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Clueless Tony La Russa Is Leading a Dwindling Army in Pointless MLB Culture War

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 19, 2021

Chicago White Sox manager Tony La Russa, center, stands with Nick Madrigal, left, and Yoan Moncada, right, as he makes a pitching change during the sixth inning of a baseball game against the Kansas City Royals Sunday, May 9, 2021, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

For the second time in as many seasons, Major League Baseball is engulfed in a nontroversy over the unwritten rule that states it's bad form to swing away on a 3-0 count in a blowout.

To clarify, a "nontroversy" is a controversy that, like the unwritten rules themselves, probably should not exist.

The swing in question happened Monday night when Chicago White Sox rookie Yermin Mercedes tried his luck on a 47 mph eephus from Minnesota Twins utility man Willians Astudillo, who was mopping up with the score 15-4 in Chicago's favor in the ninth inning.

Mercedes didn't miss, sending the pitch deep to center field for a home run:

MLB @MLB

🚨 THE YERMINATOR JUST HOMERED OFF OF LA TORTUGA! 🚨 https://t.co/pHacUxXtdF

Because all it did was extend the White Sox's lead from 11 to 12 runs, Mercedes' blast was useless. But as the official MLB Twitter account pretty well encapsulated with its all-caps reaction, it was nonetheless a net positive for the game's entertainment value.

The Twins broadcast, however, didn't appreciate it. Neither did Minnesota manager Rocco Baldelli, who said afterward that he was "surprised" by Mercedes' swing and that, because the game was so far out of reach: "I can understand myself and our guys not being happy about going out there and taking 3-0 swings."

For his part, Mercedes declined to apologize:

Chris Emma @CEmma670

Yermin Mercedes isn't here for the unwritten rules of baseball. "I'm going to play like that. I'm Yermin. I can't be another person because if I change it, everything is going to change. ... We're just having fun. It's baseball." https://t.co/WGf8ZyL2TN

Yet in a strange and borderline inexplicable twist of fate, nobody has been more upset with the 28-year-old than his own manager, Tony La Russa.

     

Old Manager Yells at Cloud

In La Russa's defense, he had ordered Mercedes not to swing. He has said that the take sign was on, and that he was even yelling "take, take, take" when he realized that Mercedes was looking to swing away.

But more so than the missed sign, the 76-year-old skipper has made it clear that it was the ostensibly unsportsmanlike nature of the swing itself that truly irked him:

"There's sportsmanship, respect for the game, respect for your opponent. That's real and has to be the philosophy, and we follow it. The fact that he is a rookie who was excited helps explain why he just was clueless. But now he's got a clue."

It's not exactly common for a manager to so blatantly throw one of his own players under the bus. With his remark, La Russa not only threw Mercedes under the bus, but then drove it on top of him and ignited it in a spectacular fireball.

The only reasonable explanation for doing so is that it was a peace offering to Baldelli and the Twins, lest they retaliate against Mercedes in Tuesday's game.

But for one thing, it didn't exactly work:

White Sox Talk @NBCSWhiteSox

Hope the Sox score 60 on 'em https://t.co/Mqac1YHntK

And for another, La Russa was cool with it.

"It wasn't obvious to me," he told reporters regarding whether he saw Tyler Duffey's buzzing fastball as intentional. "The guy threw a sinker. It didn't look good. So I wasn't that suspicious. I'm suspicious if somebody throws at somebody's head. I don't have a problem with how the Twins handled that."

Even into Wednesday, La Russa is not only still refusing to defend Mercedes but continuing to criticize him. Here's what he said before the day's getaway matinee at Target Field, courtesy of Bob Nightengale of USA Today:

Bob Nightengale @BNightengale

Tony La Russa stands his ground on criticism of Yermin Mercedes saying it was mistake to swing on 3-0 pitch in 15-4 game.His rule of thumb: "Do you think you need more [runs] to win, you keep pushing. If you think you have enough, respect the game and opposition. Sportsmanship.''

It feels weird to say this about a guy who's literally in the Hall of Fame for his managing, but these are the words of a guy who just doesn't get it.

      

This Is the Fernando Tatis Jr. Thing All Over Again

It wasn't even a year ago that the unwritten rule of swinging on a 3-0 pitch with a big lead was previously a major topic of conversation, courtesy of this grand slam by San Diego Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. on August 17, 2020:

San Diego Padres @Padres

Fernando Tatis Jr. El Niño. The face of baseball. https://t.co/Y5VF5EIBKt

By running afoul of the unwritten rules—which are perhaps best described as unofficial guidelines for decorum—Tatis' granny initially drew rebukes from both Texas Rangers manager Chris Woodward (here) and his own skipper, Jayce Tingler (here). As such, the young star no choice but to apologize (here).

