Tony’s Place: A healthier La Russa is back, wants to state where he fits with White Sox
The Hall of Famer is a senior adviser but is adamant that he is not a decision-maker.
Tony La Russa is 79 and in good health again. Everywhere he turned at Hall of Fame ceremonies in Cooperstown, New York, in July and at the winter meetings in Nashville, Tennessee, last week, he was told how good he looks.
“People said, ‘You look so much better’ and I say, ‘I must have looked like [bleep] all those months,’ ” La Russa told the Sun-Times this week. “But I’m feeling better and stronger every day. So good news.”
Hired at age 76 by chairman and good friend Jerry Reinsdorf before the 2021 season to lead the White Sox beyond the wild-card finish manager Rick Renteria led them to in 2020, La Russa’s Sox went 93-69 with an AL Central title. In 2022, La Russa didn’t feel well. His pacemaker needed attention, and unbeknownst to most everyone, he was dealing with cancer.
He missed the last month of the season and did not return for the third year of his contract.
“It wasn’t smart to go through it during the season,” La Russa says now. “But it’s no excuse.”
“[The pacemaker] was put in in ’22 and got faulty. I left to get it replaced, but there was also a lingering health issue I was waiting till the offseason [to address]. So it really isn’t the heart thing, it’s the other one that only my family and teammates [know about]. It’s just private.”
Now that he’s in good health again, La Russa is staying involved with the Sox as a senior adviser. The role is limited, La Russa emphasized. But he’s doing what he knows by staying involved in the game.
“That’s all I know how to do, brother,” La Russa said. “I’m not ready to do anything but stay close to the game.”
Although tight with Reinsdorf, who still runs the Sox’ show at 87, La Russa wants it known he’s not a Sox decision-maker. He has known first-year general manager Chris Getz, who was farm director when La Russa managed, and he has developed a bond with second-year manager Pedro Grifol.
“This is a good opportunity to clarify,” La Russa said. “My title is senior adviser. It’s focused on a couple of areas, and it’s limited to where I offer opinions based on my experiences and what I’ve learned over the years.”
La Russa, who won three World Series and 2,884 regular-season games, second only to Connie Mack, had mentors when he managed and knows their value.
Grifol, who struggled through a tumultuous 101-loss season in his first season, more than welcomes the relationship.
“We spend a lot of time talking to each other,” Grifol said. “He’s obviously one of the great managers in this game and has been in the front office. It wouldn’t be smart of me not to listen to and take advice from Tony La Russa. In the year and a half that I’ve known him, he has become a good friend. I admire what he’s done in the game and respect him dearly.
“Brilliant man, brilliant mind. This guy has done things in the game people won’t ever dream of.”
La Russa also wants it known he had nothing to do with vice president Ken Williams and general manager Rick Hahn getting fired by Reinsdorf in August and had no input with Getz and Grifol putting their staffs together.
“How the team comes together and how they practice and compete, that’s where my focus is,” La Russa said. “I got really upset when a particular guy [former Sox and current broadcaster and podcaster A.J. Pierzynski implied] I had something to do with that. I was never asked about the changes at the top. Kept saying I was involved, I was never asked about or involved with Kenny and Rick [getting fired].”
La Russa, who served as the Diamondbacks’ chief baseball analyst, special assistant to Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and senior adviser of baseball operations for the Angels before Reinsdorf rehired him to manage again, describes his role with the White Sox as “putting my two cents in.”
“The other 98% comes from them,” he said. “The fans deserve to know I’m a two-percenter. The 98 comes from an outstanding front office and the leadership on the field. It would be a mistake to not know the reality of how they’re putting this together.”
La Russa, who lives in Phoenix, expects to be at spring training on an almost daily basis, watching players and prospects and being available if Grifol or anyone else wants to talk baseball.
He’ll be “limited and it’s focused,” doing what he can to “build that family culture, and how that translates into practicing and getting fundamentals right.”
“That’s really very focused and limited because I’m not going to have any thump where I walk up to anybody and say ‘this is how you should play and practice’ because they’re the guys who are on the line. But I’m going to be a resource,” La Russa said.
The 2022 season, with its profoundly disappointing .500 finish in the middle of the contention window crafted by Williams and Hahn, still stings. It would be his final year managing, and it made La Russa supporters wonder if he regretted coming back.
“Well, I regret getting sick,” La Russa said. “Because I think we knew where we had to get better. And didn’t.
“I was excited about the team’s success [in 2021] and the fan response. I regret not finishing the result I was brought in to do.”
As Grifol adjusts, regroups and draws on his mistakes in 2023, La Russa will be there as a sounding board.
“When he first got in we talked on the phone and exchanged texts, and later in the season we built a nice relationship, and I’ve been talking to him since,” La Russa said. “I’m excited because it’s a tough year but what he has learned about what has to improve is priceless. It’s his program, he and his coaches. But I do have a background of what that should look like and that translates throughout the system in the minor leagues. There is an attitude that should develop as soon as you sign a contract with the White Sox. This is what we represent, the way we compete and that family-type chemistry. That’s where my focus is. And a lot of it has to do with leadership.
“I’m going to talk to Pedro and his staff, maybe [suggest] some spring-training drills. When I started managing I was told to find somebody in the game you really trust because there are a lot of tough decisions. That kind of trusting relationship is invaluable. And that’s what I want to provide. How you build that family culture, how that translates into practicing and getting fundamentals right.
“That’s my role and I’m excited because I’ve had a connection with the White Sox since Day 1. It’s not any more than that, and anything beyond the narrative is just not accurate.”
In Grifol’s defense, La Russa said, his bullpen, expected to be a backbone, was anything but. Closer Liam Hendriks was out because of his bout with cancer, and Joe Kelly, Aaron Bummer and Reynaldo Lopez — when thrust into the closer’s role — were unreliable.
“In the early going, how often was the planned bullpen actually available? Very little,” La Russa said. “All of a sudden you have games that get away from you. And then you get this excitement with Liam coming back, but he wasn’t able to stay long. So too often the competition was unfair. And you get players who are disappointed and it becomes tougher.”
It became tough in ’22, La Russa said, because the team was seven games under .500 at home.
“Which was a red flag that we weren’t going about it the right way,” he said. “That still bothers me, and I should have addressed it. It’s an attitude thing, where you’re still celebrating [the previous season]. It happens all around. In ’83 we won the [AL West] division, in ’84 we were not ready.
“When you have success, instead of celebrating you get hungry to repeat it, right? The fact that didn’t happen in ’22, as much as I enjoyed coming back and had that fun of winning the division, I have the regrets of ’22. That competed in a different way. And accountability always starts at the top.”
At the very top for the Sox is Reinsdorf, whose decision to bring La Russa back in 2021 was stunning and none too popular. In the aftermath of 2023, the chairman’s popularity among fans might be at an all-time low.
“He catches a lot of heat that should be directed at guys he hires, like me and coaching staffs,” La Russa said. “We’re the ones who can get our hands on what the final score is. The better the White Sox play, the healthier he is. So try to have a great season.”
However he can —whether near or far from the pulse — La Russa just wants to make a contribution.
“He’s a baseball encyclopedia but he’s never, ‘You have to do this or that,’ ’’ Grifol said. “I actually have to push him, like, ‘What do you got for me?’ He’s very respectful of the job just because he has done it for so long. He knows how that clubhouse and dugout breathes and lives. He understands the dynamic. He’s there to help us. He gives me his opinion and it’s right-on every time we talk. He knows the game. And he just doesn’t know the game the way it was, he knows the game today, which is important and impressive to me.”