BILL JAMES ONLINE

On Certainty

November 12, 2020
 
As a rule, I do not have much patience for certainty.
 
Certainty has a way of narrowing the mind: the more certain a person is in their beliefs, the more skeptical I am of those beliefs. I am not innocent of this, of course, but I work against it as best I can. Boring people reside in worlds of black or white; interesting folks live in the grays.
 
Well...that feels like a sufficient lead-in.
 
Having renounced certainty and all her empty promises, I am now going to make a 'certain' statement.
 
The Chicago White Sox are going to have a bad year in 2021.
 
We’ll get into the parameters of that statement in a moment, but I want to wallow, for a moment, in my certainty of that fact. Everything I know about baseball, everything I have learned from trying to think better about baseball by writing for this site, every mistake I’ve made in that work, and all of the broader understandings I’ve come to about human beings and why we got along or don’t get along…all of that tells me that the White Sox decision to hire Tony LaRussa as the team’s manager in 2021 is a mistake.
 
I’m not certain about much. I’m certain about this.
 
Should I really go into all of the reasons this is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea? Isn’t it intuitively obvious?
 
Well, Ok. I have some time.
 
We can start with the fact that Tony LaRussa hasn’t managed a major league team in a decade. That is a very long time to be out of a clubhouse, and while LaRussa’s post-managerial roles have kept him near the players of a few franchises, it seems unlikely that he’s stayed on the cutting edge of what the job currently entails.
 
And then there is the fact that the White Sox are very much not the kind of team a person like Tony LaRussa should be managing.
 
If you told me, last year, that Tony LaRussa was coming back to manage the Astros or Dodgers, I would’ve understood the decision: those were two teams with a decent run at success, looking to cross the finish line. It’d make sense to hire someone like LaRussa to get them there.
 
But the White Sox aren’t Houston or Los Angeles: they a young team coming off a short season where they significantly outperformed expectations. We have no idea how much their record is a reflection of skill and how much is a reflection of good fortune or circumstance. They are certainly a hungry team, a team looking to prove something.
 
It’s my belief – founded on no evidence but ample anecdotes - that the very best match for a young team trying to prove itself is a young manager trying to prove themselves. It is a case of matching energies: you want a skipper who has the energy and motivation to channel a team’s drive towards something positive. Dick Williams in 1967 Boston was an example, as was Billy Martin in 1969 Minnesota. The first incarnation of Tony LaRussa, when he took over the White Sox in 1979, fits the bill.

But what is the motivation for 2020 Tony LaRussa? He is already in the Hall-of-Fame: this is a vanity project. It is unlikely that he has a great commitment to the position, unlikely that he is aiming to stay at the helm for three or four years. This is a talented manager looking for one last ride into the sunset.
 
And the White Sox players and fans deserve better.
 
It is profoundly disrespectful to the players who put in the hustle in 2020 to see the reins of the team handed to someone wanting a final ride. The White Sox had a fun season that showed significant promise: they deserve a manager who will commit to the next steps. Perhaps the team is good enough to contend next year, and maybe they're two or three years from really contending. They deserve a manager who can see them through either timeline.
 
Those are team-level concerns: there is also the broader problem of a changing landcape in American sports. Like it or not, sports in this country is undergoing a significant sea change. Social media has eroded the barriers between players and fans, and politics have entered sports discourse in a way that was unimaginable even four years ago. There is a rising tension in the game, and none of us have any idea what directions things are going to break in the coming years.
 
In light of that, what sense does it make to hire a person with such baggage? I am not talking about the DUI issue. I mean all of it.
 
Tony LaRussa has been a public figure for forty years: it seems very likely that he has said things that were fine in 1979 or 1985 or 1992 that are not viewed in the same light today. For all the players who enjoyed playing under LaRussa, there are bound to be a few who disliked him. Which voice is going to come out louder, in this moment?
 
That is not intended as a knock on LaRussa: it is just a point on where we're at. We are in a moment when a person's past trails behind them like toilet paper stuck to the bottom of a shoe. Maybe that’s progress, and maybe we're better off ignoring that trail. I'm just trying to communicate the reality of this moment.
 
And - relatedly - the players of today are different than the players who were in the majors when LaRussa last managed. I am forty-one years old, and I sense that there is a very clear disconnect between how I understand the world, and how people who are ten or fifteen years younger see the world. They have been shaped by contexts and constraints that differ from mine, and that gap means my abilities to reach that next generation are limited.
 
Recognizing that, can we really expect Tony LaRussa, at seventy-six, to know how to motivate and challenge and lead a players who are fifty years younger than he is? Do we expect the tricks and traits he learned in 1983 or 1990 or 2000 to work all the way foreward in 2021? Is it even fair to ask?
 
And then there is the drinking issue. LaRussa has previously been charged with a DUI, and he was arrested for a DUI again this year. The second arrest came the night before the White Sox announced his hiring to be their manager, a significant lapse in judgement. I don’t know about you, but I’m always skeptical when a new hire is battling a hangover on Day One.
 
