Welcome to free agent nonsense season

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There was a time, not too long ago, when writers like me would write long, angry screeds whenever a person in the game or a member of the media said something that didn’t comport with rationality or smart baseball orthodoxy or whatever. It was at times a fun thing to do — some folks built careers lampooning old school baseball thinking — but it’s pretty passé now. At least if you’re doing it earnestly and being a jackwagon about it. With the possible exception of Hall of Fame voting season, when we consider the past, those old debates are mostly over. The smart guys won and there’s not much worse than being a sore winner.

But we can still smile at silly things, right? The cliches and nonsense which baseball folks tend to utter as place-fillers when talking about the game. Things like this, from Dayton Moore, talking about free agent Eric Hosmer:

“If you told Eric Hosmer, ‘We need you to hit 40 home runs,’ he would be able to hit 40 home runs. He’s that type of athlete,” the Royals GM said. “He’s that smart. He likes to play a complete game. Eric Hosmer will lay down a bunt. Eric Hosmer understands situations. He’s a true baseball player.”

Dayton Moore is a smart dude with a World Series ring, so he knows damn well that if Eric Hosmer could really hit 40 homers by choice, he’d be hitting 40 homers. Heck, maybe he’d hit 500 of them. One for most plate appearances and a few intentional triples so as not to kill the rallies and unduly embarrass opposing pitchers and such. Don’t wanna get greedy. He also probably knows that Hosmer has two sacrifice bunts in his entire career, and has likely not been asked to attempt many more than that for a good reason. If he’s only hitting 25 homers. it’s probably because he’s a 25 homer hitter. No shame in that.

Yet he says stuff like this. Why? I suppose it’s human nature. The question put to him in the context of the article is why Hosmer might be a better choice than J.D. Martinez, who hits more homers. It’s not natural for a person in the game to point out flaws in a teammate, or to even accurately describe someone in a manner that might even seem like a flaw. It’s a fact that Martinez hits more homers than Hosmer. Moore, who has great affinity for Hosmer due to their time together, isn’t wired to say, publicly, “yes, Hosmer has less power, but . . .” so this little bit of silliness comes out. It’s pretty understandable. It’s actually downright sweet. Moore might very well no longer have Hosmer on his team next year, and he’s gonna miss him. I like that. It humanizes booth Hosmer and Moore, really.

But it also suggests to us that a lot of what is said, qualitatively instead of quantitatively, is probably baloney. Even if it’s benign baloney. How good a teammate a guy is, what kind of character he has, his drive and the cut of his gib is all relevant to teams when they evaluate players and all of those skills contribute, however intangibly, to teams winning and losing. But it’s also the case that those traits lend themselves to distortion and overstatement. Sometimes it’s funny, harmless distortion like this. Other times it might serve to obscure something or distract us from something. So much of it is unverifiable and based on word of mouth from often unreliable narrators.

It doesn’t matter too much in the grand scheme of things — if Dave Dombrowski signs Eric Hosmer it won’t be because he thinks he can hit 40 homers on demand — but it’s worth remembering that, when we assess players, there are limits to how much one can take the word of the insiders who know these guys personally. And it’s worth remembering later when fans slag on a guy for not fulfilling expectations, how those expectations were set.

 

La Russa steps down as White Sox manager over heart issue

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CHICAGO — Tony La Russa stepped down as manager of the Chicago White Sox on Monday because of a heart issue, ending a disappointing two-year run in the same spot where the Hall of Famer got his first job as a big league skipper.

La Russa, a three-time World Series champion who turns 78 on Tuesday, missed the final 34 games with the underachieving White Sox. He left the team on Aug. 30 and doctors ultimately told him to stay out of the dugout.

La Russa has a pacemaker implanted in February and doctors later found another heart problem that he has not detailed.

“It has become obvious that the length of the treatment and recovery process for this second health issue makes it impossible for me to be the White Sox manager in 2023,” he said in a statement. “The timing of this announcement now enables the front office to include filling the manager position with their other offseason priorities.”

