The Chicago White Sox were leading the Minnesota Twins by 11 runs in the ninth inning on Monday when Yermin Mercedes stepped to the plate. The Twins had essentially given up on the game by putting a position player, nominal utility man Willians Astudillo, on the mound to pitch as a way to save the bullpen. Astudillo had gotten the first two outs of the inning, but opened the at-bat against Mercedes with three straight balls.
Sitting on a 3-0 count, Astudillo lofted a 47 mile-per-hour pitch over the heart of the plate. Mercedes responded by blasting it deep out of the park for a solo home run that put the White Sox up 16-4, the score they would go on to win by.
As Mercedes was rounding the bases, Twins announcers voiced their displeasure for his homer, igniting another debate over baseball’s unwritten rules.
Apparently Minnesota’s announcers weren’t the only ones offended.
White Sox manager Tony La Russa criticized Mercedes a day later at the ballpark, calling his home run a “big mistake.” La Russa said Mercedes swung through a take sign and he will face consequences, though he’s in the lineup again the next night as the DH hitting clean-up.
Tony La Russa called it a "big mistake" for Yermin Mercedes swinging at the 3-0 pitch from Willians Astudillo, admitting there will be consequences.— Chris Emma (@CEmma670) May 18, 2021
Said La Russa: "That's just sportsmanship, respect for the game, respect for the opponent. ... He's not going to do that again."
La Russa rejected Mercedes rationale that he was just being himself:— James Fegan (@JRFegan) May 18, 2021
"I heard he said something like, 'I play my game.' No he doesn't. He plays the game of Major League Baseball, respects the game, respects the opponents. And he's got to respect the signs."
That was definitely a wild zoom with Tony. He wouldn't reveal the punishment (it's not playing time) then joked:— Jesse Rogers (@JesseRogersESPN) May 18, 2021
“I could try and spank him but he’s too big and strong.”
On Tuesday night, the Twins decided to plunk Mercedes in the seventh inning with the Sox leading by two.
Hope the Sox score 60 on 'em pic.twitter.com/Mqac1YHntK— White Sox Talk (@NBCSWhiteSox) May 19, 2021
Pitcher Tyler Duffy and manager Rocco Baldelli were ejected. The Twins would go on to win, 5-4.
After the game, La Russa said he didn’t have a problem with the Twins plunking Mercedes because they didn’t throw at his head:
Tony La Russa on the Twins throwing behind Mercedes: "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."— Jesse Rogers (@JesseRogersESPN) May 19, 2021
La Russa is 76 years old, and returned to the White Sox this season after last managing a decade ago. La Russa’s comments are being framed as something only a dinosaur would say, but in reality similar “controversies” to this one pop up every year.
Last season, San Diego Padres manager Jayce Tingler blasted his superstar shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. for hitting a grand slam in a game his team was leading 10-3. Tingler was the second-youngest manager in the majors at just 39 years old last season:
Tingler saying he’d rather his own player take a strike than hit a grand slam holy shit what a dumb soft sport baseball can be sometimes. Constantly caught in its feelings. pic.twitter.com/58R1xRZ3m0— Jomboy (@Jomboy_) August 18, 2020
Mercedes knows what it’s like to be on the mound. Earlier this season, with the White Sox getting rocked by the Boston Red Sox, Mercedes was put in to pitch and gave up three hits and one run in an inning of work. There was no controversy about scoring runs off a position player during that game, maybe because the ball stayed inside the park.
The White Sox have the best record in baseball this year despite losing star hitters Luis Robert and Eloy Jimenez for the majority of the season. The Sox went 11 years without making the playoffs before reaching the postseason last year in the Covid-shortened season. The team has never made back-to-back postseason appearances in franchise history.
For White Sox fans, Mercedes’ homer against the Twins — a division rival who has been a pain in their side for the last several decades — was a moment of pure joy and vindication. Mercedes has been one of the best stories of the young season, going from a 28-year-old non-prospect to a breakout star who is currently posting a .984 OPS through the first 36 games. Mercedes also has a contract to play for, and those contracts are decided by numbers like home runs, whether they are hit off position players or not.
Adding Mercedes to a team with Tim Anderson and Jimenez gives the Sox another player who plays the game with boundless swagger. There were widespread concerns that La Russa’s old school style wouldn’t mesh with the roster during the offseason, but owner Jerry Reinsdorf got his wish and hired his old friend.
When asked about the dinger, Mercedes had no regrets:
Yermin Mercedes today before La Russa spoke: “I’m going to play my game. I can’t be another person. If I change, everything is going to change.”— Jesse Rogers (@JesseRogersESPN) May 18, 2021
Anderson also supported Mercedes on social media:
Our real manager speaks pic.twitter.com/gKSskGAD9c— VP of Wu Tang Financial (@BarbChairScott) May 18, 2021
La Russa has had several lapses in judgement during the young season, including a time when he admitted to not knowing a new rule. Obviously, he’s fully aware of the unwritten rules. For all the concern over La Russa, the White Sox continue blitzing the league even while missing two of their best players.
La Russa will ultimately be tested if and when the White Sox reach the postseason. Maybe La Russa was doing what (almost) any other baseball manager would have done in the same situation by criticizing Mercedes, but don’t expect it to change how the White Sox approach the game. Sox hitters are going to continue swinging for the fences and flipping their bats whether he likes it or not.