I am trying to see any positive for hiring LaRussa, but I don’t see one. He cannot be considered some tactical genius operating on the cutting edge, not in a league where organizations like the Rays exist. He cannot claim the faith or trust of the players on a team he hasn't worked for: none of them know him from Adam. He probably won't bring a spark and energy sufficent to match the spark and energy of a young team, and he cannot sell them on the promise that he is with them for the long haul. At best, LaRussa is a mercenary.
 
If I were a White Sox player, I’d be disappointed. If I were a White Sox fan, I’d be ticked off. The White Sox have a fantastically fun team that is easy to root for, a team that seems to be a good team. They have good leaders in Abreu and Keuchel, and they’ve got some terrific young talent to develop. They’re playing in a division that could easily be theirs in the coming years: Cleveland is crying poor and Detroit and Kansas City are a few years off. The near future is between the White Sox and Twins.

And the White Sox have significantly handicapped their chances by selecting the wrong man for the job. Tony LaRussa is one of the brightest minds in the game’s history, but he doesn’t belong in the White Sox clubhouse in 2021.
 
 
David Fleming is a writer living in western Virginia. When he is not picking fight with Hall-of-Fame managers, he welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.
 
 
 
 

COMMENTS (15 Comments, most recent shown first)

evanecurb
Fired manager Rick Renteria finished second behind Kevin Cash for AL Manager of the Year.
7:59 PM Nov 14th
 
Brian
I didn't like the move either,but it is possible it could work out. There are some similarities, I think, to the Jim Leyland hire in 2006. Leyland was only 62 (although he looked older), but he was a baseball lifer who had been out of the game for 7 years. His last managerial position had been in Colorado and it was widely felt that he completely lost interest there and did not give a full effort. He was taking over a team that looked to be something less than a rebuilding team; a team that appeared to be just a perpetually bad team. He was not always as patient as he could have been with his developing young players. But he took them to the World Series his first year and had a very successful 8 year run.


6:42 PM Nov 14th
 
shthar
They hired him cause they needed to have something for people, like you, to write about.

Seriously, when the last time you wrote something about this team?


5:16 PM Nov 14th
 
villageelliott
If La Russa's return is a vanity project, as suggested, then I would suggest Tony wants to win another thirty six games for obvious reasons.

MLB Career Manager Wins

1: 3731 Connie Mack
2: 2763 John McGraw
3: 2728 Tony La Russa
4: 2504 Bobby Cox
8:27 PM Nov 13th
 
evanecurb
I disagree with people (none here, as far as I can tell) who say that Hinch and Cora shouldn't be hired. They were suspended for one year, not multiple years. The period of their punishment for the offenses they committed has concluded and they may resume their careers. Not allowing them to do so would be analogous to denying roster spots to Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Ryan Braun because they served fifty game suspensions for PEDs.
11:26 AM Nov 13th
 
TheRicemanCometh
By the way, I'm serious. If you are so certain, put your money where your mouth is. My father taught me that Fast Pay Makes Fast Friends. I pay up immediately when I lose. My Venmo is Christopher-Rice-1974. LET'S DO THIS!
7:37 PM Nov 12th
 
TheRicemanCometh
You couldn't be more wrong. Can you do bets on Bill James Online? If I make this request in New Jersey is it legal? LaRussa will win 90 games next year, assuming a full schedule of course. Wait, let's go by winning %. 90 wins is .556 W%. Dave I bet you any money you wish that Sox are at .556 or higher in 2021. Name your price.
7:32 PM Nov 12th
 
DaveFleming
One thing I meant to add, but it got lost in the shuffle, was that the White Sox might still win next year.

It's a talented enough squad, they're young enough to see gains from a lot of their players, and the division is soft. It's possible that the White Sox pull out a win.

I still don't like it: if I were the GM I'd be looking to hire someone younger. Go find the next LaRussa, the next Francona, the next Maddon. The Pale Hose have a chance to run the AL Central for a couple years: I think hiring Tony L lessens their chances.

I'm trying to think of a way to explain this, and this is the best I've got: every time you hire a manager, it could go well or poorly. Let's imagine it's a coin-flip proposition, a 50-50 proposition: half the time the manager is good, and half the time they're lousy. You do your best to make those odds better, but...you can't control much.

In hiring LaRussa, the White Sox are essentially flipping that coin twice: they're flipping to see if LaRussa works out, and they're going to have to flip again in a couple years on the guy who replaces LaRussa. They're doubling their risk.

This is one of the reasons I like the Red Sox decision to bring back Cora: he was VERY liked by the team, and he handled the job with extreme competence. Fine, he had to sit out a year...I'm glad they brought him back. He's a reasonable bet to be a long-term solution for the job.

Anyway...long response. I ALMOST made a point about how hiring LaRussa is like having to choose between two septuagenarians to run a county, but...I thought better of it.
6:12 PM Nov 12th
 
CharlesSaeger
Yeah, like Gfletch, I too thought of Paul Richards. Connie Mack isn't a good precedent for LaRussa either as, by 1940, Al Simmons and Earle Mack were the real managers of the Athletics.

