing their regular routines.
If you're thinking that I'm sensitive to the ageism slur, then we're on the same page. Substitute "Black" or "Brown" or "gay" rather than "old" into the equation and you'd rightfully be confronted with anger and outrage along with a tidy lawsuit.
La Russa turned 76 earlier this month, but I hate to imagine the fate of someone telling him to his face that he's too old to do, well, just about anything.
Buzz Bissinger's 3 Nights in August provided an in-depth journey into La Russa's psyche, principles and intelligence for managing a major league baseball team. Here a quote from him at the book's beginning:
"I'm as nauseous as I've ever been. I have a terrible headache. My head is pounding.
I feel like throwing up and I'm having trouble swallowing. And the beauty of it is, you
want to feel like this every day."
My guess is that a few years haven't diminished La Russa's edginess and intensity when it comes to winning ballgames, something he did with regularity in a 33-year Hall of Fame career that included six pennants and three World Series titles. Only Connie Mack and John McGraw won more games as a manager.
General Manager Rick Hahn said last week that he's looking for someone outside the organization who has had October experience and has been successful. La Russa was canned by Hawk Harrelson, who was masquerading as Sox GM, mid-season 1986. I believe enough time has passed to say that La Russa is an outsider, and his record clearly meets the October criterion.
As far as relating to players, I'd say that La Russa would have instant credibility and respect the very first day he strolled into the clubhouse. He was known for retaliating any time he felt that his players were being abused. If he concluded that other clubs were throwing at his hitters, the foes were assured to be brushed back or worse next time through the batting order. His players appreciated that old-school support even though critics questioned his approach. He had no problem being described as a dinosaur.
La Russa's style would not be warm and fuzzy like, say, Dusty Baker last week giving out hugs to José Altuve after the second baseman made a couple of errors. His charges would know the expectations and the consequences of less than a full effort. He's more like a Bill Belichick, whose teams have played in nine Super Bowls and won six of them. Belichick is eight years La Russa's junior. His demarcation between player and coach is clear to everyone. Sharing a beer is not part of Belichick's repertoire.
As far as analytics are concerned, La Russa's handling of his bullpen led the evolution of the game in utilizing relievers' specific roles. He also has served time in the front offices of the Diamondbacks and Angels since retiring, so he hasn't strayed too far from contemporary practices.
Despite everything you've read so far, I hope the Sox don't hire him, nor do I think they will. I suspect that La Russa would do just fine as the new Sox skipper, but I also feel that Hahn could do better by hiring Sandy Alomar, Jr.
Alomar has the experience and background to handle the job. His pedigree is sound, being the son of Sandy Alomar Sr., a 15-year major league infielder who played for the Sox from 1967-69. His brother Roberto is a Hall of Fame second baseman. Sandy Jr. signed his first professional contract in 1983. That's 37 years in the game. Did someone mention baseball lifer?
A former catcher - nine managers at the beginning of this season played the position - Alomar spent 20 seasons in the big leagues, including parts of five with the White Sox, the last of which was 2006, which I would assume makes him "outsider" enough. The year after retiring, 2008, he went straight into coaching with the Mets, and two years later, Alomar joined the Indians' staff and has been there ever since.
While Alomar never has been hired as a major league manager - in the past he was on the short list for the Blue Jay, the Red Sox and the Cubs - he took over for the ailing Terry Francona this season and led the Indians to a 28-18 record and a spot in the playoffs, where the Yankees eliminated them in the wild card series.
Us Sox fans would like to forget the four-game sweep in Cleveland in September when Alomar was guiding the Indians. Two of those wins for Alomar were in walk-off fashion. Alomar's club finished the year 9-2 to solidify its spot in the post-season.
Being Puerto Rican, the language barrier with the Sox's many Latin players wouldn't exist.
Never having been hired to manage a team, in my mind, would make Alomar extremely hungry for success in his first assignment at age 54. There are no laurels upon which to sit. Factors dictate that he would work as hard and diligently - quite possibly harder - as any other candidate to prove himself.
Nevertheless, I doubt that Hahn will choose Alomar. The frontrunner is deposed Houston Astro manager A.J. Hinch.
After stumbling mightily in his first assignment with the Diamondbacks in 2009-10 - his team's record was 89-123 - Hinch stepped into the role with the Astros in 2015 as the club was on the cusp of dominance, much like the White Sox of today. Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer, Lance McCullers Jr. and Dallas Keuchel were in place, and once the pitchers got a bit more help, the Astros reeled off three straight 100-plus win seasons from 2017-19.
Of course, the only hitch was stealing the Dodgers' signs in the 2017 World Series, resulting in Hinch's one-year suspension that ends at the conclusion of this week's World Series. While Hinch reportedly smashed a couple of monitors used in the scheme, he lacked the strength and principle to extinguish the cheating. The buck should have stopped with him, but it slithered through.
At the same time, Hinch checks most of Hahn's boxes. He's an outsider, he's won lots of games, and he's been to a World Series.
But he's tainted, and my capacity for liars, cheaters, con men and shysters was reached long ago. Not a day goes by when we're not besieged with misinformation and lies emanating from our supreme leader and his enablers. While the stakes pale in comparison to what's happening in the world, why should I applaud the hiring of someone who was the leader of a bunch of underhanded cheaters whose raw talent wasn't enough of an edge?
I hope that Hahn understands the broader picture. I fear that he doesn't. Or that he doesn't care.
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