Discover more from The Sports Column
A FARCE FOR THE AGES: REINSDORF SHOULD FIRE LA RUSSA, THEN FIRE HIMSELF
White Sox fans are chanting what Chicago’s soft media refuse to write or say — “FIRE TONY!” — and it’s no surprise that a historically destructive owner, age 86, once again is screwing up a good thing
Would it surprise you to know they meet for dinner? Feel free to surmise that Jerry Reinsdorf, 86, employs his 77-year-old friend, Tony La Russa, in part so they can share senior meals in Chicago restaurants. Many people of a certain age do this at a Denny’s or a Golden Corral, but as the billionaire owner of two sports franchises, Reinsdorf can afford the upcharges at, say, Gibson’s in the Gold Coast.
“They were here the other night,” a bartender (whose name is protected for paycheck reasons) told me the last time I was in town.
I relate the story to further underline the absurdity that La Russa ever was hired to manage the White Sox, a team that has won only one World Series since throwing one in 1919 and, at this calamitous point, might not win another until the next century. It’s an ancient reference I make often, but it’s the one that stings harshest and most apt, especially after a Jerry-rigged rebuild extended through the 2010s and promised long-lost glory on the South Side. The project made the managerial gig quite special, the chance to oversee a club oozing of young talent, but Reinsdorf overruled his general manager, Harvard man Rick Hahn, for the stated purpose of rectifying a personal mistake from 1986 — the year he fired La Russa.
Ninety hundred and eighty-six. People born in 1986 are having midlife crises and sweating college funds for their kids. Nineteen hundred and eighty-six? Bill Cosby had the most popular show on TV. Men thought it was cool to wear Dockers. IBM was trotting out a floppy disk. A movie starring Tom Cruise, “Top Gun,” was released. Cream soda was a thing. Gordon Gekko had yet to utter, “Greed is good.” In 1986, Prince was about to release “1999.” In a baseball context, Bill Buckner was allowing a grounder to roll through the wickets. In a Chicago context, the Bears were in the first season of a very long Super Bowl title drought, while Michael Jordan was scoring 63 points in a playoff game against the demands of … Jerry Reinsdorf … who wanted him to rehab his foot so the Bulls could tank games and have a better draft position.
Never mind the delicate processes of modern baseball, here in the precious present of 2022: finding the right voice to create the precise culture to bring a championship to fruition. When it was time to finally show his chops as a baseball-first owner, one who once said he valued a single World Series title over the six titles produced by Jordan, Reinsdorf had his ass stuck on a toilet and was taking a 36-year-old dump.
This is how the man thinks and operates. He long has rued the day he allowed his buffoonish GM at the time, Hawk Harrelson, to fire La Russa, who went on to a storied career in his 40s, 50s and 60s in Oakland and St. Louis until retiring, with perfect timing, after directing the Cardinals to his third World Series championship in 2011. Reinsdorf, disconnected from 21st-century life, took a sentimental wayback machine through decades of cobwebs — past the administrations of seven U.S. Presidents from Biden to Reagan, past a global pandemic, past #MeToo and Black Lives Matter and same-sex marriages, past 9/11 and senseless school shootings, past the advent of the iPhone and Uber, past the O.J. trial and the convictions of numerous Illinois politicians, and past decades of North American sports seasons when dozens of teams hired hundreds of people to manage/coach.
He landed on La Russa. And still hired him a day after he was charged with his second DUI arrest, which came months earlier in the Phoenix area, where La Russa lied and told police officers he’d had nothing to drink that night, then tried to impress them as he wobbled to the squad car by saying, “I’m a Hall of Famer.” One reason he was elected unanimously to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, despite enabling the Steroids Era by ignoring the PED use of Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco: Reinsdorf was the ringleader of the 16-member voting committee. That should have been his final favor to a close buddy.
Instead, Reinsdorf blew off concern in his own front office that La Russa was the absolute wrong fit. How would a man pushing 80 relate to players in their 20s and 30s? What would happen if the Sox underachieved? If the players didn’t produce for him? If the energy went flat because the geezer needed a nap? Would The Chairman acknowledge his foolishness and let Hahn, who’d wanted a mid-40s A.J. Hinch, hire a smarter choice?
The White Sox have reached that predictable, farcical point.
