Sports

Tony La Russa Is Everything That’s Wrong With Baseball

The league doesn’t need the White Sox manager—or anyone else who thinks like him.

Tony La Russa holds out a bat in one hand. He is wearing a face mask that doesn't cover his nose.
Tony La Russa watches batting practice on April 5 in Seattle. Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Baseball’s unwritten rules are sometimes hazy, owing to the fact that they are not rules at all. But one of them says more or less that if a team is winning a blowout, and the losing team’s pitcher grooves a meatball right over the plate on a 3–0 count, the batter should not embarrass his opponent by hitting the ball to the moon. Instead, he should let it whiz past. Players usually observe this nonrule. Since 1988, which is as far back as Baseball Reference keeps count data for nearly every at-bat, players have only hit 34 homers on 3–0 counts in the seventh inning or later while leading by four or more runs. The list of hitters who have done it is mostly a who’s who of great hitters, because great hitters aren’t programmed to pass up opportunities for easy dingers. Jeff Bagwell, Fred McGriff, Troy Glaus, Mike Sweeney, Phil Nevin, Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui, Joey Votto, Buster Posey, Manny Machado, and Fernando Tatís Jr. are all among them.

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One of the hitters on the list worked for Tony La Russa, who’s been in the managerial game on and off since 1979 and is third on Major League Baseball’s all-time wins list. In 2000, when La Russa led the St. Louis Cardinals, Thomas Howard did it while up 15–3 in the ninth against the Pittsburgh Pirates, who had a backup catcher, Keith Osik, pitching. It doesn’t appear La Russa went on a mini-tirade then, but for some reason, he did when another one of his hitters joined the club on Monday.

La Russa—who hadn’t managed in a decade but started running the Chicago White Sox in 2021—oversees one of the best teams in baseball. On Monday, the Sox were playing the league’s most surprisingly terrible team, the Minnesota Twins. In the ninth inning, the Twins—who held a 13–25 record and trailed 15–4 in the game—did not feel like burning a bullpen arm in an already-lost outing. So they brought utility man Willians Astudillo to the mound. Facing the White Sox’s Yermín Mercedes, Astudillo fell behind 3–0 in the count, then threw a 47-mile-per-hour eephus right over the plate that might as well have been yelling “hit me!” at Mercedes. The batter obliged and sent it 429 feet, well beyond the center-field wall, then trotted around the bases while the few Twins fans still in attendance booed. The standard hand-wringing started immediately, with the Twins’ TV announcers steaming over Mercedes’ unsportsmanlike act.

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Mercedes’ homer was the newest flashpoint in a baseball culture war that’s been waged for decades now, pitting those who want the sport to be fun against those who want it to be respectful—whatever that means—even if it comes at the expense of fun. It also became the latest reminder that La Russa, Mercedes’ Hall of Fame manager, shouldn’t have any place with the White Sox or even in modern Major League Baseball. To the contrary, each day people like La Russa are involved in the league, the game is worse off.

On Tuesday, the day after Mercedes’ dinger, La Russa set about embarrassing his own player in public. He called Mercedes’ home run a “big mistake” and promised reporters the 28-year-old rookie, who’s been La Russa’s best hitter this year, would never commit the sin of hitting such a mean home run ever again. “He was just clueless, but now he’s got a clue,” the manager told the media. La Russa pledged “there will be a consequence he has to endure here within our family” and joked he wouldn’t spank him because he’s “too big and strong.” The Twins were probably going to throw a fastball at Mercedes on Tuesday anyway (remember: he broke a nonrule), but La Russa gave them all the cover they needed to ensure it, both before and after. Minnesota’s Tyler Duffey threw a 93-mile-per-hour heater that wound up going right behind Mercedes, getting himself ejected for a pitch that could have injured the batter. But La Russa didn’t mind. After Tuesday’s game, he said, “I wasn’t that suspicious. I’m suspicious when someone throws at someone’s head. I didn’t have a problem with how the Twins handled that.”

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To the extent that a baseball team is a workplace, La Russa’s actions are indefensible. Criticizing an employee in public for doing the best thing they can do in their job, approving of another team intentionally doing something that could hurt that employee, and joking about spanking that employee would get most midlevel managers fired.

But La Russa is also wrong on competitive grounds. Asking a player in Mercedes’ position not to try his best is a nonstarter. He’s a journeyman on his third organization and in his first real big league season, a player who’d never gotten on base in a major league game before this year. He came to the Sox a few years ago via the Rule 5 draft, when the Baltimore Orioles declined to make space for him on their 40-man roster. He has hit the hell out of the ball this season, but he still plays for a league minimum salary and likely will for the next two years. Then he’ll be eligible for arbitration, and his stats will directly affect how much money he makes. To ask him not to try his hardest is to ask him to compromise his livelihood and what makes him a good hitter in the first place. As he put it himself to reporters, “I’m always doing Yermín. For that reason, I’m here right now. For that reason, you guys are talking to me right now. If I’m not Yermín, if I’m not doing that, nobody wants to talk to me, nobody wants to know what I’m doing.”

