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ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT LA RUSSA: REINSDORF’S IDEA
From the breakup of the Jordan Bulls to an uninspired ballpark, the Chicago owner doesn’t get much right, including a 76-year-old manager who inevitably is sparring with players over old-school rules
When a man has pleaded guilty to driving under the influence, not once but twice, he loses the right to preach about rules compliance. This is especially true in a big-league clubhouse when he’s 76 and managing various Gen-Zers and Millennials who want to shout, ‘‘Take a nap, coot!’’ — unable to say ‘‘Boomer’’ because Tony La Russa is too ancient for the description.
But never one to self-muzzle, La Russa chose the absolute wrong time to voice old-school objections to 2021 sports realities. There are no rules on a baseball field these days, if he hasn’t noticed, and for him to publicly rebuke his own player for a mere peccadillo in the scope of post-pandemic life — well, it’s just not prudent or advisable. Needlessly, La Russa has created a storm in an otherwise dreamy season for the Chicago White Sox. And suddenly, he is starting to look like a fossilized liability who was all wrong for the gig.
He simply could have shrugged or mildly disagreed when Yermin Mercedes, the team’s rookie phenom, clobbered a 47-mph lob for a home run in the ninth inning of a 16-4 rout of the Minnesota Twins. Much more importantly, the Sox had delivered another humbling message to their supposed lead rivals in the American League Central: We own this division and are serious about winning the World Series. Instead, La Russa lit into the rookie for taking advantage of pitcher Willians Astudillo, an infielder struggling to throw a strike. The right way: Go talk to Mercedes privately, man to man, and tell him the Twins might remember his homer in future meetings, as exhibited the next night when he watched Tyler Duffey’s first pitch fly behind him.
The wrong way: Ripping Mercedes in the media, saying, ‘‘Big mistake. The fact that he’s a rookie, and excited, helps explain why he just was clueless. But now he’s got a clue.’’
No, La Russa has a problem. Seems his Mercedes Benz doesn’t care about unwritten rules, declaring, ‘‘I’m going to play like that. I’m Yermin. I can’t be another person, because if I do that, everything changes.’’ And his teammates are backing him, which suggests La Russa already has alienated his players not two months into the season. The consensus being, once an opponent uses a position player to pitch, anything goes — though it appears their issues with the manager are more elaborate.
‘‘No negativity. We all support Yermin,’’ ace pitcher Lucas Giolito said. ``We all love home runs here. That's it."
‘‘There are no rules,’’ veteran pitcher Lance Lynn said. ``The more I play this game, the more those rules have gone away.’’
Two days later, La Russa actually was firing back at Lynn. ‘‘Lance has a locker; I have an office," he said. ``I would be willing to bet that there wasn't anyone in that clubhouse that was upset that I mentioned that's not the way we compete. If someone felt that way, then it's my job to correct it. You don't swing 3-0 when you're up by that big a lead."
If he wants to be a gatekeeper to baseball’s unwritten bylaws of the last century, La Russa cannot win his private war. The players will do what they want and celebrate as they please, knowing the sport has the bigger issue of labor unrest that could lead to a work stoppage next season. What bothered them is that La Russa kept going on and on and on about Mercedes, dissing a startling, come-from-nowhere cult hero on the South Side.
‘‘There will be consequences he has to endure here with our family,’’ La Russa said. ‘‘I took several steps from the dugout onto the field, yelling, `Take, take, take.’ The way he was set up, it looked to me like he was going to swing. I was upset because that's not a time to swing 3-0. I knew the Twins knew I was upset. He missed a 3-0 take sign. With that kind of lead, that's just sportsmanship and respect for your opponent.
‘‘I'm always doing Yermin. For that reason, I'm here right now. For that reason, you guys are talking to me right now. If I'm not Yermin, if I'm not doing that, nobody wants to talk to me, nobody wants to know what I'm doing."
Is it me, or is La Russa resentful of a free-spirited godsend who is hitting .368 with 6 homers and 25 RBIs? ‘‘I'm certain that will not happen again with Yermin," he said. ‘‘It's a manager's responsibility. It's a teaching moment. You want them to understand why there's a take sign in that situation. 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 (take) sign."
