Future baseball Hall of Famer Tony La Russa stood next to Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau on the Patriots sidelines Wednesday in Foxborough, Mass., as both watched coach Bill Belichick teach football at minicamp.
Neither man was there to pick Belichick's brain about the 3-4 defense.
"I was talking to Bill and Tom's name came up, and since I love the way Tom understands how players think and how to compete, I said it would be good to get us all together,'' La Russa said in a phone interview from the Patriots practice field as whistles blew.
It was when I asked La Russa about the surprising White Sox that he revealed he wasn't all that surprised because of the winning trait he thinks every championship team in any sport needs — and one he sees in the first-place Sox.
"I'm a great believer in the character of a club,'' La Russa said. "To me character has a lot to do with how you compete. That creates urgency and toughness. That elevates the talent that you have.''
Even more than starting pitching and Adam Dunn, that characteristic convinces La Russa the Sox are in the American League Central race to stay. He has watched the Sox enough to think the makeup of the division combined with the composition of their clubhouse offers them an opportunity.
"They go about it the right way,'' La Russa said. "I'm very impressed.''
A surprise appearance by Sox manager Robin Ventura and his staff Monday in St. Louis at his charity golf outing on the eve of the Sox-Cardinals series exposed La Russa firsthand to what he considers the team's biggest strength. Inadvertently, La Russa had scheduled his event Monday — the same day new Cardinals manager Mike Matheny had his. Short of local celebrities who had committed to Matheny's tournament, La Russa invited old friends Harold Baines and Joe McEwing on the Sox staff to participate on the team's off day.
Next thing La Russa knew, a Ventura-led seven-person Sox contingent arrived on a private plane Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf had supplied. La Russa welcomed them all with open arms, even Hawk Harrelson — then the general manager who fired him as Sox manager during the 1986 season. He was forgiven long ago.
"For the first few years after that, you know me, I took it personally,'' La Russa said. "But Hawk had a vision of what the organization should be and he should have had a manager who signed on with that same vision. Since the early '90s, we've had a great relationship.''
Days like Monday remind La Russa just how many solid relationships he maintains with the Sox family. According to La Russa, the last people to leave the Glen Echo Country Club were his impromptu visitors from Chicago.
"They saved us,'' La Russa said. "I called Jerry and this is exactly what I told him: 'Your guys just passed a heck of a character test.' The only thing that surprised me was Harold (Baines) didn't make a speech.''
La Russa laughed, knowing his former player likes speeches as much Ventura likes news conferences. Speaking of the Sox's soft-spoken manager, La Russa noted what everybody who spends more than an inning around Ventura notes.
"The thing about this job is it could be overwhelming and he gave off a real good vibe with his presence and demeanor,'' La Russa said. "You have to establish respect and trust. It's obvious his players have that. The baseball stuff matters for a manager, yeah, but it's the relationships.''
That is what La Russa misses most spending his first summer since 1978 without filling out a lineup card. He took a job with Major League Baseball working with Commissioner Bud Selig to stay in the game but misses being in the game. You don't win 2,728 games and three World Series without developing an addiction to competition.
"I don't miss the managing but the thing that's uncomfortable to me is I still like the winning and losing,'' said La Russa, 67. "I appreciate what I'm doing for the commissioner but it isn't winning and losing. If I found the right situation somewhere, I would like to get back in the front-office level with some responsibility.''
What about an office at 35th and Shields?
"The White Sox are in good hands in their front office with Kenny (Williams),'' La Russa said. "He's surrounded by smart people.''
La Russa knows how beneficial that can be.