CHICAGO — Tony La Russa could have stayed in his job with the Los Angeles Angels, traveled at his leisure, flaunted his Hall of Fame ring and rode off in the glorious California sunset.
There was nothing left for the man to prove.
He already won more games than all but two managers in history, six pennants and three World Series, and left on top of the baseball world with the St. Louis Cardinals winning the 2011 World Series championship in his final game.
Yet, when White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf called in October, gauging whether he was interested in one last rodeo, La Russa was all in.
The Hollywood story was to win another World Series championship for Reinsdorf, teach a young team how the game should be played, and be forever revered in Chicago as if he were Mike Ditka in spikes.
Well, nearly two months into the season, the White Sox have the second-best record in the American League, leading the AL Central Division every day for the past three weeks, but instead of being extolled, La Russa is being roasted.
Everyone is taking their shots: Writers. Broadcasters. Fans. Ex-players. Current players. Future players. Even some of his peers.
One day he’s an idiot for not knowing the rules, unaware of the new rule put in place that permits managers to keep a pitcher from being a baserunner to start on second base in extra innings, although apparently none of his coaches were aware of it either.
“I should have known the rule,’’ La Russa says. “My mistake alone.’’
Another day, he’s incompetent running a pitching staff when starter Lucas Giolito said he was gassed and left in the game for an inning too long during a 5-2 loss to the Detroit Tigers, although he never shared the same sentiments with his pitching coach or catcher at the time.
“If he felt like he didn’t have much left,’’ La Russa says, “then that’s something I should have recognized.’’
And this week, the game has passed him by at the age of 76 for having the gall to publicly condemn rookie Yermin Mercedes for missing a take sign, swinging on a 3-and-0 pitch and homering during a rout of the Minnesota Twins.
“He’s just so out of touch with the game,’’ former All-Star pitcher CC Sabathia said on a podcast. “He shouldn’t be (expletive) managing that team.’’
La Russa shrugs off the criticism, reiterates that Mercedes was dead-wrong, and has the stats to prove it, with no player in the last 20 years – spanning 557 at-bats – ever swinging at a 3-and-0 pitch with his team leading by at least 10 runs.
No matter. No one wants to hear it. These are different times. The rules of what’s right, what’s wrong and sportsmanship are completely altered.
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“Respect for your profession and your peers,’’ La Russa reiterated this weekend, “is that something that’s not important anymore? That’s what everybody is telling me about the way this game should be played, everybody that is negative about it.
“But do you feel like you should respect your profession? Do you feel like you should respect your peers? Is there anybody that doesn’t believe that? I’d like for them to tell me now why they don’t think respect is important.
Now, in the latest episode of “As the Tony La Russa World Turns,’’ here comes his old Cardinals team to town, the franchise he led to glory, reaching the postseason nine times in 16 years with two World Series championships.
This will be the first time in his 5,142-game managerial career that he will be facing the Cardinals, beginning with a three-game series Monday night at Guaranteed Rate Field.
It is the only team he has never managed against in his life.
Among managers who made their debut in since 1900, the top two on the list of most games managed (regular season and postseason combined) without ever facing a particular franchise (in the regular season or postseason) during their entire managerial career in the majors, La Russa ranks first at 5,270 games without facing the Cardinals, while Bobby Cox ranks second at 4,644 games without facing the Atlanta Braves.
“I’ll be honest, it’s going to be uncomfortable,’’ La Russa told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s like when I was managing against (former manager) Jim Leyland. You got to do it. You do the best you can, and I look forward to the end of the series.
“I’ll never be able to truly express how much I appreciate the uniform for 16 years and the people and the fans of St. Louis.’’
It will be emotional not only for La Russa, but for the Cardinals, too. Starter Adam Wainwright and catcher Yadier Molina are the last two players still around from La Russa’s final season and say they eagerly look forward to seeing him.
Cardinals manager Mike Shildt says he may have trouble resisting an urge to hug him when they exchange lineup cards. Former Cardinals great Albert Pujols says he’ll be watching with interest on TV. Former Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty is traveling to Chicago to witness it himself.
“You have to realize what Tony means to this organization,’’ Shildt says. “So much of the culture and what he was able to implement, taking it to the next level, has created quite a legacy.
“Tony is so passionate and loves this wonderful game, so it’s important to him to be a good caretaker of it. This is a guy that could have rested on his laurels and not come back, but this game means so much to him, as well as the people who genuinely care about the game.’’
