Welcome to The Opener, where every weekday morning you’ll get a fresh, topical column to start your day from one of SI.com’s MLB writers.
Say what you want about Tony La Russa, but the guy never stops studying. Not even two weeks after he admitted he didn’t know the written rules, he impressed us all with his encyclopedic knowledge of the unwritten ones.
When the 76-year-old La Russa came out of retirement this season to manage the White Sox, some people wondered if the game had passed him by. He added to that impression earlier this month, when reporters had to explain to him that pitchers are not required to serve as free runners during extra innings. But La Russa made it clear on Tuesday that in fact he understands the existential questions the sport is asking, and he has answers.
On Monday, trailing 15–4, the Twins sent first baseman Willians Astudillo to pitch the ninth inning. He retired the first two hitters, then threw three straight balls to Chicago DH Yermín Mercedes, who leads MLB with a .364 batting average. Astudillo’s fourth pitch floated in at 47 mph. Mercedes smashed it over the centerfield fence.
La Russa was incensed. He ran onto the field to bark at his player for missing a “take” sign and swinging in a 3–0 count. He called the Twins to apologize. He scolded Mercedes in person, then lit him up in a 15-minute rant to the press.
“Big mistake,” La Russa said before Tuesday’s game. “There will be a consequence that he has to endure within our family. But it won’t happen again.”
La Russa declined to elaborate on what that consequence might be, except to say that he would not bench Mercedes, nor would he “spank him, because he’s too big and strong.”
He added, “I heard he said something like, ‘I play my game.’ No, he doesn't. He plays the game of Major League Baseball.”
Indeed, despite La Russa’s insistence that Mercedes understood his mistake, Mercedes said Tuesday afternoon that he got where he is by playing the way he does, and he intends to keep doing it. “I’m going to play like that," he said. “I’m Yermín. I can’t be another person, because if I change it, everything’s going to change.”
He added that none of his teammates had told him they had a problem with the 3–0 swing. To the contrary, reliever Evan Marshall favorited several tweets supporting Mercedes, and shortstop Tim Anderson commented on an Instagram post, “The game wasn’t over! Keep doing you big daddy.” Opponents including Dodgers starter Trevor Bauer and Giants starter Alex Wood also took Mercedes’s side.
It seems Mercedes is not the only Major League Baseball player who does not understand the game of Major League Baseball. What a relief, then, that La Russa is there to educate them all!
Some players believe they are evaluated based on their statistics. Mercedes, for example, is a 28-year-old rookie, still three years away from arbitration. He may think that he needs to take every opportunity to post impressive numbers so that his team will pay him a lot of money. That’s not true, La Russa helpfully explained. “You go to bat 400, 500 times,” he said. “Three events, you think that’s gonna make a difference?”
Another misconception players and fans alike cling to is that it’s more entertaining to watch a 429-foot bomb than to watch one position player work a walk against another. Wrong again! “Entertainment in our game is when two teams are competing against each other,” La Russa said. “It’s a real competition and one is going to win, one is going to lose and the excitement of, you get to the last three innings and neither side is sure they’re gonna—that’s the entertainment. Beating one club up—I guess I've been on both sides of it—I'm not sure if fans enjoy that.”
Speaking of entertainment, La Russa offered a novel solution to another problem. Minnesota chose to throw a position player and save its bullpen for the rest of the series; what is the sportsmanlike way to respond to that? “You know, if you could do it, I’d send three pitchers up there,” he said. “Just stand there and tap the ball someplace.” And people say MLB doesn’t know how to appeal to kids!
Now, baseball jargon can be complicated, so don’t blame yourself if you don’t entirely follow this last one. When La Russa said, “We were taught from day one: Respect the game. Respect the competition. Respect your opponent,” what he meant was, “Once you are beating the other team by a lot, it is honorable to stop trying.”
The White Sox may not yet understand La Russa's point, but the Twins seem to have gotten it. On Tuesday, a day after Mets right fielder Kevin Pillar was hospitalized with facial fractures from an accidental hit by pitch, Minnesota reliever Tyler Duffey fired a fastball behind Mercedes. Now that’s playing the game the right way.
More MLB Coverage:
• MLB Power Rankings: The Biggest Surprise for Each Team
• Mets OF Kevin Pillar Hit in Face by Errant Pitch, Exits Game
• Pujols Bests Bumgarner in Storybook Start to Dodgers Career
• Laws: MLB Must Act Before Beanballs Hurt Players and the Game