Tony, first off, I hope you’re feeling well. You haven’t managed since Aug. 28, missing time because you required a procedure to repair the circuitry of your pacemaker. You’re watching games from a suite at Guaranteed Rate Field and White Sox general manager Rick Hahn told reporters Tuesday the team will follow the advice of medical experts as to if and when you will manage again. Returning would mean resuming a stressful job at the most stressful time of the season with a heart problem as you turn 78 on Oct. 4. But even if doctors cleared you to work again, this no longer is simply a medical question. Not if you are thinking of the best interests of the team.
I know you’re watching the games. I know you’re aware of the White Sox, 63-65 when you left the club, are 10-4 since bench coach Miguel Cairo, 48, took over as acting manager. You can rationalize this turnaround following a five-game losing streak, dismiss it as coincidence. Knowing you since the late 1980s, I imagine that’s exactly how you see it. You’re Tony La Russa, three-time World Series champion, Hall of Fame manager. You didn’t reach those heights thinking someone else could do a better job.
But Tony, it’s more obvious every day: Cairo is doing a better job. Yes, the team finally is getting healthier, the offense finally is hitting with power, the players finally are responding to the urgency of their situation, three games out in the weak AL Central with 20 to play. Maybe all that would have happened if you were still the manager. But Cairo is bringing energy. Communicating with players. Holding them accountable. All things maybe you thought you were doing. But evidently, weren’t doing well enough.
Under Cairo, no longer are there occasionally bizarre in-game decisions that spark outcry. No longer does the club operate as a fiefdom where the manager’s word rules above all. And most important, no longer are the players underachieving the way they did for five months.
Meanwhile, the question looms over the club: Are you coming back? You might say, “That’s up to the doctors.” But really, it’s up to you. Your reputation has taken a hit during your second tenure with the White Sox, even though the team won the division last season, your first as a manager since 2011. By stepping down, you could exit gracefully, show dignity and do right by owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who brought you out of retirement as a way of atoning for firing you in 1986.
There, Tony. I’ll say it. You should announce that you no longer will manage the White Sox. That you want only what is best for the team. And that what is best for the team is Cairo continuing in the position for the rest of the season, with your complete support.
Such a gesture, I know, is not in your nature. You are a fighter, always have been. And if you and Reinsdorf had been more self-aware, he would not have asked you to come out of retirement in the first place, and you would not have accepted. Reinsdorf’s loyalty is perhaps his finest quality. But his stubbornness in hiring you jeopardized the team’s competitive window. Beneficial as it might have been for you, Tony — and the way White Sox fans get on you, I’m not sure it was all that beneficial — the move was a disservice to the team’s front office, its coaches, players and fans.
Almost no manager is thought of highly by all 26 of his players. Pitchers see things differently than hitters. Veterans see things differently than youngsters. But Tony, I think you would agree it’s a different generation of player now. Some might be intimidated by you. Some might prefer a looser environment. Some might require more energy from their manager. Obviously, you can never please them all. And players should be accountable for their own performances, especially when you almost always try to protect them publicly.
Still, what did Cairo do after his first loss on his first night on the job, as first reported by USA Today? Call a meeting and call out players for their lack of effort. New expectations were set. The message, according to one player, was simple: Give me what you got.
Maybe you conveyed the same thoughts, Tony. But maybe some players needed to hear the message from a new voice. Not all — certain veterans, in particular, function just fine no matter who the manager is. But Cairo is only 10 years removed from his playing days. He walks up and down the dugout, talking to players, encouraging them. And though you speak fluent Spanish, at least one White Sox person believes that Cairo, a native Venezuelan, connects more naturally with the team’s sizable contingent of Latin players.
Other White Sox people think the team’s rash of soft-tissue injuries perhaps stemmed, in part, from the players’ lax approach — not always running hard, then asking too much from their muscles in short bursts. Such analysis is purely anecdotal. But the inference was clear: A team takes on the personality of its manager, and you did not hold the players to a high enough standard.
Your relationship with coaches was another issue. Most staffs today are highly collaborative. Your style is far more autonomous. Some coaches were OK with that, I’m told. Others were not. Your emphasis on hits and contact ran counter to the hitting coaches’ goals for achieving power through patience. Cairo cited his respect for you in explaining why he refrained from calling out the team sooner; clearly, he did not feel empowered to take a stand.
None of this is new. Tony, while you always had coaches you trusted — Dave Duncan, Dave McKay, among others — you also were always something of a one-man show, and not without reason. You were Tony La Russa, and if some people sneered at you for acting like the smartest guy in the room, well, you often were. Your supporters say you can still run a game as well as any manager, but input from your coaches is nevertheless essential. Today’s game is so much more complex than it was in the early 1990s, or even the early 2010s. Not that ordering intentional walks on 1-2 counts was an acceptable strategy in any era, much as you might argue it was.
Cairo, at least so far, seems to have no such problems motivating players or including his coaches in his decision-making. His move of Elvis Andrus to the leadoff spot proved a master stroke, helping spark the offense. It’s impossible to say whether the White Sox are playing more freely because they’re winning, or whether they’re winning because they’re playing more freely. The defense, according to the leading metrics, is still rather flawed. And the way the Guardians, winners of five straight, are playing, maybe the Sox’s belated push under Cairo will prove to be too little, too late.
Doesn’t matter. tony You’ve got a chance to take the high road here, to back up the team-first ethos you’ve always preached. It’s actually an easy way out, and I’m fairly certain it would be well received, because it’s the right thing to do.
For those who knew you at your best, it’s difficult seeing you portrayed as a cartoon. Younger fans and players might never appreciate all you accomplished in Oakland and St. Louis. At least let them see you, in your final act, respect the game, your organization, the owner who made the controversial decision to hire you, the coach who succeeded you as manager.
There would be no shame in acknowledging that it didn’t work out the way you envisioned. Take the noble path. Show this is not all about you. Make the announcement that just might save the White Sox season: It’s Miggy’s team now.
(Top photo: Denny Medley / USA Today Sports)