Paul Sullivan: It’s déjà vu all over again for Tony La Russa and underachieving White Sox

CHICAGO — No one remains the way they were in their 30s, and Chicago White Sox manager Tony La Russa is no different than the rest of us.

But La Russa, 77, sounds a lot like he did in his first go-round on the South Side in the 1980s, especially when it comes to addressing the Sox’s problems.

“The pieces haven`t fit together so far, and we've had to push our starting pitchers,” La Russa told reporters on Aug. 13, 1985, after a win against the New York Yankees at old Comiskey Park. “We're still alive, and if the pitching holds up, we have a chance to be there at the finish.”

La Russa has added a few wrinkles over the years. He walks a little slower to the mound. He’s hard to understand at times and makes some head-scratching decisions.

But he has retained the same optimism of his younger days, preferring to focus on what the White Sox still could be instead of what they are.

The Sox entered Saturday’s game against the Detroit Tigers at 57-56, 3 1/2 games behind the division-leading Cleveland Guardians. They’ve been stuck in a mind-numbing cycle of getting over .500 and falling back again, building resentment from a fan base that expected better. The Sox have been at .500 21 times this season, which suggests they are nothing more than a .500 team.

If you’re old enough to remember La Russa’s 1985 Sox, you might be experiencing some flashbacks.

The Sox were 7 1/2 games behind the California Angels 37 years ago on Aug. 13th but feeling confident with 11 home games remaining in August to try to catch fire. Like the current version, La Russa’s ‘85 team was a talented, veteran-laden bunch that already proved it could win, taking the American League West title by 20 games in 1983.

Despite a clubhouse full of stars — including Harold Baines, Ron Kittle, Tom Seaver, Carlton Fisk and Ozzie Guillen — the 1985 Sox also flirted with .500 most of the season. When they fell to 68-68 on Sept. 9, it would be the 28th time they were at .500.

The Sox finally got over the hump in the final month and finished at 85-77 but well out of contention. At that point, Chicago’s attention had turned to the Bears. In mid-August, however, hope remained that the talent eventually would get the Sox into the postseason, where anything could happen.

August 1985 was a crazy month. Seaver won his 300th game at Yankee Stadium on Aug. 4. MLB players staged a two-day strike Aug. 6 and 7. When they returned, MLB suspended La Russa suspended for two games for bumping plate umpire Derryl Cousins during an argument during Seaver’s historic win.

La Russa told reporters he decided not to appeal the suspension.

“They've been consistent that if you bump someone, you're gone,” he said. “There were 54,000 people there who saw it, along with the commissioner and probably (American League President) Bobby Brown.”

Coach Jim Leyland replaced La Russa in the dugout on the first day of the suspension against the Milwaukee Brewers, making his debut as manager. After the Sox lost in 11 innings, La Russa was asked if he learned anything from watching the game in an auxiliary box.

“The only thing I learned was not to sit and watch,” he replied.

The inability to watch a baseball game without having any control is one reason La Russa left the front office roles he had been in for several years to return to the dugout in 2021. He guided the Sox to a division title in his return, and despite a first-round loss to the Houston Astros, the Sox entered 2022 with a team many experts considered championship-caliber.

All the controversy over La Russa’s hiring had dissipated by the start of Year 2. But now, as Yogi Berra once said, it’s déjà vu all over again.

Like the 1985 Sox, La Russa and his team are at a crossroad after 4 1/2 months of underachieving. The Astros come to town Monday for a four-game series, and the Sox travel to Cleveland next weekend in a three-game series against the first-place the Guardians.

It’s now or never for the Sox.

Either we all were wrong about the talent level, or, like the 1985 team, the pieces just don’t “fit together.”

La Russa has been widely criticized for the Sox’s malaise, which reached a crescendo over the last week when Johnny Cueto questioned the team’s “fire” and TV analyst Steve Stone questioned the players’ hustle, facetiously saying “it seems to be that hustling is optional.”

Neither remark was aimed directly at La Russa, but as manager he’s responsible for getting his players to play hard, and if they don’t look like they’re doing that, it’s a bad reflection on him.

“I don’t think we’re perfect,” La Russa said. “But I think we’re doing well enough.”

Though no one expects La Russa to be fired, his future will be hotly debated if the Sox continue to underachieve. Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf might not believe La Russa is to blame, but he would be blind to ignore the growing number of Sox fans who think a change in the dugout is necessary.

At the end of the ‘85 season, Reinsdorf and team President Eddie Einhorn reacted to the Sox’s malaise by kicking general manager Roland Hemond upstairs and making broadcaster Ken “Hawk” Harrelson the GM. Fisk said the writing was on the wall.

“We didn’t go out and get major-league players to help us and we didn’t have enough Triple-A talent,” Fisk said. “It was the start of what we've seen occur today.”

Déjà vu?

The Harrelson move set the franchise backward, beginning with an ill-advised decision to market the team around the new GM with an ad campaign saying “The Hawk Wants You.”

“Some people may think of him as a funny guy who wears cowboy hats,” Einhorn said. “We didn’t pick him out of a hat. The man knows baseball and is an excellent judge of talent.”

La Russa mulled over his future and ultimately decided to return. Harrelson fired him in June 1986. La Russa went on to a Hall of Fame career managing in Oakland, Calif., and St. Louis, and Harrelson went back to the TV booth where he belonged.

But after retirement, La Russa got the itch to get back to managing. Inheriting a playoff-caliber team in the 2021 Sox was a no-brainer, and La Russa jumped at Reinsdorf’s offer.

The best-laid plans haven’t worked out, but time is still on La Russa’s side.

Will this be the week things change, or have we seen this movie before?