Here’s the thing to keep in mind as you digest this latest helping of lukewarm curmudgeon soup, dished up by the 76-year-old manager of the White Sox: Tony La Russa is not the future of baseball. His old-school views and approach to the game will not shape the future of this sport so many of us love, not only for what it was and is but mostly what it can be.
The future of the sport will be fun. How do I know this?
I watch the joy with which Yermin Mercedes plays the game — the joy he has every time he swings the bat in the big leagues, knowing his journey to get to this point. I watch how his teammates, such as Tim Anderson, support and encourage it.
I watch Fernando Tatis Jr. I watch Shohei Ohtani. I watch Mike Trout — wait, dammit, he’s on the IL now — and I watch Mookie Betts and I watch Pete Alonso. I watch the current and future stars of this sport. They are not only incredibly talented and driven, but also passionate about their sport. I watch their joy and I feel joy.
MORE: La Russa says Yermin Mercedes’ home run was ‘mistake’
La Russa? He’s not even the future of the White Sox, past a year or two. His days in the sport have been numbered from the very moment he was hired by White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf.
Look, there are two very different ways to view La Russa’s Tuesday comments, in which he said his “clueless” rookie made a “big mistake” after hitting a 3-0 count home run while up 15-4 over the Twins in the ninth. I will defend to the bitter Twitter argument end (wait, are there ever endings to Twitter arguments?) his right to make those comments.
He has earned that right, absolutely. La Russa’s history with the game, his team’s successes on the biggest stages and in the biggest moments, is incredible. His contributions to the sport were rewarded with a richly deserved spot in Cooperstown as a member of the Hall of Fame. He has lived his baseball life one way, and it has served him well.
One aspect of the way he has approached the game is hopefully ending soon, and that makes me happy. Because here’s the thing: La Russa’s criticism of Mercedes’ action is dumb. Here’s the play that started the whole thing.
And here’s one of the things La Russa said in response.
La Russa on Mercedes: “The fact that he’s a rookie and excited helps explain why he just was clueless. But now he’s got a clue.”
— Jesse Rogers (@JesseRogersESPN) May 18, 2021
I’m not even going to rehash why this particular unwritten rule — don’t swing at a 3-0 pitch if your team is winning a blowout — is especially ridiculous, even by the lofty standards of ridiculousness of baseball’s unwritten rules. Just know that it’s dumb. It’s not OK to swing at a 3-0 pitch, but a 3-1 pitch would be fine? C’mon. And I’m not even going to belabor the point that the homer was hit off a pitch thrown by a position player, Willians Astudillo, who lofted the 47 mph meatball to the plate with two outs.
Here’s what really bothers me:
By criticizing Mercedes for swinging and homering on the 3-0 pitch — believe me, if he had swung and missed, neither the Twins nor La Russa would have mentioned it — La Russa chose to side with some antiquated notion of “respect for the game,” instead of the very real managerial duty of “respecting the career struggles and successes of his player.”
Mercedes is no ordinary player. His success this season is one of the very best stories in baseball in 2021. His story of perseverance and self-belief is nothing short of incredible. Mercedes turned 28 on Valentine’s Day, with exactly one career MLB plate appearance under his belt. His professional career had started a decade earlier. He spent three years in the Nationals’ organization, one year in independent baseball and then three years in the Orioles’ organization. He didn’t even reach Double-A until he was 24, or Triple-A until he was 26.
He played 103 games in High-A for the White Sox’s Winston-Salem team in 2018 when he was 25 years old, a full two-and-a-half years older than the average player in that league. You play that many games at that level, at that age, and you do not go on to even see the majors, much less star in the majors.
But here he is. Not just surviving, but thriving. Mercedes went 8 for 8 to start the season, and has barely slowed down. Entering play on Tuesday, he was batting an AL-best .364 with six homers, 25 RBIs, a 177 OPS+ and a 1.5 bWAR. He has been incredible.
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Mercedes’ story doesn’t mean he’s immune from criticism, of course. But for this little thing, a thing that shouldn’t even be a thing, La Russa chose antiquated notions over his actual player. Some have tried to say it’s mostly about Mercedes missing a take sign. Nah. It’s not. Here’s a quote from La Russa on what happened, from ESPN.com’s story on the incident.
“I took several steps from the dugout onto the field, yelling ‘take, take, take,’” La Russa recalled. “The way he was set up it looked to me like he was going to swing.
“I was upset because that’s not a time to swing 3-0. I knew the Twins knew I was upset … He missed a 3-0 take sign. With that kind of lead that’s just sportsmanship and respect for your opponent.”
Basically, Mercedes should have known better. There are many quotes from La Russa we could examine here, but I’m going to end with the one that has stuck in my craw:
“There will be a consequence he has to endure here within our family. It’s a learning experience.”
Consequence for hitting a home run. Consequence for a guy who spent 10 years in the minors waiting for his shot, finally getting his opportunity and cashing in. Consequence for a guy who played seven years of winter ball trying to improve as a player and earn money to continue his career. Consequence for finally making his big-league dream come true, only to commit the dastardly sin of swinging at a 3-0 pitch instead of a 3-1 pitch.
I can’t be sure, but it appears La Russa meant there was another consequence coming for Mercedes, after getting ripped by his manager in a Zoom news conference. Isn’t that enough?
One thing La Russa was right about, though: This certainly is a learning experience.
I’m just not sure it’s the lesson La Russa thinks is being taught.