Imagine the final chapter of “Gulliver’s Travels” without Gulliver or the final episode of “The Sopranos” without Tony Soprano.
If the protagonist disappeared before the end, it wouldn’t be the same story.
That’s why the Chicago White Sox need manager Tony La Russa in the dugout for the end of this journey that has included more ups and downs, more ridiculous drama and more fan angst than any what a season in recent memory.
No matter how it ends, we need La Russa to be there when it happens.
Tuesday marked a week since the Sox announced that La Russa would miss that night’s game for undisclosed health reasons. He went on indefinite leave the following day, flying to Phoenix for medical tests, reportedly for a heart condition.
Hours before Tuesday night’s game in Seattle, there was no word from the Sox on La Russa’s condition or any indication of when he would return. There are only four weeks left in the regular season and each game is more important than the last for the Sox.
While La Russa’s status is unknown, we have updated information on the state of the Sox, based on eyewitness accounts of their sudden re-emergence as a viable playoff contender in baseball’s worst division, the American League Central.
The Sox had won five of their last six games on Tuesday under interim manager Miguel Cairo, moving two games behind the Cleveland Guardians and one behind the Minnesota Twins.
Leading indicators suggest the Sox have found their mojo after five months of mediocrity.
Shortstop Elvis Andrus, whose two-run homer punctuated Monday’s 3-2 win over the Mariners, said he found a “tense” atmosphere the week he arrived from Oakland at the mid August.
“Everyone is much more relaxed,” Andrus told reporters. “Everybody go out and have fun and let things happen.”
The pitching staff had a 1.83 ERA in those six games. Dylan Cease came within an over to throw a no-hitter in Saturday’s shutout against the Twins. Lance Lynn has allowed one earned run in 14 innings in his last two starts. Michael Kopech is on his way back from the injured list and Johnny Cueto has been a rock since day one.
The Sox have homered 13 in the first seven games since leaving La Russa. They’ve hit 10 home runs in their previous 18 games. Tim Anderson, their best hitter and undisputed leader, is expected for the home stretch. All systems are working.
The players also showed some unity on Friday in a ninth-inning bench clearance incident against the Twins, with Lynn playing John Belushi’s Bluto in “Animal House.” The burly pitcher carefully climbed up the dugout rail to lead a charge towards the mound after Andrew Vaughn was hit by a pitch that everyone in the stadium knew was unintentional.
No matter. As Otter told his fraternity brothers in the film, “This situation absolutely calls for a really futile and stupid move on someone’s part.”
“And we’re just the guys to do it,” bellowed Bluto.
While any resemblance between Lynn and Bluto is purely coincidental, someone must have started something for no good reason. Who knows if the Lance Brigade Charge was the futile, stupid move the Sox needed?
Remember, it was in early July that NBC Sports Chicago analyst Frank Thomas said the Sox clubhouse was too relaxed, saying that after a loss it was “time to a snap”. Better late than never.
Cairo scored high marks in its first week for being the antithesis of La Russaism. He used reliever Joe Kelly as the opener in one game and called Leury García to attempt a tight bunt when a sacrificial fly was warranted in another. Neither decision worked, but it’s the thought that counts.
Moving Andrus to No. 1 on Monday worked perfectly, and the veteran shortstop is hitting .367 with three homers with Cairo as manager.
Cairo’s degree of authority is unknown. General manager Rick Hahn and pitching coach Ethan Katz no doubt had their fingerprints on Kelly’s use as an opener. Cairo also continues to speak to La Russa daily, both in the morning and after games.
“Because I want to learn,” he told reporters Monday in Seattle. “I ask questions.”
Don’t change what works is an older adage than La Russa, and many Sox fans want Cairo to go all the way. Granted, the Sox have looked better since leaving La Russa, but they’ve had week-long spells like this and generally followed them with a bad one. That’s why they’re basically a .500 team, battling in a split with two other .500ish teams.
If La Russa doesn’t feel strong enough or is so superstitious that he would let Cairo continue to get by in the hot weather even though he’s healthy enough to come back, then let the wild rowdiness continue without the man in the room. Cairo called “El Jefe”.
But I hope La Russa returns soon, healthy and centered. I don’t agree with some of his decisions or with telling his players not to run hard to avoid injuries. His defensive answers to valid questions after losses are pointless, and his belief that the vast majority of the baseball world agrees with his strategy of issuing intentional walks with a 1-2 count defies logic.
For better or worse, I’d love to see how this incredibly interesting story unfolds. A 3-2 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks on Aug. 28 at the guaranteed rate field isn’t how La Russa’s season should end.
There are only two proper finals for the 2022 season: either the Sox finish this comeback and see how they fare in the playoffs, or they fail to enter as Hahn and La Russa face the music for a underperforming season.
It settles as the cliffhanger of all cliffhangers.