Column: Decision on Tony La Russa’s return brings the Chicago White Sox to another fork in the road

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			Column: Decision on Tony La Russa’s return brings the Chicago White Sox to another fork in the road
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Tony La Russa is back by popular demand, ready to lead the Chicago White Sox back to the playoffs.

Well, not really “back” back. La Russa said Sunday it’s “uncertain” when he would return to the Sox dugout, relying on medical experts to tell him if he’s healthy enough for the playoff push after a recent heart-related episode.

And if he does return, it wouldn’t be by popular demand — or any demand whatsoever. The consensus opinion of Sox fans on a potential La Russa comeback can be summed up in three words: “We’re good, thanks.” A race right now between La Russa and acting manager Miguel Cairo would result in a landslide.

But Sox fans don’t get a vote in this saga, which enters its second week Tuesday with the start of a two-game home series against the Colorado Rockies.

The ball is now in the hands of doctors who will let the 77-year-old La Russa know if it’s OK to get back to what he loves doing most, at the best time of the season, in the heat of a division race, and possibly at the end of a Hall of Fame career.

It’s just another fork in the road for the Sox, who finally found their groove on the West Coast with their leader sidelined.

If doctors clear La Russa to return, and if La Russa wants to return, he’ll no doubt be back. Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf would not deprive La Russa of a chance to finish the job he started, no matter what fans, critics or anyone else thinks. He proved that by hiring La Russa in October 2020 amid a fierce backlash.

In a normal scenario, the person in line to make the call if doctors clear La Russa would be general manager Rick Hahn. But this is not one of those scenarios. Hahn has not addressed La Russa’s situation at all since the Aug. 30 announcement he would miss that night’s game against the Kansas City Royals.

Whether Reinsdorf would listen to Hahn’s opinion is unknown.

Because no one is talking on the record, we can only speculate whether Hahn and executive vice president Ken Williams would prefer to stay the course with Cairo. The Sox finally are playing the way everyone envisioned back in March. Shortstop Elvis Andrus has provided defense up the middle and an unexpected offensive boost. The pitching has been solid.

And a collaborative effort between La Russa’s coaching staff and the front office appears to be working, which has to thrill Hahn and Williams. They’ve spent most of the season reading posts on Sox Twitter asking for everyone to be fired for an underachieving season.

It could be a coincidence or a mild winning stretch. But the vibe certainly has changed since Aug. 30. Two weeks ago no one could’ve imagined a five-run ninth inning like the one the Sox pulled off Friday in a 5-3 win in Oakland. It’s shaping up as an exciting finish in which every game matters, and the Sox are playing their best ball of the season.

La Russa told reporters Sunday in Oakland he doesn’t want to be a “distraction,” but it’s unlikely the Sox players would feel that way. They’re used to him being the center of media attention. If the second-winningest manager in baseball history decides to return from an in-season heart episode, he once again would draw attention to himself on a national level.

La Russa also said he speaks with Cairo a couple of times a day. Even if Hahn asked him to step aside and take a breather, La Russa could continue working remotely, consulting Cairo on decisions and contributing from behind the scenes like a political operative.

It would be seen as a win-win for both sides. Cairo and Co. would carry the load, and La Russa could be the manager whisperer and avoid obvious stress inducers such as the media and chanting Sox fans.

Based on years of observing Hahn deal with a multitude of player injuries, it’s not going out on a limb to guess he would prefer La Russa sit out the rest of the year “out of an abundance of caution.” Even if doctors cleared La Russa to manage, why risk it? La Russa turns 78 next month and takes losing harder than any manager in the game.

Hahn recently told longtime head groundskeeper Roger Bossard to slow down for the remainder of the home schedule as he recovers from hernia surgery. Hahn told the “Sodfather” that his health was more important than his job and that he can pick up the rake again next year. The same logic applies to La Russa, with the carrot of 2023 still there for him if he agreed to let Cairo and Co. do their thing down the stretch.

That surely would ignite another debate, but one crisis at a time, please.

Remember how the La Russa saga began nearly two years ago? When news of La Russa’s DUI arrest in February 2020 was revealed shortly after the Sox rehired him that fall, he had a chance to bow out. But the Sox stood by him and La Russa didn’t consider resigning, admitting he was “fortunate” they didn’t change their minds.

“The fact that I’m still the manager is further (evidence of the) gratitude that I feel,” he said in February 2021. “But once the publicity was there, I had already been beating myself up about a mistake without anybody knowing it. Once it became public, especially so soon after getting the job, when you understand the negative effect potentially on the fans, my family, friends, it was torture. And I don’t enjoy torture.

“I try to live without regrets. We make mistakes. But I also live with acknowledging it. So if they decided, once they knew, and wanted to keep me, then I haven’t had the first thought that I should back off.”

Maybe La Russa will return the favor and sideline himself to keep the status quo.

Or maybe he wants one last chance to get into the postseason, no matter the health risk or public opinion.

It will be a September to remember either way.

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