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Mudville: June 16, 2021 11:22 pm PDT
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The Old Man and the Sox

The daggers are sharpened. Always.

Critics are waiting for Tony La Russa to fail. He’s too old. He’s not analytics-savvy. The game has passed him by. He doesn’t even know some of the new make believe rules regarding make believe runners, my gosh.

He won’t be able to relate to his players. Yes, he’s a Hall of Fame manager – but that was so long ago.

Hey, Tony La Russa may fall on his face before the year is out and if he makes it to the postseason with his White Sox he may commit a blunder that costs his team a critical game, but you know what? La Russa and his White Sox are off to a 23-15 start, good for first place in the AL Central.

La Russa hasn’t gotten the last laugh, but he has gotten the first laugh.

La Russa and his staff have a first-place team, a team that just this week swept the Twins for the first time in five years.

There has yet to be a Mutiny on the Bounty moment for La Russa, who has had a few interesting situations with players, but La Russa is trying to bring the White Sox together in every way he can and yes, this is only the beginning. There is so much more to go, including a weekend series against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium next weekend. That should be fun.

Perhaps a little bit like the old days when La Russa’s A’s would play the Yankees.

One thing is certain, it’s been interesting watching the old dog maneuver around the New Tricks that is Baseball 2021, including some really difficult injuries.

Tony La Russa may not be as spry as he was in his first go round with the White Sox, but he wants to instill the same toughness in his new team.

No one knows La Russa better than Hall of Fame baseball writer Rick Hummel, a legend in St. Louis. Hummel, perhaps the nicest guy in the game, wrote La Russa’s book One Last Strike, published shortly after La Russa and the Cardinals came from nowhere to win the 2011 World Series.

“They’ve lost a lot of guys to injury already, but Tony concentrates his efforts on what he does have,’’ Hummel told BallNine of La Russa’s mindset. “He plays for the present and the immediate future but he doesn’t worry about the past at all. He will not let a team feel sorry for itself, he won’t sanction that.’’

La Russa is prepared. Even when writing a book.

“He would come prepared every day for interviews,’’ Hummel explained. “He’d have a list of things he wanted to talk about. You didn’t have to pepper him with a bunch of questions. He’d have everything he’d want to say.’’

The White Sox will play the Cardinals in Chicago right after the Yankees series, so this is a big week for La Russa. Unlike most postgame sessions with major league puppets – I mean… managers – La Russa actually takes on issues and is constantly talking about making his team tougher mentally and physically.

That remains one of the biggest challenges in today’s game. And you know what, as much as players complain, they love to be led in such a fashion. Most players will do what it takes to get better. Most players will take on the challenge of being pushed and tested. Deep down they want that discipline and leadership or whatever you want to call it and La Russa is blessed to have some great players and great leaders like shortstop Tim Anderson and first baseman Jose Abreu, the AL MVP in 2020.

Both men also have so much baseball wisdom it makes La Russa’s job that much easier.

Tim Anderson has made life easier on La Russa by becoming an undisputed team leader.

While visiting in Cooperstown through the years, where La Russa was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2014, and in ballparks across the country, including sunny days in Jupiter, FL during spring training, I have enjoyed many baseball conversations with Tony La Russa. He lives for the game.

I was all for his managerial comeback.

After all, I was also a big backer of Jack McKeon when he came back to manage and won a World Series with the Marlins back in 2003 at the age of 72.

Perhaps La Russa can pull off the same trick with the White Sox at the age of 76.

A big if, of course, but the show is fun to watch.

I was there for La Russa’s World Series victory in 1989 with the A’s, the Earthquake World Series, I still have a chunk of Candlestick Park cement, and in 2006 and 2011 I covered many of La Russa’s games with the Cardinals. La Russa understands how hard it is for players to succeed in this game. He played parts of six seasons for four different major league teams. Over his 176 lifetime at-bats, La Russa hit .199 without a home run.