This is what makes the criticism and attacks towards La Russa so hurtful for his friends. They know what this game means to him, and how important it is to him that it’s treated with the ultimate respect.
There are many who hated that La Russa got the job in the first place, and now that he has it, and the White Sox are winning, folks can’t wait to blow up every mistake he makes to the high heavens.
“I don’t understand it, I really don’t,’’ Leyland says. “He’s doing a hell of a job, a fantastic job. Look what they’re doing with an undermanned outfield (with injuries to Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert).
“They’ve been taking shots at him ever since he got the job. A lot of them just don’t want him to do good. That’s obvious.’’
The newest complaint is that La Russa didn’t support Mercedes, refusing to even get upset when Minnesota Twins retaliated by throwing behind him the next night. La Russa doesn’t care what you think. He still is defiant in his belief that Mercedes never should have swung on a 3-0 pitch, much less miss the take sign.
“When people are taking shots at him by saying he wasn’t supporting his players,’’ Leyland says, “he was doing nothing but supporting his players. Where are these people coming from saying it’s OK to swing on a 3-0 pitch in a 15-4 game? Come on. I don’t care if the clubhouse guy was pitching. You don’t swing at 3-0. Everyone knows that. Obviously, the Twins were upset because they threw at him the next day.
“What Tony was doing was trying to protect his players. Suppose Tim Anderson gets hit with a fastball on the wrist? Suppose you lose your best player because of what Mercedes did?
“He was just trying to protect his players making sure they didn’t get hit.’’
You can agree or disagree that everything is fair game when there’s a position player pitching in the game. The Twins had six relievers they could have used, but opted instead to go with utilityman Willians Astudillo, so they were making a mockery of the game well before Mercedes stepped to the plate.
La Russa staunchly disagrees, insisting that Mercedes violated the game’s sportsmanship, and if you don’t share his opinion, he simply says you’re wrong.
“He’s not afraid to have an opinion and stand by his conviction,’’ Shildt says. “I totally respect his transparency. He’s going to stand for something that may not be popular but he has this strong belief that what you tolerate, you promote.’’
It was no different than 10 years ago when La Russa stunned everyone by announcing his retirement the day after the World Series parade. Certainly, he could have stayed, maybe as long as he desired. But he was convinced it was time, saying there were other factors he won’t divulge that contributed to his decision.
“I wasn’t really surprised,’’ said Dave Duncan, La Russa’s longtime former pitching coach. “I knew that Tony felt like you can’t keep saying the same thing over and over. Pretty soon, people stop listening. He didn’t want that to happen.’’
Cardinals president John Mozeliak said he was informed of La Russa’s decision nearly two months before the end of the season when the Cardinals were 10½ games out of a wild-card berth. But when the Cardinals got hot, made the playoffs and ran the table, he wondered if La Russa would change his mind.
“I didn’t try to talk to him about it out of the respect I had for him,’’ Mozeliak said. “But I did ask him a few times, 'Are you sure? Is this what you really want to do?’
“There were so many personal emotions going on. We win the World Series. The following day Tony is going to announce his retirement. And in a few weeks, Albert Pujols is going to hit free agency. The joy and excitement of winning that World Series was very fleeting.
“It was really a stressful time.’’
Pujols, who called La Russa a father figure, left the Cardinals for the Los Angeles Angels six weeks later, signing a 10-year, $240 million contract. Yet, as close as they are, Pujols says La Russa’s decision to retire had no bearing in his choice.
“I didn’t make my decision based on Tony staying or going,’’ Pujols said. “Even if Tony stayed, I don’t think they would have brought me back.’’
Perhaps La Russa didn’t quite feel the same love either, but he knew it was time to step down. What he didn’t realize was how much he’d miss the dugout. The longer he was out, the more he wanted back in.
And when Reinsdorf called, it was a natural fit, coming full circle in his career after he was fired by the White Sox in 1986.
“After being around him the last few years, and watching him work with the Red Sox and the Angels,’’ Jocketty said, “I could see he had the itch to again. He was always thinking about the game, taking notes and writing reports. He wanted to be back in the dugout, and it was important to him to have the game played the right way.
“Well, he’s doing that, he’s winning, and it’s hard to argue that it wasn’t the right decision to hire him.’’
Maybe there’ll be a day where more will share the same sentiment, considering the heat La Russa is enduring now, it may take a World Series parade.
“I know how I’ll be judged,’’’ La Russa says. “In the end, I’ll hold myself accountable.
“That’s all I can do.’’
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