Think old-school Tony La Russa must have “unwritten rules” tattooed somewhere on his body? In fact, he doesn’t even particularly favor the term.
“They’re just common sense, you know?” he said this week, his most challenging of the season with the White Sox. “We were taught from Day 1: Respect the game, respect the competition, respect the opponent.”
La Russa isn’t going to come around and agree with the army of critics ripping him for his disapproving opinions about Yermin Mercedes’ ninth-inning homer — on a 3-0 count, with the Sox ahead by 11 runs and a position player on the mound for the Twins — Monday in Minneapolis. He doesn’t even buy that his critics are all that convinced he was wrong.
“Beating one club up — I’ve been on both sides of it — I’m not sure fans enjoy that,” he said. “So if a guy hits a home run against a position player, I don’t believe they think it’s exciting.”
La Russa sure doesn’t believe he was over the line in any way by chastising — and apologizing for — Mercedes in comments to reporters.
“OK, I repeat: What did I say publicly?” he asked. “I said the young player made a mistake, which, by the way, he did.”
There might not be much about baseball that La Russa, 76, is ever going to see anybody’s way other than his own. And that’s fine. He’s the manager. Just ask him.
“If there’s a disagreement [with a player],” he said, “you remind them you’ve got the office and they’ve got the locker. That’s the way this manager is going to play it.”
Like him or not, the second coming of La Russa on the South Side is going to be interesting to observe. Fun, too, if you ask me. Then again, I sometimes find humor in dark, uncomfortable places. Did I mention I’m secretly counting down the days until La Russa’s first all-out blowup at reporters in this, his fourth big-league managing gig?
These days, La Russa seems to be making an effort to keep his aggravation level low in daily Zoom press conferences. Perhaps the virtual buffer helps with this. He sits, considers his words, speaks almost softly. It’s nothing like he appeared after games during his long run in St. Louis, where he’d stand and grip a podium and stare at questioners in a manner rarely described as friendly.
By Friday, before the Sox took on the Yankees in New York, La Russa was sick of explaining himself on the Mercedes front.
“This is the last time I’m going to try it,” he said. “I’ll give it one more shot.”
Again he stayed calm, but there were subtle signs of Temperamental Tony in his answers. After all, there are only so many ways to say the same thing.
“Respect for your profession and your peers, is that something that’s not important anymore?” he said. “That’s what everybody is telling me about the way this game should be played, everybody that is negative about it. But do you feel like you should respect your profession? Do you feel like you should respect your peers? Is there anybody that doesn’t believe that? I’d like for them to tell me now why they don’t think respect is important.
That old temper is in there, though not boiling yet. It took only six games of the season for it to arrive in 2011, La Russa’s last season before this one. The Cardinals started out with a 2-4 homestand, mustering a puny 15 runs in all. Reporters asked him about — what else? — the lack of offense.
“I repeat: It’s the first week of the season,” he said, dismissing the line of questioning early on.
But he got mad right after that, shouted at a local beat writer, accused the writer of intentionally trying to upset him and stormed out of the press room. Oh, and then the Cardinals went and won the NL Central and the World Series. Almost forgot to mention that.
I’m not trying to goad La Russa, but maybe that’s the formula. Go off on the next scribe he sees, then win the World Series with the Sox. No? You’re right, that’s a stupid premise. Never mind.
But La Russa’s temper has always been one of the things that has fueled his greatness as a manager. And that temper is coming sooner or later. This is a man who, while with the A’s, once heaved a bat into the screen behind home plate in a game against the Sox. That was an extreme circumstance — one of his players had been hit in the head by a pitch — but what a spectacle.
There was the time he got so fed up with questions about steroids in baseball — shortly after Mark McGwire’s public admission — that he swore on the radio. There was the time he called Brewers fans “idiots.” There was the time, before a series against the Cubs, he refused to answer questions from anyone with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch because of a lighthearted story that poked fun at the Cubs’ championship futility. That one ended with a storm-out, too.
We’re going to meet that guy again at some point, one can only assume. And here’s a thought: It just might make some of his Sox-fan critics kind of like him.