Paul Sullivan: Tony La Russa is the manager of the White Sox. Deal with it.

CHICAGO — The choice we face in these polarizing times is a difficult one.

Either we march forward together into the future, pushing aside our differences for the common goal, or continue to wallow in our deep divisions over a man many deem unfit for a job that deeply affects our lives.

So what is it going to be, Chicago White Sox fans?

Are you going to accept Tony La Russa as your new leader or will #NotMyManager be the mantra in 2021?

Never has an organization done as much to upset its fan base as the Sox have done with their decision to hire the 76-year-old La Russa as manager.

This was supposed to be the first real managerial hire for general manager Rick Hahn, who inherited Robin Ventura from former GM Ken Williams and slid bench coach Rick Renteria over when the rebuild began in 2017.

Like Cubs President Theo Epstein did on the North Side, Hahn gained the trust of Sox fans by executing his game plan to near-perfection over the last four years, backing up his words with deeds and watching it come to fruition in 2020 with the franchise’s first postseason appearance in 12 years.

The appetizer was delicious, and everyone was looking forward to the entree in 2021. Instead, there’s only anger, confusion and derision over a Chicago-style hire that appeased only two men — Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and La Russa.

Hahn, one of the more respected executives in baseball, deserved a chance to pick Renteria’s replacement. Instead he was kneecapped by his boss, who probably wanted to hire La Russa before we even knew Renteria was a goner. Reinsdorf then put Hahn in the unenviable spot of either saying “no” or going along with the program.

Have you ever told your boss “no”? If so, what was the job search like?

But here we are, and here we go. There is no turning back.

The start of La Russa 2.0 went as well as the Sox could’ve asked for Thursday, aside from the technical glitch that inserted AJ Hinch’s signature onto a photo illustration of La Russa that was emailed to some fans. Oops.

During his introductory video conference with the media, La Russa attempted to separate his friendship with Reinsdorf from his hiring, performed a 180 on his 2016 condemnation of Black Lives Matter protests over police brutality and social injustice and gave his stamp of approval — sort of — to Tim Anderson’s bat-flipping and similar celebrations, as long as it’s “sincere and directed toward the game.”

Whether you believe La Russa or not, he answered all the questions in a direct manner and didn’t show any signs of senility.

Still, whatever La Russa said Thursday was irrelevant. It’s how he acts as manager of a team potentially on the cusp of greatness that will determine whether his hiring was a sound move or simply a byproduct of an Old Boys Network that seemingly died out with a new generation of executives from business school backgrounds.

We won’t know that until the 2021 season begins, and with spring training at least 3 1/2 months away, depending on the pandemic, we’ll have plenty of time to debate Reinsdorf’s decision as we quarantine over the long, cold winter.

Suffice it to say La Russa has a difficult task ahead winning over skeptical fans, many of whom were not even born when he was fired from his first stint as Sox manager in 1986 by then-GM Ken “Hawk” Harrelson.

La Russa won right away in Oakland, and A’s fans immediately accepted him. He guided the St. Louis Cardinals to the National League Championship Series in his first season in 1996 and became a Ditka-esque figure in that baseball town over the next 15 years.

The catchy nickname fans gave him, “La Genius,” was part-mocking, part-tribute.

La Russa could have enjoyed his golden years and still felt a part of the game in front-office roles in Arizona, Boston and Los Angeles but claimed it was “torture” watching from a suite without being able to affect games from the dugout. That speaks to a big ego, a strong desire to be a part of the action and perhaps to concerns about his legacy as one of the game’s greatest managers.

La Russa is only 35 wins behind John McGraw for second place on the all-time managerial wins list. Second is better than third, and that’s where he’ll wind up.

No matter the reason, La Russa is here.

Deal with it.

So what does he do now?

First he must hire a quality bench coach who potentially could take over when La Russa is done, whether that’s after 2021 or ’22. It should be someone who knows La Russa well enough to offer blunt advice and also can handle a diverse clubhouse. Fortunately there’s someone available in current bench coach Joe McEwing, who has the advantage of having the support of current Sox stars and can be a liaison between La Russa and his players.

Next he has to reach out to the team leaders to let them know he’s not coming in to act like a dictator or kill the buzz they created in 2020. That means Anderson, Jose Abreu, Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel. If La Russa can get those four in his corner, it should be relatively smooth sailing.

Then he has to create a relationship with the Chicago media, as only WSCR-AM 670’s Bruce Levine and NPR’s Cheryl Raye Stout remain from his first go-round on the South Side. Reinsdorf doesn’t care about the local media, but La Russa is smart enough to know the beat writers will help deliver his message to Sox fans.

That doesn’t mean he has to undergo a personality transplant — though La Russa’s reputation as a serial grouch does precede him. There’s no need to emulate Renteria’s “Ricky Sunshine” approach either. But more transparency when answering questions would be much appreciated. It’s baseball, not the CIA.

As for winning over die-hard Sox fans, the solution is simple: Just win and let the players have their fun.

The rest will take care of itself.

I’ve heard from friends who insist they no longer can root for a team managed by a polarizing figure like La Russa, but I don’t buy it. I covered the Sox in the mid-90s when they had Terry Bevington, the most polarizing manager in franchise history. I don’t recall anyone refusing to watch the Sox on TV or go to new Comiskey Park because the manager was rude, crude and inept.

You don’t have to like a manager to love your team any more than you have to like the owner. And, as we all know, many Sox fans have no love lost for Reinsdorf and are still passionate about their team.

The La Russa hiring was shocking and disappointing to many. Maybe it won’t work, but it’s way too early to say. Either way, it should not affect anyone’s enjoyment of watching Anderson, Giolito and the rest of this team do their thing.

If so, there’s another baseball team in town that no doubt will welcome your support.

No questions asked.


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