The link in the NBC Sports Chicago tweet Wednesday begged to be opened.
“Tony La Russa calls White Sox leadership meeting, fuels win streak.”
Could it really be that the White Sox manager was responsible for the five-game winning streak against the Detroit Tigers and Houston Astros after calling a meeting of his key players? The same Tony La Russa who spent the last four months dealing with almost daily criticism over his team’s lackluster play?
Before I could open the link to find the answer, the winning streak ended Wednesday night.
The Sox followed up Thursday with an embarrassing 21-5 loss to the Astros, finishing with a split in the four-game showdown against the best team in the American League.
“Brutal afternoon,” La Russa said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been on a team that’s scored that many runs,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said.
Baker has managed or played in 5,881 major-league games. But you never know when you’ll see something new in baseball, and on Thursday he was treated to 21 runs and 25 hits against La Russa, his oldest and fiercest rival.
Things got so bad at Guaranteed Rate Field a “Let’s go, Astros” chant erupted in the left-field bleachers in top of the ninth inning when Sox second baseman Josh Harrison served up the final runs of the blowout.
Time for another meeting of the leadership council?
Obviously the tweet from the Sox’s flagship station jumped the gun in suggesting La Russa’s move to call the leaders together led to a turnaround in this maddening season. Sometimes a brief winning streak is just a brief winning streak, not a reaction to anything that was said or any idea springing from the manager’s head.
But if some want to credit La Russa or the leadership-council meeting for the sweep of the lowly Tigers and the two comeback wins over the Astros, go for it.
Liam Hendriks, the unofficial spokesman for the leadership council, told reporters Wednesday that fellow leader José Abreu said the team’s “confidence turned into cockiness” and that several players mentioned the “complacency level is we just expected to come in and roll over like we did last year.”
That’s a damning statement if true, as the Sox didn’t “roll over” teams all last season. They went 35-32 in their final 67 games before losing to the Astros in the division series. They’re 96-90 since July 21, 2021, a .516 winning percentage.
And calling players together for a meeting isn’t exactly a novel concept. Former Bulls coach Jim Boylen formed a “leadership group” in his first season in 2018 to give him input on “what we do and how we operate.”
“I’m juiced, man,” Boylen said. “I’m jacked up about it.”
Boylen’s decision came in response to a franchise record 56-point loss to the Boston Celtics and a report of a group text exchange among players suggesting they boycott a practice.
Whether Boylen accepted any input is difficult to ascertain. He didn’t last long enough to see his leadership group amount to much. The 2018-19 Bulls finished 22-60, and Boylen was fired after the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season.
Sox players might be right in thinking La Russa gets too much blame when things go bad. Sports-talk radio couldn’t invent a character who could generate as much discussion, from the intentional walk to Trea Turner with a 1-2 count to the “eyes wide shut” moment in the dugout to the viral video of a fan telling La Russa to pinch run Adam Engel before he made the move.
But that’s the life of a manager or head coach in any sport.
The maxim is “You can’t fire the players, but you can get rid of the manager.” The Sox have flipped the script. They can’t fire La Russa, but they can shake up the roster if his team doesn’t get to the postseason.
The Sox are uber-defensive about the heat La Russa receives, which is what you might expect when he’s Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf’s hand-picked choice. But Baker got as much heat, if not more, from 2004-06 when his honeymoon as Cubs manager ended.
Baker shrugged if off. La Russa probably does, too, knowing it’s an occupational hazard. You can’t manage in this game with thin skin.
Despite the outcome of Thursday’s game, Baker was impressed by the Sox this week and said the Astros could see them again in October.
“They’ve got a good team,” he said. “If they get healthy … they’ve got an outstanding pitching staff, and a very explosive offense. You just don’t know when they’re going to explode. They’re right in the thick of things. Here we are in the middle of August, and there’s a lot of baseball left and a lot of high-pressure baseball left.
“They’re going to Cleveland now and have Minnesota again, so this is the best and most exciting race in baseball.”
So this is another fork in the road for the White Sox, who have taken the wrong path before, only to find themselves at another fork. It might be baseball’s most exciting race, but it’s also its most forgiving. The Sox would be 15½ games behind the Astros in the AL West.
If the Sox manage to sweep the Cleveland Guardians this weekend at Progressive Field, they can move into first in the Central. Even if they are swept, they still can compete for a wild-card spot.
The White Sox are a team made for die-hards and rubberneckers alike.
A season like this one can’t have an ordinary ending.