The Chicago White Sox got off to a miserable start, so bad that the general manager began looking for a new manager while the current one squirmed in the dugout.
“We’re 7-17, I can’t worry about feelings,” the general manager said, adding that if the manager is fired, “the players will fire him.”
“They didn’t answer him,” he said. “It’s the same old story. It’s not always the manager’s fault. But I know no other way to go. You don’t get rid of players. The club is 7-17. That’s the bottom line.”
The general manager was Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, who had been playing pool in a suite at the Palmer House Hotel until 3 a.m. the previous morning. His pool partner was New York Yankees broadcaster Billy Martin, who Harrelson wanted to hire to replace him administrator Tony LaRussa.
It was as inappropriate as it sounds. Even La Russa’s detractors couldn’t believe that White Sox president Jerry Reinsdorf would let the general manager publicly humiliate his manager. Some Sox players wore T-shirts that read “Save Our Captain.” The circus atmosphere was ridiculous, even by Sox standards.
The losing pitcher that night was veteran Tom Seaver, 41 years old and in the final year of his career. Seaver was the epitome of the 1986 Sox, a team that looked old, tired and ready for a nap except for promising infielder Bobby Bonilla.
After Harrelson’s courting of Martin — the longtime major league manager — became the focal point of the Sox’s season, they lost to the Yankees the next day, falling to 7-18. The Sox went on a short run before another long losing streak. Harrelson fired La Russa in June and hired Jim Fregosi as his replacement. The Sox would not become competitive again until 1990, finishing last in the American League in attendance in 1989.
The Sox’s 7-18 start after Wednesday’s 8-0 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays is their worst since 1986 and has the same kind of “toast catfish” vibe. They struck out 17 times Wednesday and hit .128 and scored six runs in the last five losses of their seven-game losing streak.
1986 was a memorable year for all the wrong reasons. This year could be a repeat, but only if the Sox don’t act fast and start making changes. Thanks to play in the mediocre American League Central, the 2023 season remains salvageable.
But there are no changes, and the Sox begin a four-game series against Tampa Bay on Thursday with the appearance of a Dead Team Walking.
At least Pedro Grifol doesn’t have to worry about suffering the same fate as La Russa 1.0.
Grifol last fall replaced La Russa 2.0, the manager who returned to the Sox in 2021 as Reinsdorf spent more than three decades regretting his decision to let Harrelson fire him in the first place.
Being a Sox fan means going through cycles of craziness and then reliving those cycles decades later with some of the same staff. That 1986 team also featured the September induction of new Ken Williams, who as executive vice president remains the symbol of Reinsdorf’s eternal loyalty to friends.
Williams and general manager Rick Hahn can’t be blamed for La Russa 2.0, but Grifol is their guy and will be judged on whether he’s able to turn this around before it’s too late. If not, he’s Terry Bevington 2.0.
Grifol arrived here while the freefall was already underway. The lack of free agent signings in the offseason should have been a red flag, but spring training optimism trumped reality, and the loss of Tim Anderson to a left knee injury proved to be what put the team into a deep sleep.
Grifol mentioned to reporters in Toronto that “somebody pointed out to me not too long ago that this club plays a lot better with (Anderson) than without him.”
Sox fans have known this for a while. But kudos to the Sox for finally letting their manager know the truth. A good relationship develops by not keeping secrets from each other.
While Grifol is safe, many of the players should probably keep their bags packed, including Lance Lynn, who has started to look like the 1986 version of Seaver, albeit without the charm or intellect. Lynn recently opened up with podcaster and former Sox catcher AJ Pierzynski, saying, “I threw the ball like (bleep), to be honest with you. … I have not been myself until now. That has to change too.”
Lynn lasted six innings once in five starts, looking terrified of the new pitch-clock rules. Sox analyst Steve Stone noted on WSCR-AM 670 Tuesday that “maybe some salads would help” Lynn. He has always succeeded before as a heavy starter, but now is the critical moment and he needs to figure it out.
If the Sox are going to salvage anything from this season, players like Lynn, Yoán Moncada, Mike Clevinger, Kendall Graveman and Lucas Giolito need to step up over the next three months so Hahn can at least get something in return before the trade deadline.
The low point of the season might have been the sight of outfielders Eloy Jiménez and Luis Robert Jr. arguing Tuesday because Robert stole two would-be Jimenez catches. Jiménez was right when he said Robert, but the body language was so bad you’d be worried Jiménez would hurt himself by nodding so much.
Nothing would surprise Sox fans at this point.
The 2023 Promise turned into a 1986 reboot and it’s an episode no one wants to watch again.