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La Russa says the White Sox gave Mercedes a sign to let the 3–0 pitch go by. Maybe he missed it, or maybe he ignored it. Baseball players don’t always follow their signs, and when they don’t, they usually only get chewed out if they do something bad. Mercedes hit a home run. On top of that, there’s no particular reason for the White Sox to give their division rival Twins a break.

Any manager would be wrong to treat a player so callously, but La Russa doing it is outrageous, given how many times he’s demonstrated his lack of moral authority on anything. La Russa is a longtime zealot in the sport’s beanball holy war. He has ceaselessly condoned pitchers intentionally throwing at batters regardless of whether the thing being retaliated for was intentional. He has now explicitly sanctioned throwing at batters not just as retaliation for his own team’s players getting hit, but for his own team’s players hitting home runs.

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La Russa managed the Oakland Athletics from 1986 to ’95. Steroid use was widespread in MLB at the time, but La Russa’s clubhouse was the ’roidiest ’roid-raging place in the league, with both Mark McGwire and José Canseco juicing to put up exorbitant home run totals for years. When McGwire finally admitted to cheating in 2010, in a clear effort to get Hall of Fame voters to forgive him, La Russa claimed he hadn’t known about McGwire’s juicing until just then. Canseco called that “a blatant lie.” You can judge for yourself if you believe La Russa had no idea that Mark McGwire and José Canseco were using steroids while they played for him for the better part of a decade. But you don’t have to accept La Russa as an arbiter of how the sport should be played, given that his career took off while managing one of the most ’roid-marred teams ever.

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There’s more! In 2016, La Russa got in front of a microphone and panned Colin Kaepernick for his protests against police brutality and racism during the national anthem at San Francisco 49ers games. La Russa said he “really questioned the sincerity of somebody like Kaepernick” and repeated the oft-debunked idea that Kaepernick was targeting service members. He walked those comments back only after taking the White Sox job in 2020, when it became clear he’d have to get Black players and their allies to play hard for him.

He’s also had two known arrests for drunk driving, once in 2007 and again in 2020, before he’d taken the White Sox job. Whatever you think of how disqualifying those arrests should be, La Russa’s history would have precluded lots of candidates from ever getting another job managing a major league team. All of this also would have humbled many other aspirants, making them think that they are perhaps not in the greatest position to moralize about the right and proper way for people in the game to act, much less hector his own star players over matters of decorum.

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But none of it mattered for La Russa, because Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf wanted to hire his friend, a buddy who’d managed his team decades earlier. ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that the White Sox cleared the field of potential candidates to hire La Russa, essentially handing him one of the most desirable gigs in baseball. The White Sox were a ready-made contender with a talented cast of young players, and it appears nobody but La Russa had a chance to manage them. They have been predictably great this season, but it’s not likely La Russa has had much to do with it. With hitters like Mercedes, Tim Anderson, and Yoan Moncada and a deep, talented pitching staff, lots of managers would fare excellently.

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Whether La Russa causes long-term problems remains to be seen. It’s notable that Mercedes hasn’t backed down and a team leader like Anderson is publicly supporting his teammate’s view, and that pitcher Lance Lynn is in open disagreement with his manager. The White Sox might be so talented that a bunch of their players could turn against La Russa and still guide his team to an American League Central title. It’s a lot clearer that the White Sox don’t really need this manager, and just as obvious that men of La Russa’s persuasion are losing the battle for the soul of the sport they think they’re defending. In 2019, the MLB office unveiled a “We Play Loud” marketing campaign that celebrated bat flipping, over-the-top celebrations, and the sorts of player expressions that people like La Russa would use as justification to have a pitcher chuck a fastball at a hitter’s knees. The league didn’t launch that marketing strategy because it’s on the cutting edge of anything, but because players have gotten more and more aggressive about disregarding people like La Russa.

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If baseball is lucky, it’ll find more players like Mercedes who hit the ball extremely far no matter the circumstance and don’t care what anyone says about it. His homer off Astudillo was an incredible athletic feat that livened up a boring game. Consider, as San Francisco Giants pitcher Alex Wood did, how impressive it is to turn around a sub-50-mile-per-hour pitch and make it come off the bat at 109.3 miles per hour. It’s fun! Home runs are good! Baseball should encourage players to try to hit them. But as long as La Russa remains in charge of one of the league’s most otherwise enjoyable teams, there’ll be a force tugging back, trying to keep baseball from being everything it should be.

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