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When the debate about the unwritten rules of a sport is more interesting than the sport itself

Sorry, but the Tony La Russa-Yermin Mercedes controversy is better than the game. How can we incorporate that passion into MLB?

White Sox manager Tony La Russa criticized rookie Yermin Mercedes for swinging on a 3-0 count Monday with the Sox leading the Twins 15-4.
White Sox manager Tony La Russa criticized rookie Yermin Mercedes for swinging on a 3-0 count Monday with the Sox leading the Twins 15-4.
Steph Chambers/Getty Images

It’s probably not good when the most interesting and engaging thing about Major League Baseball is a debate.

If you really want to jolt fans, players and managers out of the stupor that comes with games that last more than three hours and feature only occasional spasms of action, have somebody do something that breaks the “unwritten rules’’ of baseball. Then you’ll see MLB turn into a contact sport, a virtual one, something like Australian rules football meets Model United Nations. Something you could watch without need of a pillow.

It happened Monday night after White Sox rookie Yermin Mercedes swung on a 3-0 count with his team up 15-4 on the Twins. That ninth-inning swing produced a home run off a position player who had been brought in to rescue Minnesota’s pitching staff from more innings, runs and embarrassments.

According to those who embrace the unwritten rules of baseball, swinging on a 3-0 count in a blowout game shows a complete lack of sportsmanship toward the other team. To those who believe that the unwritten rules were unwritten in the Middle Ages and are upheld by men bearing a strong resemblance to Ebenezer Scrooge, it was a good example of an exciting, excitable player having fun — fun being in seriously short supply in the sport.

It didn’t matter who was right. What mattered was that the real game was now on. Back and forth the two sides went. From the public reaction, you would have thought a superpower had planted a flag on another superpower’s remote island in the Pacific. Aircraft carriers and destroyers from both sides lined up, and from conning towers came ominous radio warnings.

“Respect the game or face the consequences!”

“Go back to overseeing your labor camp, you godless buzzkill!”

The debate hasn’t abated since Mercedes took his mighty swing. Sox manager Tony La Russa, self-styled Keeper of the Game, was upset with the rookie for blowing off a take sign and swinging away. He said that Mercedes was “clueless’’ about how baseball is supposed to be played and that the kid would learn from his mistake. For his part, Mercedes said he was just being himself and wouldn’t stop being himself. Their opposing takes on the matter provide a nice summation of the two sides of the unwritten-rules war. A wagging finger vs. a middle finger.

The Twins, having no need to thumb through those rules, threw behind Mercedes the next day in retribution, and their pitcher and manager were tossed from the game. Order was restored, but the conversation raged on about rules that really aren’t rules.

There’s so much more going on here than just an argument about how a game is supposed to be played. The people who want the unwritten rules wiped out (with an invisible eraser?) consider themselves cool and modern. They get it. The other side believes that the unwritten rules are the lasso that keeps the sport from running wild. These people are considered so out of touch they might as well be lost in a tropical rainforest with only a hand-crank radio.

So you can see the problem.

Or is it a problem?

What if the very act of debating about the unwritten rules is better than the sport itself?

Clearly, the answer is to somehow make this part of the equation. As of Wednesday afternoon, the Sox had the best record in the American League, yet no one wanted to talk about that. They wanted to talk about rules, and they wanted to talk about them with a passion normally reserved for a municipal meeting about a controversial new satellite tower.

If MLB officials could figure out a way to harness all this energy and emotion, you wouldn’t have a sport trying to stay relevant with younger audiences. You’d have a sport that people wanted to watch at all times. Help me with strategies for incorporating the fervor of the unwritten-rules debate into the game. Financial rewards for a hitter who admires his home run longer than baseball propriety suggests he should? No body armor for the next batter up? A hefty fine for a hitter who unsuccessfully bunts on a pitcher who has a perfect game going in the eighth inning but a bonus for getting a bunt single? A La Russa dunk tank at home plate every time the skipper transports himself back in time?

Yes, please!

Any of these ideas could make games more interesting. Let’s channel all the animosity on both sides and use it to pull a slow-moving sport out of fast-drying cement. We’re not even two months into the season, and I’m already tired of criticizing La Russa for being not quite with it. Why not turn his frown upside down and use his moroseness for the good of the game?

How about this: Tony has to publicly perform a rap song on the pitcher’s mound every time he utters the phrase “respect the game.’’

You’re right: Nobody wins there. Let’s work on this, people. There’s a sport in need of saving.