Can Tony La Russa learn how to lead and win in new, socially conscious era of baseball?

We get just a little time. The wind rises and carries us along for a while. We can spread our arms and try to get a little more out of it, but generally we get what we get; the sidewalk is coming. In sports they call that hurried flight your “window,” and there is a lot of conversation about the status of that opportunity — open or closed, opening or closing, painted shut or wedged with a coffee can. People seem to love the metaphor no matter the season, though summer seems most apt.

This is about the Chicago White Sox, but not entirely. After a decade of storm windows covered by plywood, they’d become capable enough to play three postseason games at the end of a 60-game season. They seem poised to make something more of it.

Still, this isn’t wholly about the wind at their backs or under their arms.

This is about Jerry Reinsdorf, the owner of the White Sox, who is 84. Sometimes a guy just starts whipping his arms like a spiraling egret.

On Thursday he hired Tony La Russa, among the most revered managers in history. La Russa won more than 2,700 games (522 of them with the White Sox a long time ago) and three World Series championships. Seven summers ago he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Also, La Russa is just eight years younger than Reinsdorf and has not managed a game in more than nine years.

See, this isn’t entirely about the White Sox’s window.

This is also about Reinsdorf’s. And now it’s about La Russa’s. And it’s their team and their flights and they can do with those what they want.

“I can tell you,” White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said Thursday afternoon, “that this was made with the intent solely on putting us in the best position to win championships. It’s easy to fall back on some old narratives, that this was about friendship or potentially righting old wrongs or something like that. In the end, Tony was the choice because it is believed Tony is the best man to help us win championships over the next several years.”

You’d have to take it at that.

OAKLAND, CA - SEPTEMBER 21:  Former manager Tony La Russa of the Oakland Athletics stands on the field during the team"u2019s Hall of Fame ceremony before the game against the Texas Rangers at the RingCentral Coliseum on September 21, 2019 in Oakland, California. The Oakland Athletics defeated the Texas Rangers 12-3. (Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)

It does seem the sidewalk may be looking bigger to Reinsdorf, and if his White Sox are about to go on one of their every-second-or-third-generation runs, it would be prudent to take advantage, as we’re all slowly running out of generations. If this indeed is his last shot, this team, the one with Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert and Tim Anderson and Lucas Giolito and Jose Abreu, must rest with a man he trusts. If these White Sox fail to become special over the next few years, well, the next do-over might be someone else’s to endure.

Surely that’s why he’s circled back to La Russa. Assuming La Russa is as clever at this at 76 as he was at 66, no doubt the lineup will make sense, the bullpen will run efficiently and three hours every day will go about as planned. They’ll lose some games, but not because the manager was in over his head.

“My heart,” La Russa said after a decade in front offices, “was always in the dugout.”

La Russa was once very good at this, among the best ever at it, and that does not happen if his only talents were writing batting orders and making pitching changes. His players trusted him. They believed in him. They surely did not always like him, but that was beside the point. They weren’t always supposed to. They were the relationships that endured through eight previous seasons in Chicago, through a decade in Oakland, through 16 seasons in St. Louis. He won a lot. They all won a lot.

And now the game has changed. More, the men in it have changed. And this is the part of the flight that gets choppy, now that the old war horses have taken up one last battle together. Society is changing, or trying to change, and counting on people to understand. Or at least hoping they will understand. And if not, to get out of the way.

Several years ago, La Russa stood opposed not to the prospect of change itself, but to the methods of change, particularly within the sports arena. And now in order to lead, the game asks if it is enough to be a sound baseball man. The game asks if you see the struggles required to get here, to survive not just in the game but, more, the 21 hours around the game. The years around the game. The lives around the game. The people who are out there, who suffer, they’re in here too.

If those methods — a knee during an anthem, a raised fist, a lowered head, a word in anger — cannot be abided, then what else is beneath the game? Opportunity? Jobs? Careers? Compassion? Equality?

“I know in 2016, when the first issue occurred, my initial instincts were all about respecting the flag and the anthem and what America stands for,” La Russa said Thursday. “There’s been a lot that’s gone on in a very healthy way since 2016. Not only do I respect, but I applaud the awareness that’s come into not just society but especially in sports. If you talk about specifically baseball, I applaud and would support the fact they are now addressing [and] identifying the injustices, especially on the racial side. And as long as it’s peacefully protested and sincere … I’m all for it.”

He then offered support for The Players Alliance and named 10 Black men who’d played for him.

“I mean, I’ll take my chances,” he said. “You talk to any one of those people, there’s not a racist bone in my body. I do not like injustice. And I would support exactly what I mentioned — anything that’s peacefully done and sincerely thought of and especially with an action at the end of it will not be a problem.”

Former manager Tony La Russa, left, before a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Boston Red Sox Friday, April 19, 2019, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Former manager Tony La Russa, left, before a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Boston Red Sox Friday, April 19, 2019, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

He can be sure they are — and will be — sincere. The question anymore is not whether Black men and women and those who support them are sincere, but how they could possibly not be. How anyone could possibly not be.

They are sincere.

Maybe it was the marches through clouds of tear gas and rubber bullets or Colin Kaepernick explaining again what he was doing for the people not listening or Dom Smith’s tears, and maybe it was the families who raged against the senselessness of a lost father or brother, or maybe it was Bruce Maxwell on a knee or the dozens of others on baseball fields since.

It’s all sincere.

Part of understanding that, it would seem, is not appointing yourself the authority of what is and what is not sincere.

“I take it, I evaluate players’ commitment to our team,” La Russa said. “And based on watching them closely, you can detect the sincerity. And when they say I’m all in for helping the team and then you look around and see that they’re not all in.

“I think you look at actions. Words — words are words. I would look at actions. And what I’m seeing, and one of the reasons I’m so encouraged by what I’ve seen over the last bunch of years is how players are backing up their words with actions. They’re not just speaking to speak. … I’m very confident that with a lot of the players, and I mentioned earlier The Players Alliance, I had a long talk recently with Reggie Sanders. You can ask Reggie, I totally support what Players Alliance is all about, because it supports action, not just verbiage.”

That wind does rise and it does carry us for only a short time. And if during the landing an old friend were to call about a baseball job, then it would be important to go win baseball games. It also would be good to make it about more than baseball, to allow for more, to even ask for more. Sincerely so. Because, you know, just as that wind comes for everyone or should, so too does the sidewalk, and much too quickly.

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