COLUMN: Reaction following Yermin Mercedes home run proves La Russa not right fit for White Sox



Chicago White Sox manager Tony La Russa makes a pitching change during the fifth inning of a baseball game against the New York Yankees on Saturday, May 22, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

Eyebrows were raised when the Chicago White Sox announced on Oct. 29, 2020 they were replacing their manager, Rick Renteria, 59, with Tony La Russa, 76. There has been an evident generational clash between players and the new manager.

Only two months into the season, this clash was on display when La Russa publicly admonished his rookie phenom Yermín Mercedes after hitting a home run against the Minnesota Twins.

In the eyes of the old-school manager, Mercedes had broken an unwritten rule of baseball by swinging on a 3-0 count with Willians Astudillo, a position player, on the mound. 

“Big mistake,” La Russa said after the game. “The fact that he’s a rookie and excited helps explain why he just was clueless. But now he’s got a clue.”

Those aren’t exactly the words one expects to hear from a manager. Especially after a win against a division rival and toward a 28-year-old rookie tearing up the American League.

But this all goes back to the unwritten rules of baseball and those, like La Russa, who believe it is their moral duty to police the game and ensure it is played “the right way.” Despite saying all the right things, it does not come as a surprise that La Russa has reverted back to type.

“We know Tony is old school,” said Brett Ballantini, editor of SB Nation’s South Side Sox blog. “So the thought that he weighed in negatively is not a shock. How he did, how dramatically he came out against his own player, and how his comments are just unforced error after unforced error. I don’t expect Tony to be media savvy, but this was an unimaginably bad way to handle it.”

The whole concept of unwritten rules that baseball employs is antiquated. As has been said before, if these rules are so important, then why aren’t they written down somewhere? Why are they unwritten?

The White Sox have a young team who play the game with a certain degree of swagger. In a sport routinely called boring, they are a refreshing team to watch — a team that shows emotion and isn’t afraid to do so.

Baseball players make a living off of what they produce on the field. When they hit free agency, their numbers directly correlate to what kind of contract they can expect to receive. They need to make the most of it while they can. Their livelihood depends on it.

Former White Sox pitcher, Brandon McCarthy, posted as such on Twitter. The numbers hitters put up are important. Even more so for a guy like Mercedes, who may not have as good of a season again. 

This criticism towards La Russa increased when in the following game, the Twins threw behind Mercedes. Instead of coming out to his player’s defense, he doubled down on his initial criticism and said he had no problem with how the Twins handled the situation. At the very least, a manager is supposed to stick up for his player. 

Tony had been saying the right things about ingratiating himself into White Sox culture, not the other way around,” Ballantini said. “Plus, he’d made mistakes on his own; his self-report card probably wouldn’t be great through six weeks of the season. So that he’d jump from that status, and paying lip service to clubhouse culture, to making a stance like this, is terribly disappointing.”

Mercedes’ teammates, Tim Anderson and Lance Lynn, both came out in support of the star rookie, contradicting some of the statements made by their own manager. It led to La Russa responding with “Lance has a locker, I have an office.”

Chicago White Sox’s Yermin Mercedes, right, is congratulated by third base coach Joe McEwing after his home run off Minnesota Twins’ Willians Astudillo in the ninth inning of a baseball game, Monday, May 17, 2021, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone) (AP)

Not surprisingly, it raised questions over a possible rift between the manager and the clubhouse. 

“I think the rift was already there to some degree,” Ballantini said. “Players like Tim Anderson had no choice but to accept Tony. La Russa has championed guys like [Tim Anderson] TA, [Jose] Abreu, etc. But he is giving the team excuses not to be anti-Tony but to be ambivalent. But antics like that with Yermín will encourage the locker room to marginalize La Russa and tune him out.”

To make matters worse, this whole situation was self-inflicted. La Russa was Jerry Reinsdorf’s vanity hire and the concerns that came with his appointment have already come true.

“This whole situation is terrifying and gross,” said Sean Anderson, producer at 670 The Score. “Jerry Reinsdorf should be ashamed he forced this manager on this team, but they’ll have to hurdle this obstacle like any other and that’s by producing.”

Ideally, that would be the plan. But we’ve seen that producing draws the ire of the manager. This leaves the White Sox in an awkward position.

The players on the team are not going to change. Neither is the manager. Chances are high that another scenario like the one with Mercedes will happen again. La Russa has no qualms about publicly criticizing his players and it could end up reaching a boiling point.

“It honestly might not matter,” Anderson said. All Tony wants to do is win. All the players want to do is win. If they keep winning, they might be able to stomach one another.”

With the way the players have responded and backed Mercedes, it’s an indicator that they and their manager are not on the same page. Publicly they may present some form of solidarity but it could be another story behind closed doors. 

The White Sox are winning in spite of La Russa, not because of him. The backlash on how he handled Mercedes could be worse if the team isn’t winning. But that kind of relationship is not conducive to a good clubhouse.

If and when the White Sox make the playoffs and if they win the World Series, we’ll look back at this as simply another anecdote. On the other hand, we could also look back at this as a wasted year. A wasted season with the wrong guy to manage this team simply because Reinsdorf  wanted to hire his friend.