I love one of the phrases La Russa has come up with this season to try to live in two baseball worlds. He calls it “Observational Analytics.’’

Isn’t that great: Observational Analytics.

Really, observational analytics have always been a part of the manager’s job especially when it comes to observing the pitching, the defense, the hitting, you know, baseball games.

One of my pet peeves about today’s game, and yes AMBS has a few, is when I’m watching a game, yet the manager isn’t. His head is so buried in the Book of Analytics that he is not observing the game. He’s looking down. Or he’s looking behind him at a library of information. It happens a lot.

Meanwhile the game is happening right in front of him, pay attention, managers … observational analytics.

La Russa has always been a numbers guy so this is new, but it is not new.

“The really good clubs that can compete and they can win games in a lot of different ways,’’ La Russa said of his blueprint of success. “For example, they can beat a really good pitcher because all nine guys are making them work really hard. You’ve got to have a deep lineup, and our lineup is really deep.’’

So deep the White Sox have been able to withstand serious injuries to left-fielder Eloy Jimenez and center-fielder Luis Robert, among others.

“The dream of any team is that every inning you go to bat you’ve got a chance to score,’’ La Russa said.

“As a general rule,’’ La Russa stated, “and it’s really accurate, you look at the guy’s bubble gum card and by the time you play six months he’s going to be right there where he has been.’’

And get this, in a world of home runs, La Russa wants to talk less about home runs.

“The most important thing we can do here as a staff,’’ he said, “is not emphasize power, ‘Hey, where are your home runs?’ Because that is going to distract you from taking good at-bats.’’

The White Sox are 28th in home runs and seventh in hits. There are different ways to beat an opposing team. Put the ball in play and when you square it up, put the baseball in the seats in the hitter’s haven that is Comiskey Park come warmer weather.

Abreu leads the White Sox with seven home runs. Anderson owns five, but they have gotten an amazing effort from 28-year-old rookie Yermin Mercedes, who is batting a American League best .361 with five home runs. Then there is second baseman Nick Madrigal, a contact machine who has only eight strikeouts and is batting .270. The White Sox are even getting something offensively from the much-traveled Billy Hamilton. Yasmani Grandal is coming around now, hitting his fourth home run.

“As a general rule,’’ La Russa stated, “and it’s really accurate, you look at the guy’s bubble gum card and by the time you play six months he’s going to be right there where he has been.’’

I’m just excited to hear a manager use the phrase “bubble gum card’’ instead of throwing another measurable my way like launch angle or exit velocity.

La Russa said it is so important for his players to think the game and get it right, noting you have to have an instinct for what the score is and for what play is to be made, not just take the out.’’

He calls it “playing the scoreboard.’’

That is another good phrase that makes so much baseball sense.

Yermin Mercedes has been ``theatrical``, according to La Russa. The 28 year old rookie is making an impact in 2021.

The White Sox are getting the pitching, already having a no-hitter from Carlos Rondon, who is 5-1 with an 1.47 ERA. Veteran Lance Lynn has been a steadying influence on the staff as well, with La Russa noting, “He has the heart of a champion. He just refuses to lose and is a very tough guy. It’s inspiring to watch him. He deals with whatever happens, an umpire, a bad break, a ball lost in the sun, whatever it is. He just deals with it and competes. He’s a quality starting pitcher and a real winner.’’

La Russa goes back to his Cardinals days with Lynn. So the 4-1 record with the 1.30 ERA just didn’t happen.

This is not only about Spin Rate, it’s about Heart Rate.

“It’s about us coming to play and then you take your best shot and see if you are good enough,’’ La Russa said. After a 4-2 win over the Twins last week he noted, “Today was Work Ball. The pitchers, the catchers, the hitters, they had to work man. I had trouble swallowing the last two innings, my mouth was so dry. Hard earned.

“You have to have the heart and the guts of a competitor and we have got that here. Even our young guys are showing it,’’ La Russa said.