Chicago began the season with World Series aspirations but was plagued by injuries and inconsistent play. It was 79-80 heading into Monday night’s game against Minnesota.

“Our team’s record this season is the final reality. It is an unacceptable disappointment. There were some pluses, but too many minuses,” La Russa said. “I was hired to provide positive, difference-making leadership and support. Our record is proof. I did not do my job.”

Bench coach Miguel Cairo took over after La Russa stepped away. The White Sox showed a spark right after the change, winning 10 of 14. But they dropped eight straight in late September, dashing their playoff hopes.

La Russa, who is close friends with White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, was a surprise hire in October 2020, and he directed the team to the AL Central title last year.

But the White Sox sputtered throughout much of 2022, and there were chants of “Fire Tony! Fire Tony!” at Guaranteed Rate Field.

“At no time have I been disappointed or upset with White Sox fans, including those who at times chanted `Fire Tony,”‘ La Russa said. “They come to games with passion for our team and a strong desire to win. Loud and excited when we win, they rightly are upset when we play poorly.”

All-Star shortstop Tim Anderson and sluggers Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert missed significant time because of injuries. Catcher Yasmani Grandal and third baseman Yoan Moncada also had health issues, and they underperformed when they were on the field.

There were embarrassing breakdowns, too, like when the White Sox ran themselves into the first 8-5 triple play in major league history during a loss to Minnesota on July 4.

La Russa continued to be a lightning rod for fans who weren’t thrilled with his hiring in the first place. His lineups came under question as did his decisions in games.

Some fans chanted for La Russa’s dismissal following a strange call for an intentional walk to to the Dodgers’ Trea Turner despite a 1-2 count on June 9. Bennett Sousa had just bounced an 0-2 slider, allowing the runner to advance from first to second.

With the base open, La Russa chose to walk Turner even though there were two strikes. It backfired when Max Muncy smacked a three-run homer, propelling Los Angeles to an 11-9 victory.

Another moment that raised eyebrows happened early in the 2021 season.

During a 1-0 loss to Cincinnati, La Russa was unaware of a rule that would have allowed him to use Jose Abreu as the automatic runner at second base rather than closer Liam Hendriks in the 10th inning.

With a 2,900-2,514 record over 35 years with Chicago, Oakland and St. Louis, La Russa trails only Connie Mack on baseball’s career wins list. He moved past John McGraw last season.

But there were big questions about whether La Russa was the right person for the job when the White Sox hired him to replace Rick Renteria. He hadn’t filled out a lineup card since 2011, when St. Louis beat Texas in the World Series. There were doubts about how someone known more for his scowl than smile would mesh with a fun-loving team that had just delivered the White Sox’s first playoff appearance since 2008.

Then, shortly after his hiring, news surfaced of an arrest on misdemeanor DUI charges.

La Russa blew out a tire on the Lexus he was driving in a collision with a curb that February in Arizona, after going to dinner with friends. The case was filed on Oct. 28, one day before the White Sox announced La Russa’s hiring.

He ended up pleading guilty to a lesser charge of reckless driving and was sentenced to one day of home detention, a fine of nearly $1,400 and 20 hours of community service.

La Russa also pleaded guilty to driving under the influence in Florida in 2007 after police found him asleep and smelling of alcohol inside his running sport-utility vehicle at a stoplight.

La Russa captured championships with Oakland in 1989 and the Cardinals in 2006 and 2011. The former big league infielder and Sparky Anderson are the only managers to win the World Series in the American and National leagues.

He got his first major league managing job at age 34 when the White Sox promoted him from Triple-A to replace the fired Don Kessinger during the 1979 season. He took over that August and led them to a 522-510 record over parts of eight seasons.

The 1983 team won 99 games on the way to the AL West championship – Chicago’s first playoff appearance since the 1959 Go-Go White Sox won the pennant. But La Russa was fired in 1986 by then-general manager Ken Harrelson after the White Sox got off to a 26-38 start, a move Reinsdorf long regretted.