Tony La Russa was sitting in his office with a group of reporters at old Comiskey Park after the Chicago White Sox’s 1983 season came to a crashing halt in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series.
The phone rang, and after a couple of rings, La Russa picked it up.
“Hello, Mr. Reagan,” La Russa deadpanned. “Uh, I think you’ve got the wrong clubhouse.”
Thirty-eight years later, in a ballpark on the other side of 35th Street, La Russa was forced to handle another postseason downer after a season-ending 10-1 loss to the Houston Astros in Game 4 of the AL Division Series.
This time there were no one-liners from the Sox manager, who looked as spent as an old Camaro taking up space in the garage. His return to the White Sox dugout 35 years after being fired was one of the most intriguing storylines of the 2021 season, but there would be no Hollywood ending this year for the 77-year-old manager.
“We accomplished the first goal,” La Russa said of winning the AL Central. “But disappointed it was one win (in the ALDS) and not two more. It’s bittersweet.”
The Astros, led by La Russa’s longtime rival, 72-year-old manager Dusty Baker, are headed to the ALCS to take on the Boston Red Sox. The White Sox were left licking their wounds after losing the series 3-1 and wondering what’s next.
Will La Russa be back in 2022?
Surely Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf would want him to return to take care of unfinished business, but the decision is likely La Russa’s to make.
“Do they want you back?” he said.
The answer most likely is yes.
“If they say yes, then you ask the players,” he said. “They should choose who they want to manage.”
Baseball is not a democracy, or else half of the managers would be shown the door on an annual basis. But if the players’ comments over the course of the season weren’t just for show, La Russa would be welcomed back to give it one more shot.
Either way, the ending will take a while to get over — for La Russa, for the players and coaches and for Sox fans who went into this season thinking World Series or bust. Baker put an end to that, guiding his team past the Sox with strong starting pitching, solid defense and clutch hitting.
Baker’s Astros kept running on the Sox with a big late lead, and one of his relievers hit José Abreu with a pitch in the eighth inning, drawing warnings for both teams and enraging La Russa, who questioned the Astros’ “character” and called on them to admit they hit Abreu intentionally.
The 2021 season was entertaining by anyone’s standards, and the Game 3 win in an epic 4½-hour affair Sunday will be remembered as one of the greatest nights in Sox history. Yet the season ended abruptly in the opening playoff round, just as 2020 did under La Russa’s predecessor, Rick Renteria.
The only difference was Reinsdorf brought in La Russa to take the Sox to the next level. Reinsdorf opened his wallet, adding well-paid stars such as starting pitcher Lance Lynn and closers Liam Hendriks and Craig Kimbrel to the mix of budding young talent. Tim Anderson became one of the game’s most recognized players with his walk-off home run in the Field of Dreams game against the New York Yankees, which many considered one of the top moments in franchise annals.
But in the end, the Sox went no farther than Renteria’s team. The AL’s best rotation faltered in the four-game series, combining for a 10.22 ERA. Kimbrel continued his struggles since arriving in a trade-deadline deal from the Cubs, and the Sox now face the dilemma of picking up his $16 million option and trading him or declining the option and letting him go for nothing. The Sox also have holes to fill in right field, at second base and in the rotation, though Michael Kopech is expected to move into Carlos Rodón’s starting role next year.
Game 4 was over when the Astros took an early 5-1 lead off Rodón and Kopech, and the crowd of 40,170 could not sustain the energy that helped fuel Sunday’s comeback win. They all sang along with Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” in the bottom of the seventh, but the reality was the Sox had no prayer, trailing 6-1 with only five hits off starter Lance McCullers and the Astros bullpen.
The magic that led to Sunday night’s comeback was gone, and even the so-called “Cane Guy” — whose cane got credit for the clutch Sox hits in Game 3 — was irrelevant. By the ninth, an economy-sized man in the right-field bleachers entertained fans by standing on a seat, taking off his shirt and shotgunning beers. Sox fans who taunted Astros star José Altuve all series saw the second baseman deal one final blow: a three-run homer off Hendriks in the ninth.
After La Russa’s Sox lost to the Baltimore Orioles in the 1983 ALCS, Reinsdorf took the loss in stride.
“I went into the playoffs feeling our chances were as good as theirs,” he said. “I promised myself I wasn’t going to be incredibly disappointed because no matter what happened, we’ve had a wonderful year. We started an era here. I think we’re going to be a contender every year. Losing three games can’t take away the luster of winning 99. No matter what, I’m proud of these guys.”
The same could be said of his 2021 team, which provided more joy for Sox fans than any team since the 2005 champions. They’ll have most of the core back for several years to come and should be annual contenders for the foreseeable future, whether La Russa is there or not.
If anything stands out this year, it was the way Sox fans clinged to this team, its players and the ballpark, through good times and bad.
No, the Sox didn’t win it all, but the South Side was back.