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‘I think we got the right man’: Tony La Russa’s second stint with Chicago White Sox begins

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PHOENIX — Chicago White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf looked at the scoreboard Sunday afternoon, cringed at the outcome it displayed, and then saw No. 22 slowly leaving the dugout.

There was Tony La Russa, walking off the field after managing his first game in over nine years – 3,411 days to be exact – and his first game as White Sox manager in 35 years.

“That’s it, I’m going to give him one more game,’’ Reinsdorf cracked. “I hope he doesn’t push me.’’

The White Sox lost 7-2 to the Milwaukee Brewers in a meaningless, six-inning spring training game, but in typical La Russa fashion, he acted as if they lost a critical September game during the pennant stretch.

“I think you’ve got to practice winning,’’ La Russa said. “You get 30 chances [during spring training games] so you don’t want to wait until Opening Day. Whether the team or a manager, you’re supposed to be using those games to anticipate and make decisions.

“That’s why I like it, in the sense that when I get to Opening Day or October, there really isn’t any difference in the concentration and the process.’’

It’s this approach, of course, that made La Russa one of the greatest managers in baseball. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2014 and, with 2,728 wins, is just 35 wins away from tying John McGraw for the second-most victories by a manager in baseball history.

And, of course, passing McGraw would give La Russa the most wins by any manager who didn’t own his own team, Reinsdorf points out. Connie Mack sits atop the leader board with 3,731 wins.

“It was like back to the future,’’ Reinsdorf said. “It made me realize how much time has passed. I remember first time I met Tony was January, 1981. That’s 40 years ago. We were in [GM] Roland Hemond’s office at the old Comiskey Park.

“The first time I talked to him, I came out of that meeting thinking this guy is really smart. I never envisioned the friendship that developed over the years.’’

Now, here is La Russa, 76, six pennants and three World Series championships later, back in uniform, trying to take the White Sox, a team with just one title since 1917, to the promised land.

La Russa, who began his first managerial stint with the White Sox in 1979, before any current MLB player was born, has drawn rave reviews from his players this spring. The apprehension about his age and adjusting to the modern-day player have vanished two weeks into camp.

Jose Abreu, the reigning American League MVP, talked about La Russa welcoming him into camp after missing the first five days with COVID-19, complete with balloons and three 12-foot-long banners.

“That was a very, very good surprise,” Abreu said. “I wasn’t expecting that. I think that came from the organization, maybe Tony had something to do with it. Those are the little things, the little details that make you feel proud to be a White Sox player and make you feel proud to be a baseball player.”

White Sox batting champion Tim Anderson effusively praised La Russa during his zoom call with reporters last week.

“Just to see what page he’s on is definitely awesome,” Anderson said. “Just have conversations with him, very motivating. The drive to want to win, he has that. I’m behind him 110%. That’s the ultimate goal, to win and to win a World Series here. …

“I think we got the right man.’’

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Spring training may have just begun, but already, La Russa appears to have won the players’ respect.

The White Sox players will always be able to say they’re part of history. They’re the first team to be managed by a man who has already been inducted into the Hall of Fame as a manager.

Jake Burger, who played his first game for the White Sox in three years after twice rupturing his Achilles, talked about the emotions of not only returning to the field, but playing for La Russa.

Burger, a St. Louis native who attended Missouri State University, was at Busch Stadium for Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, when David Freese’s heroics forced a Game 7 with his walk-off homer.

“Seeing that emotion from that team, and coming back from that deficit,’’ Burger said, “that’s a manager I want to play for. He’s a winner. That’s the type of manager I want to play for. …

“Learning from Tony is unbelievable.’’

The players say they haven’t seen any signs of arrogance or brashness by La Russa, despite his resume. Why, he could have insisted that the White Sox issue him No. 10, his uniform number throughout his Hall of Fame career. But the uniform number belongs to infielder Yoan Moncada.

La Russa never even thought about asking Moncada if he’d consider switching numbers. He instead quietly chose 22, the same uniform number he last wore as a White Sox minor league manager in 1978 and 1979 in Knoxville and Iowa.

Who knows if La Russa is the missing piece, but the White Sox believe the timing for his return is perfect, taking over a team loaded with talent with their greatest expectations since the spring of 2006, the year after they won the World Series. The front office believes his strengths will be evident with an improvement in team fundamentals, along with pitching decisions late in games.

It was just Day 1, but with La Russa back in uniform, and fans back in the stands at Camelback Ranch, it seemed like old times.

“It’s the way the game’s supposed to be played,’’ La Russa said, who had about a dozen players and coaches tell him how good it felt seeing fans again. “After what we went through last year, it’s a dramatic difference. …

“I was hoping we’d get a ‘W’ for us. But win or lose, you learn a lot.’’

Yep, even at the age of 76 with a plaque hanging in Cooperstown.

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale

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