PHOENIX – Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa was standing by the railing in Chicago White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf’s suite, keeping score, jotting down notes, and acting as if little has changed.
La Russa, 78, continues to battle serious health issues, and undergoes weekly treatments, but has informed only his family and a close friend of his exact condition.
Now that he is no longer manager of the White Sox, there has been another huge change in his life.
He can no longer be blamed.
The White Sox players, after spending the winter looking at themselves in the mirror, will tell you it was their fault for their embarrassing season a year ago.
Walk around the camp these days, spend time in their clubhouse, and no matter how hard you look, no matter who you talk with, really all of the excuses they used a year ago have vanished.
La Russa has been replaced by 53-year-old rookie manager Pedro Grifol, who is drawing rave reviews.
The team is relatively healthy.
They vow not to use All-Star closer Liam Hendrik’s battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma as any alibi as he continues to work out in between chemotherapy treatments.
The White Sox arrived into camp with an American League Central-sized chip on their shoulder, completely embarrassed over perhaps their most disappointing season in nearly 40 years.
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“Nobody was taking accountability,” White Sox reliever Joe Kelly told USA TODAY Sports. “It was easy for the fans to say it was Tony’s fault. It was easy for the writers to say it was Tony’s fault. It was easy for other teams from afar to say it was Tony.
“It didn’t matter who was managing. We didn’t play hard enough. We didn’t focus enough. We embarrassed ourselves.
The White Sox won nine of their first 12 games under interim manager Miguel Cairo when La Russa left the dugout on Aug. 30. They crept within 1 ½ games in the AL Central race, with White Sox infielder Elvis Andrus predicting the Cleveland Guardians would crumble. They proceeded to lose eight consecutive games, and finished the season, 81–81, 11 games out of first place.
“I could have managed that team, and we could have finished .500,” Kelly says. “Tony left, Miguel took over, and we still sucked. We played like crap.
“It was our fault from the get-go. It was our fault for not playing with such urgency. It was our fault for not holding each other accountable. It was too late when we decided to get going. We had a lot of guys get injured, but everyone gets injured. We kind of slow-played actual baseball. And once we got back into game-speed, we played like we were still rehabbing as a unit.
The White Sox had 10 players on the injured list in late June.
“Guys were taking it easy, being cautious, and that was not coming from the training staff or strength coach,” Kelly said, “it was us as players not going pedal to the metal. We were running out of time, and then we kind of accelerated as fast as we could, but then obviously we couldn’t catch up.
“Usually when you finish .500 you’re not winners, or you’re not losers, but as good as our talent was, that’s losing.”
It was clear to veterans like Lance Lynn, who played for La Russa in St. Louis, that La Russa wasn’t himself most of the year. He had little energy. He needed daily naps. His voice was so soft that it was often hard to hear him.
This was not the La Russa anyone knew.
“I love Tony to death,” Lynn said, “and you could tell he wasn’t 100% of what he wanted to be. We knew Tony was going through a lot, and tried to be there for him, but you know Tony. He wasn’t going to let us know what was going on. He told us about the heart stuff, but there was more, way more stuff going on. He still won’t tell anyone. But that’s why you love him, he wanted to make it was about our team, not him.
“Here’s the truth: Tony took the blame for everything because that’s who he is. And he is going to tell you that we came out flat, and it’s his fault for not getting us ready.
“But when it’s all said and done, it’s your job, it’s your career. I’ve played for a lot of managers, but nobody can get you up for a game except yourself. You’ve got to look at yourself in the mirror.
“We had injuries, but we didn’t play our best baseball even when we were healthy, and that has nothing to do with who’s managing, coaching or anything like that.
The 2022 statistics will show that La Russa didn’t throw a single pitch, take an at-bat, or field a grounder.
It was the White Sox players who finished last in the American League in fielding, who had only three position players play in at least 130 games, just two who made 30 starts, and didn’t have a single player hit more than 17 homers, drives in more than 76 runs, with only one player scoring more than 61 runs.
“It was hard to believe,” says infielder Elvis Andrus. “It was so humbling. I mean, this was a team that should have been in the first place, easily. You look around, and there was so much talent.
“But as we showed, this game is a lot more than talent.”
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Indeed, Houston Astros All-Star first baseman Jose Abreu, who spent the last nine seasons with the White Sox, blamed the clubhouse chemistry for their demise.
“I think the best way I can put it,” Abreu told the Chicago Sun-Times, “is just that we weren’t a real family.”
The White Sox, who won the 2021 AL Central title while earning a wild-card spot in 2020, now have a chance to wipe out the painful memory, proving that last season was an aberration. They don’t want to dwell on the past, but they also need to feel the hurt, reminding themselves what can happen if they try to sleep-walk through another season.
“I think we all feel the disappointment, and frankly, the embarrassment,” White Sox GM Rick Hahn said, “how the year played out. We had high expectations coming off the division championship in 2021, ready to take that next step, and we let all of ourselves down by not achieving close to that level.
“I do think in talking to guys there’s a strong sense that we have something to prove to our fans, the rest of baseball, and frankly to ourselves in that clubhouse.”
The White Sox, under Grifol, have gone back to the basics with fielding drills. There’s high intensity in their workouts. There’s a confidence, but no longer an arrogance, that they can once again be king of the hill in the AL Central title.
“We got away from playing the game with focus and attention to detail and high energy,” Hahn said. “Injuries factored into that, but it’s been a priority for Pedro and his staff since Day 1, and I think it’s been reflected in how we’ve gone about our business this year.”
Said Grifol: “I wanted hard work. I want energy. I wanted attention to detail. And that’s not just for the players, but for the coaches and myself included.
We’ll see if it has an impact when the games count.
“There’s such a big difference,” Kelly says. “This is the most intense spring I’ve been a part of in five seasons. It’s been like, ‘Go, go, go.’ I didn’t see that many guys run that hard in spring training last year, and now you see them working on their baserunning, sprinting, all of these crazy drills.
Funny what a little humility will do for a team.
“You look at last year and the attention to details were lost because we got complacent,” Lynn said. “We went to the playoffs for two years, and kind of felt like we were the team to beat. We got complacent, and other teams got us.
“Guys now are actually prepared and ready to go. There’s a new intensity around here after getting slapped in the face last year.
Now, the White Sox say, they want to forget all of the bad vibes, the bad mojo and the bad season, believing a fresh mind will do wonders.
“Obviously, we don’t want to roll into a new season with a bitter taste in our mouths,” White Sox starter Michael Kopech says. “We have a lot of energy in here. There’s a very mature feeling to the clubhouse now.
“We’re trying to demand respect, while also giving respect, and if we play hard, I think we can beat anybody, and that includes Cleveland.”
Time, of course, will tell.
“It’s a new year, there’s nothing better than a fresh start,” All-Star shortstop Tim Anderson said. “Things happen. We understand what happened. We understand what went down, and how it went down, and you learn from that.
“We’re trying to create something different, block out the distractions, block out the noise, take care of business, and we’ll be ready for a lot of fun.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: White Sox out to prove 2022 season was an aberration