The White Sox wanted a winner. And they got one of baseball’s all-time winners in Tony La Russa.
The process, Rick Hahn admitted, didn’t go as expected when the general manager met the media the day the team moved on from Rick Renteria. That day, his descriptions of the ideal candidate seemed to point to a free agent like A.J. Hinch or Alex Cora.
Instead, a three-time World Series winning manager surprised the architect of the South Side rebuilding project.
“Initially, I think I was a little surprised, just given that I knew, obviously, that he was not only retired, but I knew that other clubs had reached out previously and were rebuffed,” Hahn explained Thursday. “But then when I thought about the allure of this job … it makes all the sense in the world.”
Indeed, the White Sox had an attractive opening. They figured to be a prime landing spot after an ascendant season in which their roster, stacked with talent, leaped out of rebuilding mode and into contention mode. When the team parted ways with Renteria, the message was clear: From now on, the expectations are nothing less than a World Series championship.
In La Russa, the White Sox ended up with someone who knows what it takes to get there. After his first stint as the South Side skipper, which started at the tail end of the 1970s, La Russa went on to win titles with the Oakland Athletics and St. Louis Cardinals. Though he might not have met all the criteria Hahn laid out three weeks ago, he meets the top one: He knows how to win.
But why would La Russa want to take on such a challenge? Why end what had been nearly a decade of retirement from the day-to-day grind of managing a Major League Baseball team? Why add more to what was already a Hall-of-Fame career?
Even Jerry Reinsdorf, the White Sox chairman whose close friendship with La Russa has been a focal point in the conversation surrounding the hire, wondered the same thing as recently as last year.
“Managing takes an awful lot out of you, there's nothing left to accomplish,” Reinsdorf said in an interview about La Russa. “He's won three World Series, and he's in the Hall of Fame. There's no reason to go back to managing and have to try to deal with people who are 22 years old when you're 75 years old.”
Well, there was something even Reinsdorf didn’t know about his good friend.
“Obviously, Tony decided he has something else to accomplish,” the chairman said Thursday. “What I didn't know at that time was how much he missed the competition.”
Boy, did he.
La Russa described his years in three different front offices — first running the Arizona Diamondbacks’ baseball operations department, then as an assistant and adviser for the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Angels — as “torture.”
“It was very difficult, increasingly so, to sit there and think about what's going on downstairs. When you're an advisor, it's something I enjoyed but I always had this thought, 'Man, it's more fun downstairs,” La Russa said during his introductory press conference. “My heart was always in the dugout.
“I think all managers would understand this … how rare it is to get an opportunity to manage a team that's this talented and this close to winning. Most of the time your chances are the opposite.
“I seriously thought being upstairs for nine years watching the game closely, I described it to my friends as torture because you’re seeing it and you can’t do anything about it. Soon thereafter I realized I had to either stop complaining about being upstairs or go downstairs. And if you go downstairs and have an opportunity like you have with the White Sox, that’s when it got serious.”
And so, in the end, in addition to that dissatisfaction with a front-office role, the same thing that figured to attract top candidates with more recent managerial experience ended up attracting a Hall of Famer with three rings on his fingers.
No, it didn’t go the way Hahn — or most fans, judging by the social-media reaction — expected it to. But the White Sox got a winner. All the other questions still flying around will be answered in time. But the one that matters most is the winning piece: Can La Russa take these White Sox to the baseball mountaintop?
Well, at the very least, he knows the way.
“The last few days as it's gotten closer and I could start to think, 'Maybe this is going to happen, it's probably going to happen,' my internal response has been excitement,” La Russa said. “I haven't had the first regret. I'm fired up, I'm ready to go. I'm anxious to get with the players. I want to show them what I represent as a person, as a professional.”