- Jesse joined ESPN Chicago in September 2009 and covers MLB for ESPN.com.
As the second half begins, the Chicago White Sox are sitting in third place, 3.5 games out of the AL Central lead. After going into the season with an 86% chance of making the playoffs, they’re the American League’s most underachieving team — while employing its most controversial manager.
“When you have realistic expectations, you want fans to get excited about them,” La Russa told ESPN before the break. “If there are disappointments, then there is no free lunch.
“There is no free lunch for the manager.”
That was clear throughout the first half, when chants of “fire Tony” had become the ballad in the stands at Guaranteed Rate Field. The noise has quieted down a bit — at least for the moment — after a much-needed winning road trip just before the All-Star break. Combined with a weak AL Central, it has kept Chicago’s playoff odds at 41% despite their 46-47 start.
The White Sox can point to any number of statistics that have stopped them from moving past the .500 mark:
They rank 18th in starter’s ERA
They have 4 defensive runs saved, 21st in MLB, and rank 29th in fielding percentage
They rank 26th in OPS against right-handed pitching
At the plate, they chase 31.7%, 29th in baseball
They’ve made the third-most outs on the bases
Their home record is a dismal 19-25
But around the city, no one’s blaming the numbers. Turn on sports radio, head to the golf course or grab a beer near the ballpark, there’s one thing — and only one — the entire city is talking about: How does La Russa still have a job?
First off, many observers would say his “no free lunch” idea isn’t exactly true for La Russa. Other teams in a similar position have fired their manager in-season — as recently as this month. The Philadelphia Phillies got rid of Joe Girardi and got back into the playoff race. The Los Angeles Angels did the same with Joe Maddon but to no positive effect. The Toronto Blue Jays dismissed Charlie Montoya, despite a winning record in the league’s most competitive division.
In Chicago, on the other hand, there’s been no indication the organization is contemplating such a move — La Russa seems to have the unconditional backing of team owner Jerry Reinsdorf. (Reinsdorf declined comment for this story.)
His players, too, continue to have La Russa’s back publicly — and place some of the blame at their own feet.
“You have to remember why he’s in the Hall of Fame,” closer Liam Hendriks said. “The decisions he made back in the day that worked out. He’s making similar decisions this year but we aren’t performing. It has nothing to do with Tony’s decision-making. It has everything to do with being called into positions and instead of succeeding like last year, we aren’t. That’s on us.”
To be sure, there’s been more than occasional head-scratching moves from La Russa — like intentionally walking Trea Turner on a 1-2 count last month and then Jose Ramirez on an 0-1 count just before the All-Star break. But players have been focused on their own accountability and say they’re grateful for their manager’s willingness to accept his.
“We’ve had some tough series and before Tony goes to face the media, he’ll come in and tell us, ‘I’m taking the [blame] for this. I didn’t get you prepared properly,'” starter Lucas Giolito explained. “That’s the kind of manager he is. He wants to get the best out of us and he feels a huge responsibility to do so. He’s going to take that blame. I think it helps so we can focus on what we need to focus on.”
La Russa looms so large in Chicago that his presence alone does take some of the heat off the players, and even the front office. Fans focus on La Russa, while players can focus on playing better. At least, that’s the goal.
“The fact that fans expect our club to play well and when we don’t, they focus on the manager, that’s the way it should be,” La Russa said. “If they see something that we’re not doing in whatever part of the game, they question it. And they should. And then it’s, ‘What are you going to do about it?'”
At the moment, it doesn’t look or feel like the manager has done a whole lot about Chicago’s struggles.
“I’m waiting for La Russa to wake them up or push some buttons or do something,” one scout said. “Maybe it comes after the All-Star break.”
Despite their appreciation for La Russa’s off-field traits, a team that chases too many pitches, plays poor defense and sits at the top of the league in outs made on the bases doesn’t seem to be responding to its manager. At times, the White Sox look like they’re playing under the pressure of high expectations.
“When you play hard, trying to play your best, some of those things are going to happen,” La Russa said. “We’re not playing the best baseball that we can play but we’re working hard to get to that point. We’re working hard to fix all the things that are wrong.
“Based on your responsibility to the team, you’re accountable for the results. It’s healthy and it’s realistic. I’m accountable for the record. If we don’t play well, that’s the manager’s responsibility.”
Some help from the front office at the deadline and a little luck would be nice, too. The White Sox have endured their share of injuries the past two seasons, including significant time missed by a slew of key players. They recently got slugger Eloy Jimenez back in the lineup, while catcher Yasmani Grandal is scheduled to return soon as well.
Sources indicate that the Sox — like most hopeful contenders — will be looking to add arms before the Aug. 2 trade deadline. The roster could use another left-handed slugger and more bullpen help. Starter Johnny Cueto has been a find, but free agent signing Joe Kelly has underwhelmed.
With an easier schedule in August and the possibility of deadline reinforcements, the White Sox could finally be at full strength by then in this second half. Maybe the chants from the stands will sound different at that point.
“First and foremost I respect the fans’ opinion of Tony and the team,” Abreu said. “But I disagree with them. I think they don’t know what happens inside the team. I can tell them blaming him is wrong because we are the ones performing.”
Regardless of the players’ comments, eventually — at least in most organizations — the buck stops with the manager. But the White Sox aren’t like most organizations. The owner hired La Russa, and Reinsdorf ultimately has final say on if or when he’s replaced.
“I talked to Jerry, occasionally, like an owner,” La Russa said. “Last year when we were in first place, he was apprehensive and when we’re behind, he’s the same. He’s a bottom-line guy, wants to see what’s happening in the end. He and the organization appreciate the heart of the team that’s kept us surviving.”
If the White Sox fail to make the postseason, it’s hard to imagine La Russa would be back for a third season, but stranger things have happened. For now, La Russa is willing to shoulder the blame while trying to fix the problems.
“In 30-plus years, there were less than a handful of times it was smooth sailing from the start,” he said. “That’s the beauty of the 162-game schedule.
“As for myself, [former broadcaster] Jack Buck said this to me when I was [managing] in St. Louis. He said, ‘Mostly what you are is a fan of the Cardinals.’ In other words, I’m in there like the fans are, wanting them to win. I can guarantee there isn’t anyone in this ballpark tonight that wants to win any more than I do.”
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