Don't Play Aggressively with a Big Lead, Retaliation, Swinging 3-0

Tony La Russa Endorses Retribution Against His Own Team, Minnesota Obliges

This is how I concluded yesterday’s post about Yermin Mercedes hitting a 3-0 homer off of Willians Astudillo with two outs in the ninth inning of a game that the White Sox led by 11 runs:

If the Twins for some reason decide to retaliate tonight, or if [Tony] La Russa benches Mercedes in some misbegotten stab toward outdated honor, then we’ll be talking about this again tomorrow. More realistically, the enduring optics of one fat guy hitting a homer off of another fat guy, plus the ridiculous nature of the pitching itself, means that this controversy will not likely endure beyond last night’s news cycle. Nor should it.

Guess who’s talking about this again today—so much talk!—for every wrong reason imaginable. When it comes to misbegotten stabs, Tony La Russa has managed to lap the field.

When was the last time a manager slagged his own player to the press, gave tacit approval for the other team to retaliate, and, after said retaliation occurred, claimed publicly that he had no problem with it? More pertinently to the White Sox, when was the last time a manager did any of those things and still had his job at the end of the season?

It started when La Russa shared some thoughts before Tuesday’s game. No surprise: He was upset.

“That’s not a time to swing 3-0,” the manager told reporters before the game, according to an MLB.com report. He called it “sportsmanship and respect for the game and respect for your opponent.” He said that Mercedes “made a mistake.” He called Mercedes “clueless.” Most brazenly, La Russa also said that “there will be a consequence that [Mercedes] has to endure here within our family.”

What the fuck is that about? La Russa was intentionally vague. Could the Twins have taken it as a green light to respond? Of course they could have. Did La Russa know that his comments might be taken as such? If he didn’t, he’s a fool. More likely, that was his intent from the beginning.

With that as the background, it should surprise nobody that, with one out and nobody on in the top of the seventh in a game that the White Sox led, 4-2, Minnesota reliever Tyler Duffey threw a pitch behind Mercedes’ legs. It was clearly intentional. Was he acting alone? Was he following orders? Either answer reflects some overt thuggery. Most enduring was the impression that the most old-school guy in the building, Tony La Russa, orchestrated the entire thing against his own player.

If that actually was his goal—or even if a critical mass of White Sox players think that was his goal—La Russa should just resign now. Few people in that room will listen to him again. Not helping the manager’s cause were postgame comments in which he said things like “I don’t have a problem with how the Twins handled that” and “I didn’t have a problem with what the Twins did.” He outright excused the pitch, saying, “The guy might have just been trying to get a sinker in,” when the guy was clearly not just trying to get a sinker in.

Yes, there’s the fact that Mercedes swung through a take sign on his fateful homer, which is enough to piss off any manager, but come on—managers don’t discuss missed signs during press conferences. La Russa was angry at one thing and one thing only. By leaving things intentionally vague, he gave the Twins all the leeway they needed to respond however they saw fit. (La Russa is 76. Twins skipper Rocco Baldelli is 39, and was born two years after La Russa’s managerial debut. Somehow, they both ended up looking comparably stodgy after this one.)

For those who doubt whether this series of events will cost La Russa in the long run, know that the inevitable avalanche of doubt within the White Sox clubhouse has already begun. After the game, Lance Lynn—Chicago’s best and most veteran pitcher, who’s been around long enough to have played for La Russa in his last managerial job a decade ago—spoke out. While Lynn didn’t overtly criticize his manager, he took a clear position against the La Russa’s entrenched stance.

“The more I play this game, the more those [unwritten] rules have gone away, and I understand it,” the pitcher said in an MLB.com report. “The way I see it is, for position players on the mound, there are no rules. Let’s get the damn game over with. And if you have a problem with whatever happens, then put a pitcher out there. Can’t get mad when there’s a position player on the field and a guy takes a swing.”

And so it begins. La Russa is well on his way to losing that clubhouse, if he hasn’t already.

If there’s a saving grace for him it’s that the White Sox are 25-16, the best record in the American League. Then again, in the first game after the Mercedes Incident, the same one in which Minnesota gratefully accepted La Russa’s offer to throw freely at his own player, Chicago coughed up a four-run lead to the team with baseball’s worst record, and lost, 5-4.

White Sox players deserve to feel better about things than they inevitably do this morning.

Update (5/20): Guess who doesn’t agree with La Russa? Tim Anderson for one. Lucas Giolito for another. For players to publicly contradict their manager on the most visible point he’s made since taking over the club is an ominous sign. And it’s only the beginning.

Update (5/21): Tyler Duffey and Rocco Baldelli were suspended three games for their roles in this. The best part about it was when a guy on Twitter said, “Tony La Russa appealed the decision.”

Update (5/21): CC Sabathia has thoughts, which normally wouldn’t be worth a dedicated update but boy howdy these ones are.

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