Robin Ventura is entering his second season as manager of the Chicago White Sox. If it wasn't for one fateful decision made in 1986, Tony La Russa could have been approaching his 35th.
After starting the 1986 season with a 26-38 record, La Russa was fired as White Sox skipper by then-general manager Ken "Hawk" Harrelson.
“He’s probably the only manager who ever managed for 34 years and only got fired one time, and I was the guy who fired him,” Harrelson said in an interview with Comcast SportsNet.
Over 27 years have passed since the infamous firing, and although it was La Russa who lost his job, Harrelson is the one left feeling the agony of it.
“It really does pain me that I’m the only guy that fired him,” Harrelson said. “But it is what it is. It’s history. It’s there. It can’t be changed. I’ll always have nothing but absolute respect for Tony.”
On the day he dismissed La Russa, Harrelson told reporters, “Nothing was happening. We have almost a hundred games to play and we feel we still have a chance to contend in our division. We feel we still can make a move."
Unfortunately, they didn't. The White Sox finished the year 72-90 and didn't have another winning season until 1990.
Almost three decades later, what does La Russa think about getting fired by the White Sox?
"To me, we would have won at least another championship or two," he said.
Instead, La Russa went on to become a future Hall of Fame manager, leading the Oakland A's to three pennants and a World Series championship. Then he left for St. Louis, where he added three more pennants and two World Series titles. The White Sox finally broke through and won a world championship in 2005.
Owner Jerry Reinsdorf has said that allowing Harrelson to fire La Russa is the worst decision he's made in his sports career.
"Leaving was painful," La Russa explained. "The true story is that my wife took it more personally than Jerry. For years she wouldn't talk to him. It hurt her. It hurt us. But I kept reminding her that...I could have been fired many times, and Jerry was my No. 1 supporter, he and [former White Sox general manager] Roland Hemond. They found something they believed in, so I would never hold it against them."
La Russa has remained close with Reinsdorf, who can rely on his sense of humor to describe what happened.
"It was something Hawk wanted to do. It didn't work out. Everybody realizes that as a general manager, he's a great broadcaster," Reinsdorf quipped in a 2010 interview.
“Did I make a mistake at the time? No, I didn’t at the time because Tony wanted to go one way and I wanted to go another,” said Harrelson, who fired La Russa in suburban Lisle at a restaurant, which has since closed. “We sat down and we talked for a long time. After that, we didn’t talk for a long time.”
Not until 1992.
LaRussa’s first-place A’s came to Chicago in late-September. After the series, Harrelson walked over to the visiting clubhouse while La Russa was speaking with a group of reporters.
“We made eye contact and I gave him a thumbs up and then I turned around and walked out,” Harrelson recalled. “I’m walking towards the parking lot and he comes running out and says, ‘Hawk!’ And it was the first time we had talked in six or seven years. I told him, ‘Tony, that’s one of the best managing jobs I’ve ever seen.’ From that time on, all the past was erased.”
La Russa described the two as “estranged” for those silent years.
"It's totally 180 degrees," said La Russa, who then took some of the blame for being fired in the first place.
"The mistake that I made, number one, I should have never taken the job," admitted La Russa, whose contract expired after the 1985 season. "I think [Harrelson] felt like, 'Here's a manager who had some success. He knows the owner.' A lot of the organization was behind me so he felt, 'Okay, he's the guy.' Ken had a lot of progressive ideas, and who knows if he had gotten his own team on board who knows how it would have turned out? But you had to be honest. The coaches and I, we disagreed [with him]. It wasn't a good situation. We had to go."
La Russa retired after the 2011 season with 2,728 career victories, third most all-time behind Connie Mack and John McGraw.
“And Connie Mack owned the ballclub, and he was going to [bleeping] manage as long as he wanted to manage,” Harrelson said.
In 2014, La Russa will be elgible for the Hall of Fame for the first time. He’ll be on the ballot with the two managers right behind him on the all-time victory list: Bobby Cox and Joe Torre.
“My initial response was that I'm going to have to wait,” La Russa said. “But now maybe we can get in there together, which would be great because I'm friends and tremendous admirers of both of them."
It turns out there’s no greater fan of La Russa than the only man to ever fire him.
“I’ve seen all parts of seven decades in baseball. I’ve seen all the managers,” Harrelson said. “I would rate nobody ahead of Tony La Russa.”
Watch Chuck Garfien's interview with Tony La Russa tonight at 10 p.m. and midnight on SportsNet Central.