White Sox Manager Tony La Russa: Let’s Remember Some Damn Guys
3:13 PM EST on December 1, 2020
Winning baseball teams are for the most part built around Dudes, but they are constructed from Guys. That is to say that while stars are important, and generally the things that separate good teams from less-good ones, the bulk of the roster is filled and the lion's share of the work is necessarily done by less outwardly remarkable players. The Tampa Bay Rays took a team that was ostentatiously and intentionally constructed entirely out of Guys all the way to the World Series back in October, where they were duly defeated by the notably more Dude-heavy Dodgers. The former accomplishment was made possible through brilliant feats of player development and coaching and playing, but the latter felt inevitable because of how baseball works, both as a team sport and as the brutal and stunted hothouse industry that exists to sell it. Guys and Dudes must work together, but they must also be in balance.
Except when it comes to big league coaching staffs, that is. Just look at this absolute master-class in Guy Remembering from Tony La Russa:
It's worth noting that every big league coaching staff is at least a little bit like this now. The players who tend to go into coaching are famously not the ones whose rookie cards tend to go into protective plastic sleeves. Even by the standards of their big-league peers, all of whom must be good at some of the non-baseball skills that go into making a life in the sport, these future coaches are pluggers, observers, relationship-builders, skill-maximizers, and obsessives. To pick a team at random, the Oakland Athletics are managed by a longtime backup catcher in Bob Melvin and feature the former role-players Mike Aldrete and Al Pedrique as first- and third-base coaches, respectively, and former big leaguers Ryan Christenson and Mark Kotsay in bench coaching roles. Half the Royals coaching staff could all have been common-card filler in the same pack of 1999 Topps—Mike Matheny, Cal Eldred, Damon Hollins, John Mabry, Vance Wilson. And yet none of these quite measure up, in terms of Guy Density or recursiveness, to the staff that La Russa has built for himself.
Everyone on La Russa's staff played in the bigs except for Hasler—one of three holdovers from the Rick Renteria administration alongside Menechino and Boston—and new pitching coach Ethan Katz, who was Lucas Giolito's pitching coach in high school and later helped Giolito blossom into an ace. It is above my pay grade and well beyond my abilities to say how much any of these baseball lifers do or don't deserve their jobs—I do not know what a bench coach does, although it seems like squinting is a big part of it—but it is easy enough to see how they came to get them. Virtually the entire staff are quite clearly Guys Tony La Russa Remembered.
Because La Russa has been managing in the Majors since the Carter administration, this remembrance necessarily covers a strikingly wide swath of Guys. La Russa was managing the White Sox when Daryl Boston debuted in 1984; he was managing the Cardinals when Miguel Cairo played there in 2003 and then again in 2007; he did not manage Shelley Duncan, but Duncan's father Dave was La Russa's pitching coach when he won a World Series in Oakland in 1989 and another in St. Louis in 2006, and Duncan's older brother Chris was an auxiliary masher on that World Series Champion Cardinals team. La Russa adored dirty-uniform utility goofball Joe McEwing from the moment he debuted with the Cardinals in 1998, to the point where he kept a pair of McEwing's spikes in his office after McEwing left “to remind me of what a professional ballplayer is supposed to be,” and has been backing him for open managerial jobs ever since. (It only feels like La Russa managed Frank Menechino and Howie Clark, who were teammates on an exceptionally Guy-rich 2004 Blue Jays roster.)
If this is always at least partially how these sorts of staffing decisions work, it is still remarkable to see it working that way over such a sprawling generational sweep. There are plenty of good reasons for the White Sox not to have hired La Russa, and equally compelling ones for dumping him shortly after doing so, and a long list of open questions about how well this legendarily red-assed septuagenarian barnacle is going to get along with one of the youngest and liveliest rosters in the game. But regardless of what follows from here, La Russa has already painted his masterpiece with this Staff Of Guys.
Times like these call upon us to dream bigger, to dig deeper, to remember long-forgotten things. Tony La Russa already risen to that challenge. There is no telling what wonders remain to be discovered if and when La Russa descends again into his Guy-full Memory Palace. Quality control supervisor Ron Karkovice; roving minor league pitching instructor Steve Kline; assistant third-base coach Carney Lansford; decades in the future, perhaps the MechaLaRussa3000 Manager Protocol will grant current Sox Guys Adam Engel or Danny Mendick a similar honor. The pack is now open. We can only look forward to what comes next.