Of Mercedes, he said his ability to hit in the clutch is “theatrical. He puts more dents in a fans heart coming through like that,’’. Yes, Mercedes is a rookie at 28 but has been playing professionally since 2011.

”I just like our whole offense, we compete all the way through a game,’’ La Russa continued.

These are comments from the heart and that is what makes La Russa different from some of the cookie cutter analytical-driven managers of today who don’t have anything close to his experience and limit information on a daily basis.

Lucas Giolito had a situation with La Russa earlier this year in a loss to the Tigers when he La Russa allowed Giolito to throw 114 pitches, unleashing the Pitch Count Panic Brigade. Giolito lost the lead and afterwards Giolito said “I didn’t have much left in the tank,’’ which is baseball code for “don’t blame me.’’

La Russa took the blame and said it was his fault that he did not recognize the deteriorating situation. Perhaps he was trying to get Giolito to dig a little deeper. Giolito is still trying to find his way, but he also has his former high school pitching coach Ethan Katz, 37, as the White Sox pitching coach this season so there is a good blend of young and old wisdom.

Jose Abreu's collision with Hunter Dozier on Friday has created a ``Next Man Up`` philosophy, and one that Andrew Vaughn took advantage of.

La Russa is sending a message every time he talks about the toughness of a Lance Lynn. He wants to see that across the board and of his young pitchers like Dylan Cease (2-0, 1.61) and said he is seeing that development. “It’s fight, fight, fight and never give in. He’s got all the makings to be very special.’’

Michael Kopech has a big arm and big pitches. The White Sox have pitching, they have closer Liam Hendriks, they have offensive weapons and they play defense.

Getting off to this start is just the beginning of building confidence.

“You start building some confidence, you start understanding how we won those games, but just as long as you don’t lose an edge,’’ La Russa explained. “The edge should be that you got some confidence thinking, we’ve got a lot of ways to win a game, we got (126) left and we cannot lose the edge because the baseball gods will start slamming you around. It’s like putting something in the bank right now and we just have to keep investing.’’

La Russa knows all about the baseball gods. It can change quickly.

On Friday, Abreu was knocked out of action when the Royals’ Hunter Dozier wildly crashed into Abreu as the first baseman was coming down the line for a popup, a frightening collision. The White Sox lost that first game of a doubleheader but came back to win the second game with young Andrew Vaughn, the third pick of the 2019 draft, stepping up with Abreu out and homering.

“That was a big blow by Andrew, much appreciated,’’ La Russa said.

At the age of 76 La Russa really has seen it all and no matter what happens this season, I give La Russa all the credit in the world for coming back and facing this challenge of managing in today’s game, with a different type of player than the ones he used to manage and trying to get them to be the best they can be as a team.

You never know. If he has success, this won’t set a trend but it could open the door to another veteran manager who has three World Series rings and that would be Bruce Bochy. Bochy, 66, still has the managerial itch, I could certainly tell that in my last conversation with him. Bochy needed a break, but at some point he will be refreshed and you can be sure he will want to give it another go.

For people like La Russa and Bochy, competition is in their blood. It is who they are and they long for the chance to have one more chance. La Russa had to depend on his old friend White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf to put him back in charge. That was a gutsy move and despite all the criticism, right now this has been a good decision.

There is still so long to go, this is not like last year’s 60-game sprint and everybody in the pool postseason. This is much different. Playoff teams will have to earn their positions. Nothing is handed to them. It’s a grind, a marathon.

Tony La Russa has run a lifetime of baseball marathons. He has won 2751 games and lost another 2379, nine years with the White Sox, starting in 1979 when he was 34 years old, 10 years with the A’s, and his 16 years with the Cardinals. Four times he has been named the Manager of the Year and he has those three World Series rings and six pennants.

Will the old guy be able to keep up? Will he falter? Will the I told you so critics be at the White Sox door at the end of the year?

Here’s hoping La Russa doesn’t give an inch. Here’s hoping that the toughness he talks about every day rubs off on his players and they make this a year to remember.

Perhaps, old guys do rule.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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