Henning: White Sox get Tony La Russa, now Tigers need to get A.J. Hinch

Detroit News

Lynn Henning
 
| The Detroit News

There could only have been one baseball town, and one fan base, happier Thursday than a 76-year-old manager named Tony La Russa.

Detroit got the word at mid-afternoon, a stunning bulletin, that La Russa had been picked – obviously by owner Jerry Reinsdorf – to manage those rip-roaring young White Sox talents beginning next season.

And with that personnel bomb from the South Side the possibility, if not probability, drew closer that A.J. Hinch could become the next Tigers skipper.

The men in the third-floor office at Comerica Park and across the street in owner Chris Ilitch’s chambers need to make an invitation this golden happen. It’s too good of a fit – Hinch and the Tigers. For all parties and for all reasons.

Thursday’s news from Chicago sent managerial dominoes toppling all the way to Woodward Avenue. For the Tigers, this was the kind of news they’re not accustomed to getting.

Supposedly, Reinsdorf had assured Rick Hahn, the White Sox general manager, that a new manager was Hahn’s call – same as it had been earlier this month when Hahn fired Rich Renteria.

It’s conceivable Hahn got all wide-eyed over La Russa. It’s possible that a young GM who has forged a dynamic White Sox roster would decide that all this fresh blood needed a man of La Russa’s savvy and Hall of Fame cachet, even at 76.

But it’s hard to fathom that’s how this Roman candle of a hire came down when it’s known La Russa hasn’t managed in nine years and when a 46-year-old World Series winner in Hinch was sitting there waiting to join Hahn’s lineup marvels for a long, merry run in the American League Central Division.

The Tigers now have an opportunity, if not a mandate, to make their manager’s office Hinch’s next home, and for the long term.

He has everything the Tigers need. And the Tigers have enough percolating on the farm to make this a good, gratifying, job for him, if all parties can get past some lumps in 2021 and a few growing-up seasons that no doubt will follow.

Young guns in Detroit

Those familiar with Hinch’s mind and preferences understand it’s Detroit’s down-the-road allure that has had Hinch all along interested, and even excited. He has a bead on the farm, which depending upon the national outlet is ranked anywhere from third to sixth among the 30 big-league clubs. He knows more early draft picks, the kind that tend to pay off handsomely and maybe hurriedly if college stars are snagged, are coming in 2021 when the Tigers pick third overall.

Hinch knows the town and the team from having played in Detroit in 2003 when it’s a wonder he didn’t develop post-traumatic stress syndrome from enduring that 43-119 nightmare. What matters to him isn’t 2003 but that three years later that same Tigers team was playing in a World Series and headed for five more playoff Octobers through 2013, with Comerica Park’s gates spinning to the tune of 3 million-plus fans in four of those years. 

He knows the potential in Detroit. He is acquainted with the Tigers front office, beginning with GM Al Avila, who was an assistant GM when Hinch was part of the 2003 crucible.

No one has to tell Hinch that Detroit, like St. Louis, or Cincinnati, is a ground-floor baseball town where baseball tends to be king in terms of 365-day, 24/7 passion and attention.

There is nothing in the way in Detroit. There is no Cubs team competing for baseball time and attention, as there is in Chicago. There is no (ahem) Lions team wrapping Motown around its finger, as is the case in most NFL towns, and as will – yes – be the reality, someday, in Detroit.

The Red Wings and Pistons have their monopoly markets, during playoff times anyway. But the Tigers job is as lush in terms of fan passion and devotion as it was 41 years ago when Sparky Anderson decided this would be his next stop after all the luster he knew in Cincinnati.

Is it possible Hinch isn’t the Tigers’ pick, even if he looms as ideal in terms of stature, smarts, personality, demonstrable talent, and persona?

Sure.

He might not like how the interview goes. The Tigers might find that their conversation was lukewarm, not as convincing as it was with Pedro Grifol, or Mark Kotsay, or Marcus Thames, or others who might have done what Brad Ausmus did in 2013 when he so knocked out the Tigers brass they hired him.

Owning his mistakes

There’s another hitch to Hinch, as it were. Well known. Much discussed.

He was managing an Astros team that stole signals and beat trash bins and cheated with ingenious lawlessness as part of its World Series ride in 2017.

This could be a disqualifier. Or, rather, it might have disqualified him before it became obvious the Tigers were pleased with how he handled matters, particularly in offering true sorrow for the Astros’ sins and doing it with his heart rather than with a PR person’s pen etching those words of contrition.

That matters. Absolutely it matters. The penitence he displayed last February was even more convincing than Hinch bludgeoning spy-cameras with a baseball bat as he twice did during the Astros scandal.

More: Matt Manning ‘100 percent’ healthy, back on track for possible 2021 Tigers debut

He screwed up being part of the culture. He acknowledged it. Fully and without qualification.

And that’s the best of all reasons to offer a man of otherwise sterling reputation, who lost his job and who has been sitting in baseball exile for the past year, the next managerial shot he absolutely deserves and absolutely will get if the Tigers don’t bite.

What might be helpful for all parties to ponder is some brutal reality. Hinch won’t be any managerial messiah should this gig with the Tigers work out. It doesn’t matter how smart a Stanford man is, how plugged-into analytics he has been and chooses to be as the Tigers gear up there, or how many games he won with a team as uber-talented as the Astros.

This will be a new reality, Detroit: A hard year, probably beneath .500, in 2021. The training-wheels will remain on in 2022 and 2023.

This team will be young, albeit with a steady stream of talent spicing the stage, and likely fortified by some heavy free-agent hook-ups maybe as early as this year and certainly by next autumn.

The component parts will be coming together for some time. But they’re in transit, which in keeping with pro sports’ typical cycles puts the Tigers in nice shape, fairly quickly, to at least sniff one of those 16 playoff spots Commissioner Rob Manfred wisely installed this year and appears resolute on keeping.

As this particular stretch of a town’s 120-year-old baseball timeline takes shape, the Tigers need Hinch’s sizzle, his substance, and his singular ability to put a jolt into their fan galaxy.

It’s all there, Tigers. It got real Thursday with the news from Chicago.

Make it happen in Detroit.

Now.

Freelance writer Lynn Henning is a former Detroit News sports reporter.

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