La Russa, second in MLB manager wins, stays in Sox spotlight originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
Tony La Russa stands alone.
After picking up his 2,764th win as a major league manager, he’s all by himself in second place on the all-time list.
And once again, as the Chicago White Sox celebrated the quite frankly ridiculous and difficult-to-fathom accomplishment, the spotlight was square on the South Side skipper.
Exactly where he’d rather it not be.
In a season that could very well wind up the White Sox most successful in more than a decade — they sit atop the American League Central and can be counted among baseball’s true contenders — the biggest storylines have been dictated by every move La Russa makes.
“You're going to get some heat. If you don't like it, do something else for a living,” La Russa said toward the end of May. “The most irritating part of it is not whatever’s being said about me in any shape or form. The team has for two months now, competed well, overcome stuff that should be given credit. ... I think it's a disservice to our players and the way they've competed.
“It pains me that I'm responsible for some of it in some way. But I can't help it. I just wish the club gets credit for what they're doing. ... I'm just inspired by them, so impressed by what I see and what they want to do. That should be the story that takes most of the headlines.”
Such a significant number of White Sox fans were perplexed and downright angry over his hiring last fall that any decision that doesn’t work out, anything that doesn’t go absolutely perfect for this team, has become the loudest talking point, every complaint directed at him.
A day before he moved into sole possession of second place on one of the game’s most illustrious lists, he was defending a decision to bunt in the middle of a sixth-inning rally, a move that in a June game against the cellar-dwelling Detroit Tigers seemed to get as much attention as a managerial move in the deciding game of the World Series.
“The beautiful part about this game, there’s no sport that fans and media can be more interactive than baseball. ... I never get bothered by it, I think it’s a beautiful part about our game,” La Russa said before Sunday’s game. “You make your decision, if someone disagrees, I’m just glad that someone is interested enough to pay attention.”
The biggest criticisms lobbed his way so far this season came during that three-game series in Minnesota, when Yermín Mercedes’ home run on a 3-0 pitch in a blowout win briefly became the biggest story in baseball. And in the fallout, plenty wondered whether La Russa’s supposed ire over a fun-loving player’s decision to swing away — if you’ll remember, it was a lot more complex than that — would lead to a fracturing of the clubhouse.
It didn't, obviously, but feeling the love in the immediate wake of his milestone win Sunday, La Russa seemed to offer the most helpful peek behind the curtain — and the most definitive answer to that question — yet.
Player after player greeted him with an embrace near the dugout. Asked about it, he thanked them for how they’ve treated him this year, which seemed to speak louder than any of their “respect the resume” comments to this point.
“The most important part of this season so far is the way the players have included me as part of the family,” La Russa said after Sunday’s win. “I think I've got a lot more respect to earn, and credibility, but they've allowed me to get a head start. I feel close to them, and they show it to me every day.”
For some, depending on the interpretation of the comments he made in the numerous media sessions dominated by talk of Mercedes’ home run, it stood in stark contrast to his saying that “you’ve got the office and they’ve got the lockers.” This was the La Russa who spent the spring praising the clubhouse culture that was built before he even arrived.
It was humble.
And it’s not that we should expect anything different, really. La Russa has presented himself as an accountable, humble manager since the beginning of his second stint as the South Side skipper. That continued as he spoke on Sunday.
“(The accomplishment is) not just personal,” La Russa said. “Today was a perfect example: wrote the lineup up, watch the pitching coaches get the starters and the relievers ready, watch the hitting coach, watch the defensive coaches get (Adam) Engel back. There really wasn't anything except cheerleading.
“I was gifted the opportunity, a career of longevity and good fortune, to get a chance to manage this club, back where I started. ... Do the best you can every day and get the staff that's going to do it, and we'll see how many wins we get.”
There’s likely a wide range of opinions when it comes to how big of a difference a manager makes on a day-to-day basis, and La Russa was in a thankful mood after Sunday’s game. Certainly, though, he was brought in to do more than just cheerlead. He was brought in to lead these White Sox to a World Series.
As La Russa leapt into a new spot on an all-time leaderboard, there was a helpful reminder of what he’s already accomplished, and the three World Series rings on his fingers and Hall-of-Fame plaque in Cooperstown can be easily lost in the intense scrutiny over his in-game decisions flying around on social media.
Just because there’s now just one person in the history of the game who’s won more games as La Russa doesn’t mean the heat and, in some cases, the vitriol will die down as the White Sox continue to play meaningful games throughout the course of a contending summer.
It’s an interesting dichotomy as one of baseball’s all-time winners is making winners out of these White Sox.
But know that La Russa is fine with the criticism. He just wants some of the focus being constantly thrown his way to go to the team that’s currently sitting in first place, a team that could be lifting a trophy at the end of October.
“There's a certain number of things that have to happen over the next three and a half months. ... I have no crystal ball,” La Russa said. “When you know that the heads and hearts of the club, the guts of the club, are going to go for it, then I'm very confident and our staff is very confident that we get to the end, whatever you see is going to be our best shot.
“If we're given a legitimate chance, then we've got a legitimate chance to qualify for October and see what happens. That's the goal. Never give in, never give up. The guys believe in it. We'll see.”