Tony La Russa took sides against the family. That won’t cost him his job, especially with the Chicago White Sox leading their division with the second-best record in baseball. But by chiding one of his players for breaking one of those stupid “unwritten rules” of baseball, La Russa jeopardized the safety of all his players.
How is anyone in that clubhouse supposed to trust a manager who’s more in touch with unwritten rules than ones that are actually in the books?
Flashback: Tony La Russa didn’t know the rule
Second-guessing Jerry Reinsdorf now is tough since the White Sox are off to a good start, but firing manager Rick Renteria after the 2020 season was dubious. Renteria’s fourth year marked his first winning season, but it was the first time he worked with a genuine major-league roster.
Anyway, fast-forward to the shocking hiring of Tony La Russa, 76 years old and out of the dugout since managing the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals. ESPN’s Jeff Passan wrote an exhaustive takedown, including a note about La Russa’s distrust of analytics, now so crucial to baseball. It turns out that the bigger issue is that La Russa hasn’t stayed current with MLB rules.
In a May 5 game at Cincinnati, La Russa made a double-switch to move closer Liam Hendriks to the No. 5 spot after Andrew Vaughn had made the final out of the ninth inning. Under the rule for extra innings, the offense begins with a runner on second base, and that player is from the spot in the batting order that made the preceding out. So, La Russa sent Hendriks out to run the bases without knowing a crucial exception to the rule: If that spot in the lineup is a pitcher, the offense can use the player from the previous spot in the order as the runner.
La Russa ignorance put a man on second whose last time on base in any capacity was in 2015. Chicago stranded Hendriks at third, and the Reds pushed across a run in the bottom of the 10th to win.
La Russa called out one of his own players
The May 17 game between the White Sox and the Minnesota Twins turned into a 16-4 laugher in which the Twins send a position player to the mound to mop up. First baseman Willians Astudillo retired the first two batters before rookie Yermin Mercedes strayed into “unwritten rule” territory by swinging at a 3-0 pitch and knocking the ball out of the park.
Somehow, La Russa concluded that swinging at a 3-0 pitch brings the sport into greater disrepute than sending a 5-foot-9, 225-pound first baseman to the mound.
“That’s just sportsmanship, respect for the game, respect for the opponent,” La Russa said the following day, according to the Associated Press. “He made a mistake. There will be a consequence that he has to endure here within our family.”
The manager added that he apologized to the Twins for Mercedes’ actions. If that’s all there was to the story, it would be easy to file the episode under the heading of “no big deal.”
Unfortunately, it turned into a big deal.
The Twins saw a green light and threw at Mercedes
We still don’t know what La Russa’s in-house consequences for Mercedes will be. However, the Twins handed out their own punishment one night after the rookie homered on a 3-0 pitch. In the seventh inning on Tuesday, Tyler Duffey threw very far inside and hit Mercedes. The home-plate umpire rightfully ejected the pitcher and manager Rocco Baldelli.
Astonishingly, La Russa claims to not know what the fuss was about.
“It wasn’t obvious to me. The guy threw a sinker and it didn’t look good,” La Russa said, according to WMAQ-TV in Chicago. “I wasn’t that suspicious. I’m suspicious if (they throw at) somebody’s head. Then I’m suspicious. So, I don’t have a problem with how the Twins handled that.”
La Russa may be the only man in America who saw it that way. He spoke like a .199 hitter that opponents didn’t need to throw at during a playing career that lasted 132 games. He appears oblivious to the implications of being OK with pitchers throwing at his guys.
If their manager tacitly approves 95 mph pitches aimed at them, can White Sox players even trust La Russa anymore? There were already questions about his ability to manage. Tack on doubts now about his ability to lead, and La Russa is no longer sure to last regardless of how many more games the White Sox win.