Then, regrettably, La Russa went deeper with his get-off-my-lawn complaint. He said Fernando Tatis Jr., the sport’s most charismatic player, shouldn’t have swung at a 3-0 pitch during a blowout last season. Major League Baseball is waning in American culture, in part because it can’t market the fun quotient of exciting players to young media consumers who don’t watch or care. There’s a reason Mercedes is the talk of Chicago and a hot national story. Why doesn’t La Russa get it?
He should not be involved in this argument. He should be managing his 26-16 team and enjoying the ride, yet he’s upset because a player ignored him and disobeyed his authority. Now, the question becomes whether La Russa can last into October without more crises if his players don’t respect him.
Not that this age-gap crisis wasn’t predictable, of course, from the very day last October when La Russa was hired by … Jerry Reinsdorf. That name is all you need to know.
In one of his many attempts to have me fired in Chicago, Reinsdorf tried to claim I was anti-Semitic. When an editor-in-chief asked if it was true, I said I’m nothing more than anti-dumb-owner. How many times has this man screwed up something good because he thinks he’s smarter than everyone else?
Given the blueprints of Camden Yards, he preferred a bland ballmall with a ski-slope upper deck that instantly became obsolete amid the cool retro parks to come. Blessed with Frank Thomas and a potential dynasty, he prioritized his desire to bust the Players Association — promising to be a labor ‘‘`hawk’’ while the White Sox were riding high in first place — and enabled the cancellation of that autumn’s World Series. And you saw ‘‘The Last Dance,’’ when he inherited Michael Jordan upon purchasing the Bulls but only muddled the joy by siding with grumpy saboteur Jerry Krause at every dissension-torn turn, ultimately dismantling a six-ring machine because he and Krause — can I start laughing here? — wanted to build their own dynasty.
If not for Jordan, Reinsdorf would have exactly one championship with two organizations — in four-plus decades of trying. In the 21st century, his teams are among the worst-performing in American sports, with the Bulls sinking farther in a prolonged period than any championship franchise in NBA history and the White Sox missing the playoffs for 12 straight seasons, all in what is purportedly a major market. Now 85, Reinsdorf does not want to fade away in his fifth decade of ownership with only one title of his doing, which came 16 years ago in a World Series that America barely acknowledged.
But here he is, yet again, meddling in something good when he should have remained embalmed in his cave. When the Sox finally formed a championship-worthy team after nearly a decade of rebuilding, You Know Who decided he knew more than general manager Rick Hahn about appointing a manager. Rather than hire the industry standard in 2021 — say, a bright, dynamic, 40-ish former player who accepts analytics, understands the instinctual importance of heart and mind and, most significantly, can relate to players in their 20s and 30s in a modern clubhouse — Reinsdorf reached way, way, way back into the mothballs and pulled out La Russa.
The reason was typically selfish and out-of-touch: The Chairman, as he is called by his cronies, wanted to make amends for allowing his GM at the time, Hawk Harrelson, to dismiss La Russa in 1986. Know how many players on the current Sox roster were alive then?
Worse, one day before La Russa’s hiring, Reinsdorf was made aware of La Russa’s second DUI in February 2020, when his SUV hit a curb and was left smoking somewhere near the Phoenix airport ... and still hired him. So if the Sox fall short because the manager failed them, it’s on the owner, as usual.
Meanwhile, the 76-year-old opinionist has become a running joke on social media among the usual MLB suspects. Tweeted Trevor Bauer: ‘‘Dear hitters: If you hit a 3-0 homer off me, I will not consider it a crime. Can't believe we're still talking about 3-0 swings.’’
It’s the biggest story in baseball. The only one who doesn’t see it is Tony La Russa. ‘‘I'm surprised I'm getting so many questions on this," he said. ``It's not much to-do about nothing. It's much to-do about a little bit."
That is, until the Sox fall short and Reinsdorf meddles again, perhaps opting for a new dose of the maniacal Ozzie Guillen. This is the owner, remember, who hired Tim Floyd to replace Phil Jackson. The smartest man in the room, he is not, or even close.
Jay Mariotti, called ‘‘`the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ is the host of ``Unmuted,’’ a frequent podcast about sports and life (Apple, Spotify, etc.). He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio host. As a Los Angeles resident, he gravitated by osmosis to movie projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.