RED SOX INSIDER

Tomase: La Russa's act a reminder White Sox should have hired Cora

RED SOX INSIDER

Before the Red Sox could win it all in 2004, they needed to jettison Grady Little and replace him with a new-school manager seeking a second chance. Terry Francona delivered and then some, leading the club to a pair of titles.

Fifteen years later, the Chicago White Sox faced a similar crossroads. The 2020 club led the American League Central nearly all season, the culmination of a patient rebuild finally bearing fruit, before stumbling at the finish and losing the wild card series to the Oakland A's.

They fired the popular Rick Renteria just days before he finished second in the AL Manager of the Year race, recognizing the need for someone younger and more dynamic to take their talented core to the next level. So it came as no surprise on Halloween when they introduced Alex Cora as their 41st manager, capitalizing on the end of his season-long suspension to offer him a shot at redemption while showing the next generation how to win it all.

"In the end," said White Sox GM Rick Hahn, "this was simply too perfect an opportunity to ignore, and while many may disagree with our decision, we're confident that Alex has learned some important lessons over the past year. He's been humbled, and we know he's as hungry as we are to raise our first banner since 2005."

Except that's not what happened.

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Instead, White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf stampeded in like the Merrill Lynch bull and made a stunning, perplexing, infuriating hire, unilaterally imposing longtime friend Tony La Russa on the organization. The 76-year-old Hall of Famer hadn't inhabited a dugout since leading the Cardinals to the 2011 World Series and ostensibly leaving on top.

 

Reinsdorf had other ideas, and he's now reaping the whirlwind, as La Russa keeps inserting himself into generational battles that show how ill-equipped he is to handle modern players. From overtaxing his starting pitchers to not knowing the new extra innings rules to the firestorm he caused in his own clubhouse by castigating breakout rookie sensation Yermin Mercedes for violating some sacrosanct unwritten rule, La Russa seems determined to spark a mutiny in his own clubhouse. It's possible the powder is already lit.

It didn't have to be this way.

Imagine a White Sox club with a rejuvenated Cora at the helm. He has taken a less-talented Red Sox team from worst to first, where they have resided for more than a month. The White Sox, meanwhile, own the American League's best record, but it feels like it's in spite of their manager and not because of him, with the Mercedes controversy the most serious threat to his authority yet.

On Monday, the White Sox led the Twins 15-4 in the eighth inning. Minnesota summoned burly infielder Willians Astudillo to pitch, and he lobbed a 47 mph parabola on a 3-0 count that Mercedes timed perfectly and launched for his sixth homer.

The exuberant DH has quickly become a fan favorite in Chicago for escaping obscurity to lead the American League in hitting and for displaying his emotions proudly. While he circled the bases and teammates waited to celebrate, La Russa fumed.

He then did something Cora would never consider, taking his complaints to the media over the course of two straight days, blasting Mercedes for missing a blatant take sign and accusing him of disrespecting the game. He even endorsed the Twins throwing behind him the next day. It's exactly the kind of get-off-my-lawn drivel that keeps baseball from modernizing and embracing brash stars like Fernando Tatis Jr., Tim Anderson, and Trevor Bauer.

They're the players fans increasingly pay to see, not some septuagenarian manager who just stepped out of Doc Brown's DeLorean and thinks he's still in 1985.

The shame is that during his years as an advisor to Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, La Russa filled a more avuncular role, impressing the baseball operations department with his willingness to engage without being overbearing. It seemed like the perfect way to stay in the game without the day-to-day pressures of running a team, and La Russa was so good at it, the four young executives who led the baseball operations department between Dombrowski's ouster and Chaim Bloom's arrival asked La Russa to remain on the job.

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He briefly agreed before leaving for the Angels and spending the year as a special assistant. Then Reinsdorf made the roundly criticized decision to bring him back to the club he had managed from 1979-86, perhaps as a favor for La Russa's role in putting the undeserving Harold Baines in the Hall of Fame.

 

Meanwhile, the White Sox didn't even engage with Cora, an ideal fit to lead a young club with an impressive mix of Latin stars who'd no doubt benefit from a manager sharing their language and understanding their culture.

Had the White Sox courted Cora, there's a chance he wouldn't have even been available to the Red Sox, who were still sorting through their own candidates. In fact, when the news broke that the White Sox had fired Renteria, there was a belief in some corners of Jersey Street that Cora would land in Chicago.

That never happened because Reinsdorf put his meddlesome foot down and almost immediately discovered he had stepped in something. He was savaged when it came out that he had buried La Russa's DUI admission during the interview process. That set a fitting tone for La Russa's rocky tenure, which has included questionable in-game strategy and a lack of understanding of the game's rules, written and otherwise.

The Red Sox share no such concerns, because Cora has maximized their talents. He should probably be on Chicago's South Side instead, regaling Anderson, Jose Abreu, Lucas Giolito and Co. with tales of World Series titles as a player, coach, and manager.

My guess is that White Sox players would be enraptured with their cocky new skipper and willing to do whatever it took to please him. He might periodically light them up behind closed doors, but that's where it stays. They just want a ring, and it's hard to envision anyone being better suited to give it to them.