Column: It's déjà vu all over again for Tony La Russa and the underperforming Chicago White Sox

No one is the same as they were when they were 30 years old, and Chicago White Sox manager Tony La Russa is no different than the rest of us.

But the 77-year-old La Russa looks a lot like he did in his first round on the South Side in the 1980s, especially when it comes to addressing the Sox’s problems.

“The pieces haven’t fallen into place so far and we’ve had to put pressure on our starting pitchers,” La Russa told reporters on Aug. 13, 1985, after a win against the New York Yankees at the old Comiskey Park. “We’re still alive, and if the launch holds up, we have a chance to be there at the finish line.”

La Russa has added a few wrinkles over the years. Walk a little slower towards the mound. He is difficult to understand at times and makes some difficult decisions to understand.

But he has retained the same optimism of his youth, preferring to focus on what the White Sox could still be rather than what they are.

The Sox entered Saturday’s game against the Detroit Tigers with a record of 57-56. 3 ½ games behind the division-leading Cleveland Guardians. They’ve been stuck in a mind-numbing cycle of going over .500 and falling back, fueling resentment among a fan base that expected better. The Sox have been over .500 21 times this season, suggesting they’re nothing more than a .500 team.

If you’re old enough to remember La Russa’s 1985 Red Sox, you may be experiencing some flashbacks.

The Sox were 7 ½ games behind the California Angels 37 years ago on Aug. 13, but felt confident with 11 home games remaining in August to try to get on fire. Like today’s version, La Russa’s ’85 team was a talented, veteran group that already proved it could win, winning the AL West title by 20 games in 1983.

Despite a clubhouse full of stars, including Harold Baines, Ron Kittle, Tom Seaver, Carlton Fisk and Ozzie Guillen, the 1985 Red Sox also flirted with .500 for most of the season. When they fell to 68-68 on Sept. 9, it would be the 28th time they’d been at .500.

The Sox finally got over the hump in the last month and finished 85-77 but out of contention. At that point, Chicago’s attention turned to the Bears. By mid-August, though, there was hope that the talent would eventually lead the Sox to the postseason, where anything could happen.

August 1985 was a crazy month. Seaver won his 300th game at Yankee Stadium on August 4. MLB players staged a two-day strike on August 6 and 7. When they returned, MLB suspended La Russa for two games for hitting home plate umpire Derryl Cousins ​​during an argumentative historic victory.

La Russa told reporters that he decided not to appeal the suspension.

“They have been consistent that if you hit somebody, you walk away,” he said. “There were 54,000 people there who saw it, along with the commissioner and probably (American League president) Bobby Brown.”

Coach Jim Leyland replaced La Russa on the bench on the first day of suspension against the Milwaukee Brewers, making his managerial debut. After the Sox lost 11 innings, La Russa was asked if he learned anything from watching the game in an auxiliary box.

“The only thing I learned was not to sit and watch,” he replied.

The inability to watch a baseball game without having any control is one of the reasons La Russa left the front office roles he had been in for several years to return to the dugout in 2021. He led the Sox to a title in his return, and despite a first-round loss to the Houston Astros, the Red Sox entered 2022 with a team that many pundits considered championship-caliber.

All the controversy over La Russa’s hiring had fizzled out at the start of Year 2. But now, as Yogi Berra once said, it’s déjà vu all over again.

Like the 1985 Red Sox, La Russa and his team are at a crossroads after four and a half months of underperformance. The Astros come to town on Monday for a four-game series, and the Sox travel to Cleveland next weekend for a three-game series against the first-place Guardians.

It’s now or never for the Sox.

Either we were all wrong about the level of talent or, like the 1985 team, the pieces just don’t “fit.”

La Russa has been widely criticized for the Sox’s malaise, which came to a head last week when Johnny Cueto questioned the “fire” of the team and TV analyst Steve Stone questioned the players’ hustle, joking that “it seems like the hustle is optional.”

None of the comments were directed directly at La Russa, but as a manager he is responsible for making his players play hard, and if it doesn’t look like they are, it’s a bad image of him.

“I don’t think we’re perfect,” La Russa said. “But I think we’re doing well enough.”

Although no one expects La Russa to be fired, his future will be hotly debated if the Red Sox continue to underperform. President Jerry Reinsdorf You may not believe that La Russa is to blame.But I’d be blind to ignore the growing number of Sox fans who think a change in the dugout is necessary.

At the end of the 1985 season, Reinsdorf and team president Eddie Einhorn reacted to the Red Sox’s malaise by ousting general manager Roland Hemond and appointing broadcaster Ken “Hawk” Harrelson as general manager. Fisk said the writing was on the wall.

“We didn’t go out looking for big leaguers to help us and we didn’t have enough Triple-A talent,” Fisk said. “It was the beginning of what we have seen happen today.”

Deja vu?

Harrelson’s move set the franchise back, beginning with an ill-advised decision to market the team around the new general manager with an ad campaign that read “The falcon wants you.”

“Some people might think of him as a fun guy who wears cowboy hats,” Einhorn said. “We didn’t pick him out of a hat. The man knows baseball and is an excellent judge of talent.”

La Russa reflected on his future and finally decided to return. Harrelson fired him in June 1986. La Russa went into the Hall of Fame as a manager in Oakland, California and St. Louis, and Harrelson returned to the television booth where he belonged.

But after retirement, La Russa felt like directing again. Inheriting a playoff-caliber team on the 2021 Red Sox was a no-brainer, and La Russa jumped at Reinsdorf’s offer.

The best laid plans haven’t worked out, but time is still on La Russa’s side.

Will this be the week things change or have we seen this movie before?

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