According to ESPN, it was the first time in the past 20 years that a major league player had swung at a 3-0 pitch as his team held a lead of at least 10 runs. Some 557 such pitches had been thrown in that span.
“With that kind of a lead, that’s just sportsmanship, or respect for the game or respect for your opponent,” La Russa said. “He made a mistake. There will be a consequence that he’s going to have to endure within our family. It won’t happen again.”
La Russa told reporters Tuesday that as Mercedes was setting up for the 3-0 pitch, the manager sensed “he was going to swing.”
“I took several steps from the dugout onto the field, yelling, ‘Take, take, take!’ … And the whole time he was rounding the bases, I was out there and I’m upset, because that’s not a time to swing 3-0,” said La Russa, who was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 2014.
Chicago’s hiring of the 76-year-old La Russa in October, despite the fact that he hadn’t managed in almost a decade, raised questions about whether he was up to date on the game and if he could get far younger players to buy into his leadership. The White Sox had an MLB-best .625 winning percentage entering Tuesday, but along the way La Russa has been criticized for some in-game decisions, particularly after he admitted this month he wasn’t aware of a new rule on extra-inning base runners.
La Russa stepped away after leading the St. Louis Cardinals to the 2011 World Series title, and baseball has since undergone a shift. Players have increasingly questioned a long-standing culture that enforces conformity over individual expression, and edicts to never show up opponents have ceded ground to suggestions that the more players have fun, the more attractive the sport will be to fans. MLB signaled it was siding with that sensibility when it promoted its 2018 postseason with a campaign encouraging its old guard to “let the kids play.”
Mercedes, a 28-year-old rookie from the Dominican Republic, told reporters Tuesday that he wasn’t planning on altering his approach to the game.
“I’m going to play like that,” said the designated hitter, who left the game leading the majors with a .364 batting average. “I’m Yermín. I can’t be another person, because if I change it, everything is going to change.”
“We’re just having fun,” he added. “It’s baseball.”
To La Russa, “baseball” has a different meaning.
“I heard he said something like, ‘I play my game.’ No, he doesn’t,” the manager said. “He plays the game of Major League Baseball, [which] respects the game and respects the opponents, and that it was not.”
A similar episode unfolded last season, when the San Diego Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr. hit a grand slam on a 3-0 count with his team up by seven runs in the eighth inning. Padres Manager Jayce Tingler said after a 14-4 win over the Texas Rangers that his players sometimes have a green light on 3-0 counts but not in that situation because the team had “a little bit of a comfortable lead” and was “not trying to run up the score.”
Rangers pitcher Ian Gibaut responded by throwing a pitch behind the next Padres batter in that game, Manny Machado. Gibaut and Rangers Manager Chris Woodward were suspended for an act of retaliation Tingler described as “definitely not okay.”
Woodward said that while “there’s a lot of unwritten rules that are constantly being challenged in today’s game,” he wasn’t the only one on his team offended by Tatis’s swing.
“It’s kind of the way we were all raised in the game,” he declared. “But, like I said, the norms are being challenged on a daily basis, so just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s not right. I don’t think we liked it as a group.”
La Russa supported Woodward’s stance at the time. “If you don’t think sportsmanship belongs in the game,” he told The Washington Post shortly after the Padres-Rangers game, “you’re full of s---.”
“I know what these unwritten rules are, supposedly,” La Russa added then. “Every one has a good sense of why they came to be. They do evolve because the game continues to change — slowly, usually, but at times not so slowly. You factor in how the circumstances are changing, and that affects the code of conduct.”
There was far less of a threat Monday of the last-place Twins rallying from 11 down in the ninth. Still, Minnesota did put a position player on the mound. Was that a completely respectful act, and was Mercedes obligated to watch a remarkably slow pitch meander past him for a strike?
The Twins’ broadcast team apparently felt so. TV analyst Roy Smalley’s implied that Mercedes should at least have waited until the count was 3-1 before taking a hack at a similar offering.
“I don’t like it,” Smalley, a former MLB shortstop whose father and uncle also played in the majors, said of the home run. “At 15-4, I don’t like it. You’re going to get the same pitch after this.”
Astudillo, a Venezuelan in his fourth year with the Twins, reportedly also had something to say about it. But Mercedes asserted that he didn’t pay much attention and instead celebrated with his teammates.
La Russa made a point Tuesday of letting the media — and the Twins — know that he would not let Mercedes move on. “I’m certain it will not happen again,” the manager emphasized.
“The fact that he is a rookie, and was excited, helps explain why he just was clueless,” the manager said. “But now he’s got a clue.”
Whatever the “consequence” that La Russa promised, it didn’t involve keeping Mercedes out of the lineup for Tuesday’s game. And in the seventh, with one out, no one on and Chicago leading 4-2, Twins reliever Tyler Duffey threw a 93-mph pitch behind Mercedes. Duffey and Twins Manager Rocco Baldelli were ejected.