Opinion: For better or worse, White Sox manager Tony La Russa stays true in spat over Yermin Mercedes HR

There were no apologies.

No regrets.

No second thoughts.

Chicago White Sox manager Tony La Russa instead doubled down on his criticism Wednesday of his own player, and their hottest hitter, Yermin Mercedes, for swinging at a 3-and-0 pitch in the final inning of a 16-4 blowout over the Minnesota Twins.

“It’s not acceptable,’’ La Russa said. “Whoever doesn’t like it, they’re entitled to their opinion. … If you’re going to tell me that sportsmanship and respect for the game of baseball and respect for your opponent is not an important priority, then I can’t disagree with you more.’’ 

La Russa, 76, seems genuinely surprised over the social media uproar, and the criticism toward him for not adapting to the game’s new belief that unwritten rules should be as obsolete as 10-cent beer night.

“I’m not going to say it’s much ado about nothing,’’ La Russa said. “It’s much ado about a little bit. He missed a sign. By the way, if he misses a sign and it’s a 3-2 game, he would have been talked to because you don’t miss signs.”

Yet, there are plenty of players every night that miss signs, and they’re not publicly ridiculed. It is kept behind closed doors with a fine, perhaps a benching, but not calling the player “clueless."

Tony La Russa was named the White Sox manager before the 2021 season. (Photo: Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports)

“What did I say publicly?" La Russa asked during his Zoom conference. "I said a young player made a mistake, which, by the way, he did, and we need to acknowledge it. Part of how you get better as a team is, if something goes wrong, you address it."

Well, it was certainly addressed, loud and clear, with several major league players taking exception.

“Dear hitters,’’ Los Angeles Dodgers starter Trevor Bauer tweeted, “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.

La Russa acknowledges there’s a lot of noise brewing, but insists his reaction is understood in his own clubhouse.

“I’d be willing to bet there isn’t anybody in that clubhouse,’’ La Russa said, “that’s upset that I mentioned that’s not the way we compete. I walked around the clubhouse (Tuesday) night and nobody was giving me the Heisman (stiff arm).’’

Well, there was White Sox starter Lance Lynn, who played for La Russa in St. Louis, who disagreed with the idea that Mercedes disrespected the game.

“If a position player is on the mound, there are no rules,” Lynn said. “Let’s get the game over with. And if you have a problem with whatever happened, then put a pitcher out there.”

La Russa’s response: “Lance has a locker, I have an office. I don’t agree. … If someone felt that way, then it's my job to correct it. You don't swing 3-0 when you're up by that big a lead."

There was Mercedes, who spoke before La Russa publicly scolded him: “I’m going to play like that. I’m Yermin. I can’t be another person. If I change it, everything is going to change …  We’re just having fun. It’s baseball.’’

La Russa’s retort: "I heard (Mercedes) said, ‘I play my game.’ No, he doesn’t. He plays the game of major-league baseball. Respect the game, respect the opponents, and he has to respect the sign. When you get the take sign, take.”

And there is Tim Anderson, the face of the team, who tweeted: "The game wasn’t over! Keep doing you, big daddy!’’

It’ll be fascinating to see if La Russa’s public admonishment of Mercedes leaves residue in the White Sox clubhouse.

This is a team, despite the loss of two-thirds of their starting outfield with Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert, that has the best record in baseball (25-16), and a 2 ½-game lead in the American League Central.

And this is a player, a 28-year-old rookie, who has been their savior, entering Wednesday with a league-leading .368 batting average.

If this were 10 years ago when La Russa was managing the Cardinals before  his first retirement, the baseball world would have sided with La Russa.

In the past 20 years, according to ESPN, hitters saw 557 pitches in 3-and-0 counts when their teams were up by 10 or more runs.

Mercedes was the first one to swing.

“You think you need more [runs] to win, you keep pushing,’’ La Russa said. “If you think you have enough, respect the game and opposition. Sportsmanship.’’

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La Russa’s principles are what helped him become a Hall of Fame manager. He was offended that the White Sox ran up the score on the Twins. For La Russa, it would have been like New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick watching his quarterback throw a pass with a 35-point lead late in the fourth quarter. Or San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich watching one of his players steal the ball and racing down the the court for a layup in the final seconds when the opposition simply was running out the clock.

He was embarrassed by Mercedes’ home run, and rushed to tell the Twins the same afterwards. He wasn’t even critical of the Twins throwing what appeared to be a retaliatory pitch behind Mercedes the next night, leading to the ejections of pitcher Tyler Duffey and manager Rocco Baldelli.

It was old-school baseball, and the move appeared to be endorsed by La Russa considering it was not a pitch aimed for his head, and simply sent a message.

The problem we have now is that no one quite understands what’s acceptable, tolerable or should be celebrated these days.

It’s cool to bat flip, as San Diego Padres’ star Fernando Tatis learned in the outpouring of his popularity, but not walk off the mound pounding your chest and screaming at the opposition, as Cincinnati Reds reliever Amir Garrett discovered with his five-game suspension.

“I learned to not have fun,’’ he said.

For Mercedes, he was simply having fun, homering off a friend, utility player Willians Astudillo, giving him bragging rights.

Besides, when a team already is embarrassing themselves by using position players, aren’t all bets off?

You can make the argument teams are disrespecting the game by constantly using position players in blowouts instead of real pitchers. How is that protecting the integrity of the game? If you’re not trying to win, you deserve to be embarrassed.

It doesn’t mean you’re stealing bases with a 10-run lead, or laying down sacrifice bunts, or employing hit-and-runs. But why not try pad your statistics when a position player is on the mound? The numbers count the same, just as if you strike out in a blowout.

“I’m sorry, the unwritten rules have changed a little, excuse me, not a little, a lot,’’ Hall of Famer Frank Thomas said on the White Sox postgame telecast. “In the ’90s, when we played, it would never happen. But today? Everybody’s having fun.”

Well, the White Sox were having a blast, just rolling along and pulling away from the pack in the AL Central, but instead of talking about their talent, the narrative suddenly has shifted.

The White Sox need to keep winning for this storm to go away, because if they hit a losing streak or Mercedes stops hitting, it could turn ugly.

“This is America, the media can focus on whatever they want to,’’ La Russa says. “…The one thing I admit to is that you need to be accountable, and to the extent that you can keep players in a positive frame of mind as long as you’re honest with them. …

“The analogy is a family. You’re your dad. And if the kids do something wrong, you don’t expose the kids, you say, 'I got to do a better job parenting.’’’

Understood, but the debate will remain: Did Mercedes really do anything wrong besides missing a sign?

Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter @BNightengale

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