LaRussa ended his career by losing control of his team in the World Series. This is going to look even worse.
6:07 PM Nov 12th
 
bearbyz
Nice article. I think sometimes people can change enough to fit the situation. LaRussa might do that. I keep thinking of Jack McKeon who led Florida to the World Series victory in 2003. He was able to manage the team despite being in his 70s. I believe he made some changes but kept his basic personality. LaRussa has always been respected by his team. That being said I think you are more right than wrong.

However, I wouldn't call the 1969 Twins a young team. Looking at baseball reference 5 of the 8 listed starters are in their 30s. That is a little unfair as Cesar Tovar listed as utility and age 28 played a lot more than Bob Allison, listed as left fielder and age 34. However, I don't really consider 28 to be that young.

Rod Carew age 23 was the only player under 25 years old to be listed as a regular. The other starters under 30 are Ted Uhlaender age 29 played center and 27 year old Rich Reese played first. As Reese got the nod at first 33 year old Harmon Killebrew moved to second. This made 24 year old prospect Graig Nettles a backup outfielder. He did play one more game at third base then Cesar Tovar, one more. George Mitterwald, age 24, did a lot of the catching, but not nearly as much as 36 year old John Roseboro. Charlie Manual, age 25 did play a lot in left field.

Now for pitchers. Jim Perry and Jim Kaat were in their 30s. Dean Chance was 28 but must a been hurt much of the season. He was 28 but pitching in his ninth season his 8th as a major league regular. He had pitched 200 or more innings the seven seasons before, including leading the league in innings place twice. Dave Boswell age 24 and Tom Hall age 21 were the young starters on the team.

The relief staff wasn't young. Ron Perranoski the relief ace was 33. Bob Miller age 30 and Dick Woodson age 24 pitched a lot of relief and each made a few starts. Al Worthington age 40 and Grzenda age 32 rounded out the bullpen.
5:21 PM Nov 12th
 
jfenimore
Well, I think Connie Mack was something like 87 when he retired. I agree that the Chisox will not attain their '20 level, and I doubt LaRusso makes it through the season.
4:43 PM Nov 12th
 
mikeclaw
Very good column, and I agree with most of it. I don't know LaRussa, obviously, but as a Cardinals fan I watched him operate very closely for a long time. Even at 76, LaRussa might actually be arrogant enough to be thinking in the long term, not just looking for that "ride into the sunset." He is a guy who doesn't always know or acknowledge his limitations (which partly explains the DUIs).

I like LaRussa, and I respect him, but he is arrogant and perhaps even self-righteous. He is very smart. He is often the smartest man in the room, but perhaps not as often as he thinks he is, and it probably doesn't mean as much as he thinks it does. He is a "my way or the highway" type, and I question how well that works with a young team full of potential.


Unfortunately, what we've read of this hire is really really not encouraging - that Reinsdorf demanded LaRussa be given this job for singularly personal reasons. Not because Reinsdorf or anyone else thought he was clearly the best man for the job, but because Reinsdorf wanted to settle his personal business.


In recent weeks a lot of fans have been grousing about Hinch and Cora getting hired. Myself, I think they're great hires, and while I am all about integrity and sportsmanship, I also believe teams need to weigh "baggage" and determine the best way forward. I think it's silly to think that the Red Sox or the Tigers should have said, "This is the best guy for the job … but we'll hire the second-best because we don't like the message that it would send to the youth of America." You hire the right person for the right reason.

I like LaRussa. I admire him. I don't think he's the right guy here, and I am certain he was not hired for the right reason. The DUI just compounds what I already believed.

This isn't gonna end well.

3:45 PM Nov 12th
 
steve161
If Tony La Russa had a hangover on the day he was hired, it wasn't from the offense that got him arrested in Arizona, but from a more recent binge. Unfortunately this is not beyond the realm of possibility.

As I said in Reader Posts, he belongs in rehab, not in a major league dugout.
3:44 PM Nov 12th
 
evanecurb
Dave, you make a strong case, as usual. For the sake of argument, I'm going to point out two things that may run counter to your thesis:

1. Tony La Russa is an individual. He's not just a "77 year old" and he's not just a "Hall of Fame manager." It's always risky to draw a conclusion about a specific person based on characteristics they share with a group of other people.

2. After all these years, we're still not sure how much difference the manager makes to a team's success. The White Sox are a very good young team. They should do well next year and may do so regardless of who the manager is. Conversely, they could have a poor season for reasons having nothing to do with La Russa.

I think the decision to fire the current manager was misguided. I don't know whether La Russa was the right guy to replace him. Hinch makes more sense to me, but La Russa may do fine. We just don't know.
2:31 PM Nov 12th
 
Gfletch
Sort of similar to Paul Richards managing the White Sox in 1976, I suppose.

I agree with you that LaRussa's prospects and the young White Sox' prospects don't seem likely to be either successful or harmonious. Thanks for this opportunity to make that understatement.
2:00 PM Nov 12th
 
 
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