Home Sports Column: The futures of Tony La Russa and Willson Contreras could lie in White Sox and Cubs’ seasons of the past

Column: The futures of Tony La Russa and Willson Contreras could lie in White Sox and Cubs’ seasons of the past

by staff

When you’ve watch enough baseball in Chicago, you soon realize what goes around comes around.

The angst accompanying the early-season travails of the White Sox is not unfamiliar. Neither is fan anxiety over the trade status of a popular Cubs player.

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Here’s a look at how two Sox and Cubs seasons from the past relate to the present.

Been there. Done that.

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It’s not happening.

If you’re old enough to remember what happened all those years ago in a ballpark that has since been demolished and replaced by a parking lot, you know this question has been discussed a time or two, even by Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who eventually pulled the trigger.

The 2022 White Sox have followed the same basic trajectory of the 1983 White Sox, with one common denominator — the manager. Or two, if you count Reinsdorf.

Despite an abundance of talent, the Sox started 8-10 in April 1983 and followed with a 12-15 record in May. La Russa’s team is 19-20 heading into Sunday’s doubleheader against the New York Yankees.

Before Saturday’s 7-5 loss to the Yankees, the Sox ranked near the bottom in the majors in hitting and defense while the pitching was middle of the pack.

Almost no one believes La Russa’s team is incapable of turning things around and cruising to an American League Central title. But until the Sox do take off, it’s only an educated guess.

The blame has mostly fallen on the shoulders of La Russa, whom Reinsdorf brought in to take the Sox from Point B to Point C. Whether La Russa could have done anything differently to avoid the mediocre start seems irrelevant. White Sox Twitter has made up its mind.

The response has been eerily similar to the vocal cries of disgruntled fans in 1983. You might have tweeted your displeasure with the current manager to a few hundred followers, but your grandfather probably shouted it during games at half-filled Comiskey Park in the early 1980s.

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But the 1983 Sox moved into first place in the AL West on July 18, went on a 59-26 second-half run and won the division by 20 games before losing to the Baltimore Orioles in the American League Championship Series.

Years later, La Russa in a Tribune interview recalled the skepticism fans and media displayed during that “Winning Ugly” summer.

“When I was here, they hadn’t won anything since ’59,” La Russa said. “As soon as you’d lose two or three games in a row, they’re like, ‘It’s the beginning of the swoon!’ In ’83 it was kind of a rallying cry with us.

“We had lost two of three to Baltimore in August, and we were going to New York on a trip. Everyone was saying, ‘Oh, the wheels are coming off.’ I think that’s one reason we won by 20 games.”

The Sox swept the Yankees from Aug. 15-17 in the Bronx and clinched the division on Sept. 17, cruising through a 22-6 September.

“We didn’t cruise,” La Russa said, disputing the narrative. “We just kept kicking butt. We refused to get our foot off of their necks. Part of it was to prove people wrong.”

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And here we are again with the Sox in New York playing an important series against the league’s best team with a chance to prove people wrong.

None of La Russa’s current players was born in 1983. Only a few media members who were eyewitnesses remain. La Russa already was a polarizing figure by then and had been on the managerial hot seat since July 29, 1982, when Reinsdorf admitted during a postgame news conference the Sox were thinking about firing him.

“This is a critical time,” Reinsdorf said. “If we keep playing like this, we’ll be dead.”

Reinsdorf didn’t blame La Russa for the record or poor play. But he said expectations clearly were not being met.

“If Tony La Russa was fired, we’d be firing a good manager,” Reinsdorf said. “A decision like that would be made because the team is going so badly and you can’t fire the team, you fire the leader.”

La Russa remained the manager until GM Ken “Hawk” Harrelson fired him in 1986 after another slow start. Reinsdorf repeatedly said it was the worst baseball decision of his tenure as Sox chairman, and he rectified the alleged mistake by rehiring La Russa in 2020.

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He still can’t fire the team. But, sorry Twitter, he won’t fire the manager either.

The biggest question for Cubs President Jed Hoyer in 2022 is whether to extend the contract of the popular catcher, who becomes a free agent after the season. If he doesn’t feel a deal is possible, Hoyer could trade Contreras for prospects to continue restocking the farm system.

The Cubs already appear out of contention in the National League Central with a 15-24 record after Saturday’s 7-6, 10-inning loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks at Wrigley Field. A wild-card bid also appears unlikely.

Contreras is off to a great start, entering Saturday leading all catchers with a .391 OBP and an .865 OPS. He exited in the third inning Saturday with right hamstring tightness after stealing a base in the third inning.

Contreras also is the heart and soul of the team and one of only three players remaining — along with Kyle Hendricks and Jason Heyward — from the 2016 champions.

The game’s highest-paid catcher is the Philadelphia Phillies’ J.T. Realmuto, who signed a five-year, $115 million deal in 2021, breaking the record for catchers with a $23.1 million per-year average. Contreras figures to be in that $23 million per year range if the Cubs let him walk, even though he just turned 30 and has some wear and tear on his knees after nearly 600 games behind the plate.

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Cubs President Andy MacPhail faced a similar dilemma during the summer of 1997 with another team out of contention. Would he trade outfielder Sammy Sosa or potentially let him walk as a free agent after the season?

MacPhail answered that question on June 27, 1997, signing Sosa to a four-year, $42.5 million extension and making him the fourth $10 million per-year player along with Albert Belle, Barry Bonds and Gary Sheffield.

After the news was announced, MacPhail conceded Sheffield’s six-year, $61 million deal was a “key measuring stick” for Sosa’s extension. Some fans questioned whether Sosa deserved to be in the same category as Bonds, who was then an all-around player.

“If we didn’t feel that way, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” MacPhail said.

Sosa’s agent, Adam Katz, said Sosa took less money to stay a Cub.

“I let it be known to Andy, ‘We’re not looking for a home run, we’re looking for a double,’” Katz said.

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Sosa’s contract turned out to be a bargain for the Cubs. He turned into one of the game’s greatest sluggers in 1998, helping to fill Wrigley Field and make the team a goldmine for Tribune Co., which then owned the team. Sosa’s accomplishments were later put into question by steroid allegations, but the tens of millions he made the Cubs owners from 1998-2004 already was in the bank.

Sosa remains persona non grata with the current owners, the Ricketts family, and he hasn’t returned to Wrigley since being dealt after the ‘04 season. Whether Contreras has Sosa’s star power or charismais debatable, but he’s undisputedly one of the game’s best catchers.

Like Sosa he wants to remain a Cub. What is unknown is whether he’d settle for a “double” instead of a home run, giving the Rickettses a hometown discount. Asked about Contreras on Thursday, Hoyer said “our relationship is good” while declining to discuss the catcher’s future.

Cubs fans have made their feelings about Contreras known. Now they wait for Hoyer’s answer.

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