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Column: Anyone up for a players referendum on Chicago White Sox manager Tony La Russa? Here’s how it might work.

Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune
 2021-10-13
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Houston Astros outfielder Michael Brantley chases an RBI double hit by Chicago White Sox designated hitter Andrew Vaughn during the 8th inning . Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune

Tony La Russa will be back as Chicago White Sox manager if he wants, though he insisted after their playoff exit Tuesday it’s up to management and players to let him know they want him back.

Of course, none of them really has a vote.

The only one who does is Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, the one who hired La Russa in the first place.

Does anyone really believe Reinsdorf is going to get rid of La Russa again after finally rectifying what he repeatedly said was the biggest regret of his baseball career?

It’s in the White Sox’s best interest to publicly confirm the obvious and move on to the offseason, during which general manager Rick Hahn has some work to do to bring this team up to the championship level Sox fans were promised.

If not, questions about La Russa’s future will only linger , which is good news for Sox Twitter but bad news for Hahn.

While the overall sentiment from players this season was decidedly pro-La Russa — except for their support for Yermín Mercedes during the “unwritten rules” controversy — it would be silly to think every player wants him back. I can think of a few pitchers who probably wouldn’t, though a couple might be gone in 2022 anyway.

Because no players except Game 4 starter Carlos Rodón and rookie Gavin Sheets were made available to speak with the media after the Sox bowed out, we couldn’t poll the clubhouse to see whether they were leaning pro-La Russa or pro-removal in the mysterious referendum we only learned about during the manager’s postgame press briefing.

We also would need to know if absentee ballots could be cast and whether all clubhouse employees would be allowed to vote instead of just players on the playoff roster. Would a simple majority be enough to bring La Russa back or would he need 75% of the votes cast, like the Hall of Fame voting by Baseball Writers Association of America members?

And who would be in charge of counting the votes? Would it be a Sox employee or a neutral observer from the media?

The last thing we need right now is anyone claiming the referendum was rigged or for angry pro-La Russa fans to storm Sox Park if he gets voted down, upending the churro stands and turning on the sprinklers.

Naturally, as Chicago chapter chairman of the BBWAA, I would volunteer to be part of the vote-counting process and would select Frank Thomas and “Cane Guy” as poll workers. There would be no skulduggery or electioneering allowed, and we’d make sure all players bring valid baseball cards to the voting booth for their ID.

The La Russa referendum really has been ongoing since he was hired almost one year ago . Reinsdorf knew when he made the decision that it would be a controversial one, as La Russa has been a polarizing figure throughout his career. He’s no wallflower and doesn’t hold back on giving an opinion.

Some Sox fans will never accept La Russa for various reasons, including his old-school attitude toward analytics, DUI arrests, handling of the bullpen, personality or, most of all, his age. But he grew on some moderates this year, maybe for keeping the Sox together in spite of key injuries, being honest about his concerns for Rodón’s sore arm or for always having José Abreu’s back when he was hit by pitches.

La Russa used the words “bitter” and “bittersweet” during his news conference Tuesday, the former to describe his feelings about the alleged disingenuousness of the Astros after plunking Abreu and pretending it was unintentional and the latter to describe his feelings about a special season that ended in brutal fashion.

The Astros not only piled on by stealing a base late with a big lead, they seemed to throw at the Sox star as a parting gift after reliever Ryan Tepera accused them of cheating . It might have been the last chapter in the long and storied rivalry between La Russa and Astros manager Dusty Baker, and if so, it’ll be a bitter pill for La Russa to swallow.

Former Sox manager and NBC Sports Chicago analyst Ozzie Guillen told WSCR-AM’s “Mully & Haugh Show” on Wednesday morning that he was disappointed Sox players didn’t storm out of the dugout with La Russa after the hit-by-pitch, insisting he would still be fighting with the Astros if he were the manager. But by that point the game — and the season — was over.

Who wants to go out by brawling with the winning team? Better to let La Russa have his say and show he had Abreu’s back until the bitter end. We don’t need any more Sox injuries heading into the offseason.

But back to the referendum: Yes or no on La Russa?

During an interview this summer with shortstop Tim Anderson, a team leader and voice of reason, he politely asked the media to stop writing so much about La Russa and start giving the players more credit. Anderson is one of La Russa’s biggest backers, and his support would be necessary in any La Russa referendum in the clubhouse.

But that remark made me wonder if there was any La Russa fatigue going on. He is a larger-than-life character, and in the age of Zoom with few players available for one-on-one interviews, La Russa’s thoughts often were all we had to work with while writing our stories. La Russa thus received an inordinate amount of media attention in 2021, while Abreu, Lance Lynn, Rodón and others who made huge contributions rarely spoke and were sometimes lost in the shuffle.

Maybe that’s the way management wanted it. Who knows? La Russa basically avoided on-field interviews with beat writers even after COVID-19 media restrictions were eased in July, preferring to Zoom with reporters instead. But he had long talks in or near the dugout during the playoffs with national TV broadcasters from FSI and MLB Network as part of MLB’s rules on cooperating with their broadcast partners. He’s a much better interview in person, like most human beings.

The Sox were a good team in 2020 without La Russa and slightly better in 2021 with him. But they failed to win a playoff series in either season. With more experience and a weak division, they should be back in the postseason in 2022 — no matter who is calling the shots.

So will he or won’t he be back? The only thing we know is this:

The referendum will not be televised.

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