After a rapid disappearance last fall in the American League playoffs, they find themselves in a rut largely of La Russa’s making. They are 27-31, looking way up at the third and final wild-card berth even in an expanded postseason, and their fans are ready to kill La Russa. I am not overstating this — as a target of the same fans, I was subjected to a “Mariotti Sucks” chant inside the ballpark and nails in my car tires outside. But I was just the poor bastard stuck with chronicling this owner and his team as a local columnist. Tony La Russa is responsible for screwing up, quite possibly, the fans’ last shot to see another pennant celebration in their lives. There have been injuries, sure, but every team has dealt with health issues after the quickie post-lockout start. There have been failures by big-money players, such as pitcher Dallas Keuchel and catcher Yasmani Grandal, but The La Russa Dilemma hovers over all other issues, a sense he’s always about to sabotage whatever good comes on the field.
“FIRE TONY (clap, clap, clap-clap-clap)!” the fans chanted Saturday after the Sox blew a 5-0 lead and lost to Texas. Next day, they booed vigorously during a 8-6 loss to the Rangers, who’d blown a three-run lead, only to rush back in the 12th inning and prevail thanks to a baserunning blunder. And this came days after La Russa, in the worst look of a season-and-a half tenure that has included not knowing the rulebook and other braincramps, was struck by a senior moment that should have led to his immediate firing.
Returning to the 1980s, in fact, he dusted off a strategic device known as an intentional walk. Only he did so, against the potent lineup of the Los Angeles Dodgers, when the count was 1-2 on Trea Turner, which meant he preferred to take his chances on an entirely new at-bat against Max Muncy — one of the sport’s accomplished sluggers, whose earlier ripped double served notice he was ready to set aside an injury-marred slump. No one of sane mind walks Turner on 1-2 when Muncy is in the on-deck circle.
“He’s got two strikes, Tony. Tony, what are you doing?” a fan yelled as Muncy stepped in.
In the TV booth, team play-by-play voice Jason Benetti was flummoxed and even Reinsdorf mouthpiece Steve Stone was taken aback. Standing on second base, Dodgers veteran Freddie Freeman said to Sox infielder Danny Mendick, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before.” No one had. Ever. And after Muncy crushed a three-run homer, he peered at La Russa and appeared to say, “You f---ing walk him with two strikes? F— you, bitch!”
That should have spelled a pink slip for La Russa, who actually seemed surprised at the outcry over his decision, saying, “Is there some question whether that was a good move or not?” He explained his rationale — he feared Turner with two strikes more than Muncy with a new count — then shrugged and said, “Somebody disagrees, that’s the beauty of this game, they’re welcome to it. But that wasn’t a tough call.” La Russa always has carried himself with a smarter-than-thou air, but in this case, it turns out Turner is only a .254 career hitter after a 1-2 count against a left-hander such as Bennett Sousa. And if Muncy had lower comparative numbers this season, as La Russa emphasized, the sample size was too limited to outweigh his power exploits of recent years.
Look, man, you blew it. Say it. Own it.
Never. Not Tony La Russa.
And he was quick to blame Luis Robert — and not the fact Robert isn’t coached well, as a symbol of La Russa’s mismanagement — when he tried to tag up and take third base Sunday with the Sox trailing by two in the 12th. A fly ball to the warning track should have kept Robert at second with two out, but the gifted young star tried to advance anyway, overslid the bag and was tagged out to end the game. Said Charlie Culbertson, who caught the ball and threw for the double play: “Felt like it wasn’t a smart move to try to advance when you’re down by two.”
La Russa decided it was time for a teaching moment. Um, shouldn’t Robert know the basics already? And whose fault is it that he didn’t know? “Yeah, you can’t make that out,” the skipper said. “His run means nothing, right? I’ll make sure I explain: We like his aggressiveness and there’s a place for it, but that’s one place where, you just read the scoreboard, it always should dictate how much you want to push, when you should push. He’s a quick learner.”
Problem is, no one has much time for this.
The rage of Sox fans, always angry amid the franchise’s inferior place as Chicago’s No. 2 baseball team, has bubbled over since the Muncy blast. A day later, La Russa still was unfazed by a torrent of criticism, quoting a long-deceased manager, Paul Richards, in saying, “Trust your gut. Don’t cover your butt.” (Richards died in, yep, 1986.) The lame defense only intensified passions to run him out of town, leading to the “FIRE TONY!” refrain that prompted him to shrug again. “I hear it with one ear and I see it with one eye,” he said. “I just know I appreciate they want us to win. And, when we don’t win, they’re unhappy.”
Oh, but the disgust runs so much deeper than that. Everyone saw this coming, after all, from the day La Russa was hired. It would be the latest example of Reinsdorf getting in the way of a good thing, a phrase that will be placed on his tombstone.
