How Tony La Russa intends to win over Sox players, fans originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
Tony La Russa knew what he had to do the day of his guilty plea.
"The day I was hired, there were legitimate questions about being away from the game, whether I was still in touch. Had the game changed? Could I relate? And those were legitimate," he said after pleading guilty to a reckless-driving charge stemming from a DUI arrest last February. "I look forward to proving that I could answer those in a positive way and make a positive contribution to our ballclub and our goals to be a championship team.
"But my goal right now is to prove — before it was proving myself on the field. Now, it’s obviously I have to prove myself off the field, as well."
La Russa was remorseful that day, and he still was Wednesday, first in an interview with USA Today’s Bob Nightengale and later in his first media session of spring training. Talking to Nightengale, he called the arrest an “inexcusable mistake” and the anguish that came from it “tortuous.” He said he was grateful to the White Sox for sticking with him.
“The fact that I’m still the manager is further gratitude I feel, but once the publicity was there, I had already been beating myself up about the mistake without anybody knowing it,” he said during his press conference. “Once it became public, especially so soon after getting the job, when you understand the negative effect potentially on fans, my family, friends, that’s torture. I don’t enjoy torture.
“I try to live without regrets, and when you make mistakes, I also live with acknowledging it. So, if they decided once they (knew about the arrest) and they wanted to keep me, then I haven’t had the first thought that I should back off (from the job).”
But receiving the backing of the White Sox and changing the feelings of the fan base are two different things.
White Sox fans have been slow to warm up to La Russa's return, their hesitancy owed to reasons related to baseball, his comments about athlete protests and his second public drinking-and-driving incident, among others.
While some of those things have nothing to do with baseball, there’s one sure way to start changing hearts and minds: win.
"Once the season gets going and, ideally, we are playing the way we expect, I think fans will see the benefit of having him at the helm and in the dugout," general manager Rick Hahn said Wednesday. "I do think that over the course of time, being exposed to him and this team are going to lead Sox fans to warming up to him, if they haven’t already.
"In the end — whether it’s Tony, me, Kenny (Williams), Tim Anderson, Liam Hendriks, whomever — in the end it’s about winning a ring. Fans are going to accept and celebrate this team if we are able to win a ring, that’s what it’s going to come down to.
"Certainly along the way, you can build trust and build relationships and build excitement and build respect. But in the end, we know we are all going to be judged by whether we win this thing or not."
The White Sox have championship expectations, and La Russa is here to meet them, like he’s done three times prior. He knows how to get teams to the promised land -- or as he put it Wednesday, taking them from “we can win” to “we will win.”
According to Hahn, La Russa’s been working on that for a while, moving into a small apartment near the White Sox complex in Glendale, Arizona, during the offseason.
But even someone with La Russa’s resume isn’t magic. He’s got work to do, and not just getting the pitching staff into shape or figuring out how to arrange his batting order. He arrives in a clubhouse with an established culture, one crafted over the four seasons of Rick Renteria’s tenure.
Just as La Russa knows he needs to prove himself to skeptical fans, he knows he needs to win the trust of his new players.
"I think the message is straightforward, and that is: If you have a drink, you don't drive. If you make that mistake, then you own up to it and you face the consequences,” La Russa said Wednesday. “The family atmosphere is one that is based on earning respect and trust, and I couldn't earn trust unless I was honest about what happened.
“I'm starting at zero as far as respect. And the true family cares, we all care for each other. It's something that's been consistent in my other managing situations. I've said many times publicly, by far, especially after I left, it isn't the career wins that I enjoy, I enjoy the family relationships with the White Sox guys and the A's and the Cardinals.
“We're going to build it here, and I'm going to show them that they can trust me. I have a goal of making them respect me because I can help them, and I'll show that I care for them.
“The advantage coming in is that that was the strength of this team last year, they talked about their chemistry. And so far, in my relationships that I've had with the guys, I see them being open to my facing and meeting that challenge."
So give La Russa this credit: He knows what he has to do. He knows what he has to earn. He’s not walking into White Sox camp waving his rings around and letting that be enough.
La Russa’s itch to get back in the dugout needed to be scratched. The White Sox provided the backscratcher. They're hoping he'll provide the road map to a World Series trophy.
That process starts with earning the trust of his players and the fan base, something he's ready to start.
“The hairs on my neck were alive and kicking several times,” La Russa said about the first day of camp. “I love the game of baseball. I loved it even when I was a bad player. And I loved it staying close the last few years, but being able to be in uniform is very exciting and it leads to the pressure.
“I think all 29 other managers have pressure. There is some uniqueness because I have been away and there are legitimate questions about what I have to offer, my age and not being current. And I embrace the challenge mostly because I love the job and I'm excited about the potential of this team."