Yet Tatis' time in the dog house proved to be short-lived as the Twitterverse rallied to his defense and both current and former players backed his cause. He even got a pat on the back from one of the sport's most respected living players, Hall of Famer Johnny Bench.

Now Tatis is one of baseball's richest players after signing a $340 million contract in February. He also took a major step toward becoming the face of baseball by accepting a gig as the frontman for MLB The Show 21, which is being sold precisely on the notion that Tatis shouldn't have to apologize for his style of play.

If that's not a sign that the unwritten rules hold diminished sway with baseball's current generation, there's also the reality that MLB itself has come down firmly on their side. Once frowned upon, bat flips are now celebrated. Once considered better seen and not heard, charismatic young players now have center stage.

The message that's clearly being sent is that baseball is best not when it's orderly, but when it's, you know, fun. It's therefore baffling to think that any modern player would take the unwritten rules seriously, much less a guy like Mercedes.

He toiled in the minors for nearly a decade before he finally got called up last year. Now he's getting a chance to play every day and making the most of it by leading MLB with a .368 average. But since 28 is old for a rookie, he has every reason not to risk a trip back to the minors by taking his foot off the gas.

It's also not as if the wind has shifted direction since Tatis let some air out of the unwritten rules last August. Coming to Mercedes' defense have been players like Los Angeles Dodgers ace Trevor Bauer:

Trevor Bauer (トレバー・バウアー) @BauerOutage

Dear hitters: If you hit a 3-0 homer off me, I will not consider it a crime. Dear people who are still mad about a hitter hitting: kindly get out of the game. Can’t believe we’re still talking about 3-0 swings. If you don’t like it, managers or pitchers, just be better.

And San Francisco Giants left-hander Alex Wood:

Alex Wood @Awood45

If there’s a position player pitching in a big league game all “rules” are out the window imho. Plus do y’all realize how hard that is to launch a 49mph pitch 400 feet lol? Give the people what they want.

Nor has Mercedes lost the support of his teammates. Shortstop Tim Anderson, who's plenty flamboyant in his own right, is on his side:

Daniel Greenberg @ChiSportUpdates

Tim Anderson shares his thoughts on Instagram about Tony La Russa being upset with Yermin Mercedes. https://t.co/3L89ohckBa

So is veteran right-hander Lance Lynn, who said of the unwritten rules: "The more I play this game, the more those rules have gone away, and I understand it."

You'd think La Russa would hear all this and take a hint. But nope:

Chris Emma @CEmma670

Lance Lynn last night said "there are no rules" when a position player is pitching, adding: "The more I play this game, the more those (unwritten) rules have gone away." Tony La Russa said of those remarks: "Lance has a locker. I have an office. ... I don't agree."

Then again, the only surprising thing here is how unsurprising it is that La Russa has chosen to make this stand.

      

If La Russa Can't Save the Unwritten Rules, Can Anyone?

Once upon a time, news of a team hiring La Russa as its manager would have been met with great excitement. He is, after all, a three-time World Series champion who ranks third on the all-time wins list.

Yet it's worth remembering now that White Sox's announcement of La Russa's hiring last October was largely met with befuddlement. And apparently not just outside the organization, as there were reportedly some within it who had concerns as to whether La Russa was as good a fit for the team as owner Jerry Reinsdorf apparently thought he was.

Matt Marton/Associated Press

Those concerns were well-founded not just in the sense that a septuagenarian was set to take charge of a predominantly young clubhouse, but also in the likelihood that La Russa would be out of touch. He had last managed with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011, which might as well have been a century ago.

In spite of the White Sox's 26-16 record and first-place standing in the American League Central, the Tony La Russa experience had been marked by frustration even before Mercedes' swing. He had made questionable decisions and even caught not knowing an actual (i.e., written) rule.

Back on May 3, Jeff Passan of ESPN reported that patience in the White Sox's clubhouse for La Russa was growing thin. So even if he says he doesn't see a rift in the clubhouse amidst the Mercedes drama, it's not at all a leap to think that such a rift exists. If it does, the already-thin ice beneath La Russa's feet is bound to crack.

If it is indeed a spat over baseball's unwritten rules that ultimately costs La Russa his job, well, that would frankly be all too appropriate.

His very hiring was the beginning of an experiment in which the White Sox would find out whether an old-school boss could succeed in a decidedly new-school environment. As they're something akin to a list of commandments, the unwritten rules were perhaps destined to serve as a litmus test. Once introduced, they would either put White Sox players in their place or prove that La Russa is out of place.

Judging from the reaction to La Russa's handling—not just on the part of White Sox players, but that of players from other teams and an endless supply of exasperated headlines—this particular experiment is headed toward a clear solution.

That's just where baseball is these days. So even if La Russa isn't the first to die on the hill of the unwritten rules, he might just be the last.

     

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and Baseball Savant.

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