Back when baseball still was king in America, in 1994, he led the charge against players as an anti-union “hawk,” rancor that led to a 232-day strike and sent the sport on a three-decade downturn. The NFL and a Jordan-fed NBA blew past MLB and never looked back. Handed blueprints for a new ballpark, financed with public money, he plotted a stinker that instantly became obsolete with a too-steep upper deck and an outfield view of a housing project that made the architects cringe. His ballclub in the ‘90s, with studs such as Frank Thomas and Jack McDowell, never reached a World Series. Only in 2005, by surprise, did the Sox break through and win it all. Reinsdorf bought the team before the 1981 season. Do the math: Assuming the Sox crash this season, he will be 1-for-42.
Meaning, an ownership period spanning 78 seasons atop the White Sox and Bulls has resulted in only one title without Jordan. And don’t forget that he wreckingballed the Jordan dynasty, which still had an NBA title or two left in it, because he wanted to build his “own dynasty” while pocketing fortunes from a sold-out United Center and not having to pay Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson. The Reinsdorf “dynasty” became a 24-year travesty that frittered away the Jordan mystique. When the Bulls were winning six titles, the owner couldn’t stop the constant turmoil aimed at (and exacerbated by) general manager Jerry Krause. And remember, he and Krause inherited Jordan.
You wonder how the greatest owners of his time — dating back to Jerry Buss and George Steinbrenner, extending to Bob Kraft and Joe Lacob and the Guggenheimers who operate the Dodgers, and even a manic-obsessive like Mark Cuban — would have fared with such blessings and advantages. Wouldn’t the White Sox have won multiple championships? Wouldn’t the Bulls have won more than six times in the Jordan era and subsequently capitalized on the single greatest marketing resource known to sport?
If still in Chicago, where I dealt with Reinsdorfian madness for 17 years, I’d have written many days ago that La Russa should be dismissed. But one reason the sports franchises in that city are allowed to reek — just as the Sox have won only once in 105 years, the Cubs have won once in 114 and the Bears once in 57 — is because the local sports media refuse to call for heads. The media will do so in Boston, and, by no coincidence, a Celtics’ title would be the city’s 13th in the last 20 years. But for some parochial reason — most in the sports media grew up in Chicago or attended college there — people think it’s unfair to demand a firing. No, it’s YOUR JOB to hold truth to power. Sports is a $600 billion industry. Fans are spending large sums of money and investing significant energy in their teams.
Yet, the columnists write like beat writers, offering nothing but the obvious. Or, worse, the company line.
Headline in the Tribune: “Fire Tony La Russa? Not happening, so Chicago White Sox fans need to learn to just deal with it.”
Headline in the Athletic: “Joe Maddon and Joe Girardi, they gone. Is Tony La Russa next? (No.)”
Headline in the Sun-Times: “We’re all idiots in Tony La Russa’s world.”
At least radio host David Haugh managed to mention the owner in a tweet: “It'll never happen but #WhiteSox fans deserve to hear Jerry Reinsdorf explain or defend why he believes Tony La Russa is the manager capable of leading this team to the World Series.”
But no one beyond media columnist Jim O’Donnell, who has smoked Tony and Jerry for weeks, can pull the trigger. So why would Reinsdorf be compelled to pull his trigger without media pressure? When the fans are voicing in chants what the media refuse to write or say, it’s sad — and explains why both Chicago newspapers, once locked in epic editorial battles, have lost most of their readership.
Reinsdorf has no chance of helping his legacy now. But he could do one last deed for tortured Sox fans by making La Russa go away, just as he did in 1986. The Philadelphia Phillies had no problem firing Girardi, a World Series-winning manager who’d let his team fall flat, and they’ve since gone 8-1 with interim Rob Thomson. The Los Angeles Angels don’t want to waste the gifts of Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, so they, too, fired a Series-winner in Maddon. The interim, Phil Nevin, is an ass-kicker. “He just gets it,” Angels reliever Archie Bradley told the Los Angeles Times. “There’s something about his demeanor that makes guys really want to play hard for him. I think he’s going to be the guy to get this thing turned around.”
Why not the same blueprint for the White Sox, whose rebuild window is shutting like that of Chicago front doors when winter nears? But last anyone saw Jerry Reinsdorf in recent days, he was pictured sitting by himself in one of the ballpark suites gifted him by the State of Illinois.
Maybe he was waiting to have an early dinner with his buddy.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.