That was no way for Tony La Russa’s Hall of Fame managerial career to end.
An Albert Pujols-like finale it was not. La Russa’s second exit from the Chicago White Sox did not read like a Hallmark movie script.
Fans cheered, but not in a way that warmed his heart.
“I am sincerely disappointed that I am leaving without the opportunity to finish what I was brought in to do,” said La Russa while announcing his departure.
La Russa re-retired while on medical leave with a heart condition. That decision came with the frustration of the disappointing White Sox season still churning in his gut.
He had climbed back into uniform at the age of 76 aiming to lead the White Sox back into the World Series. This was unfinished business dating back to his painful dismissal in 1986.
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White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf regretted that firing for decades as La Russa enjoyed spectacular success with the Oakland A’s and Cardinals.
Reinsdorf tried to make it right by bringing La Russa out of retirement, ignoring input from his front office while making his widely lampooned decision. Tony had not managed since winning a second World Championship with the Cardinals in 2011.
But Tony answered the skeptics by leading the White Sox to the ALDS last season. There they fell to the powerful Houston Astros, but overall La Russa’s first season back in the dugout went fine.
This season was not fine.
Insults beset the White Sox. Many who played suffered nasty slumps. La Russa made a few strategic decisions that triggered ridiculous national media.
Who intentionally walks a hitter while ahead with a 1-2 count? La Russa did it twice. On the first free pass, to Dodger shortstop Trea Turner, the field microphone picked up the protest of an incredulous fan.
“He’s got two strikes, Tony!” the fan yelled. “Tony, what are you doing?”
La Russa, as always, sought the better matchup. He let reliever Bennett Sousa face Turner with a runner at first base. But when a wild pitch sent the runner to second, La Russa ordered the walk so Sousa would face Max Muncy in a lefty-lefty scenario.
Muncy spoiled that plan with a three-run homer. In his postgame media session, La Russa swatted away second guesses.
“Is there some question whether that was a good move or not?” La Russa asked. “Do you know what [Turner] hits against left-handed pitching with 0-1 or two strikes? Do you know what Muncy hits with two strikes against a left-handed pitcher? Is that really a question? We had an open base and Muncy happened to be the guy behind him and that’s a better matchup.”
That episode came to define Tony’s farewell tour to managing.
While his team was sputtering, doctors discovered a glitch with his pacemaker and La Russa stepped aside on Aug. 31. Doctors corrected that problem, but during La Russa’s recovery he began treatment on an unrelated medical issue.
Meanwhile the team briefly perked up under interim manager Miguel Cairo. But an eight-game losing streak erased whatever hopes remained.
Given the disappointment on Chicago’s South Side, it wasn’t surprising that La Russa called it a career, again.
“Our team’s record this season is the final reality. It is an unacceptable disappointment,” he said in a statement. “There were some pluses, but too many minuses. In the major leagues, you either do or you don’t. Explanations come across as excuses. Respect and trust demand accountability, and during my managerial career, I understood that the ultimate responsibility for each minus belongs to the manager. I was hired to provide positive, difference-making leadership and support. Our record is proof. I did not do my job.”
Later, La Russa told reporters he may have stepped aside even if he remained in good health. He listened to those fans chanting for his dismissal.
“For the first time, there’s enough negativity in my managing, I worried about being a distraction to the ballclub and the organization,” La Russa said. “The fans could have decided that for me, personally.”
La Russa’s imperious managerial persona made him easy to dislike. Many fans only know him through his terse postgame exchanges with the media.
He maintained an ominous dugout presence, which was befitting a friend of Bill Belichick and Bob Knight. He was a preparation freak who mapped out a detailed plan covering various scenarios.
Long before analytics where teams began generating game scripts for color-by-numbers managing, La Russa gave his team the advantage with his attention to details.
He operated with laser focus and sharp edge, aggravating opposing players and managers at every turn. When one of his players was hit by a pitch, retaliation was mandatory. And heaven help the opponent that failed to show proper respect to him or his team.
While he never used his law degree in the courtroom, he used his rhetorical skills to work the umpires. La Russa was not one to yield an inch, ever.
So it pained him to surrender his White Sox post and walk away from his players.
“I worked hard to earn their respect and trust,” La Russa said. “But I’m also upset that I let them down this year.”