Tony La Russa has been all sorts of wrong about all sorts of things since the White Sox hired him in October to be their manager. And he might be wrong for believing that rookie Yermin Mercedes should have obeyed orders and not swung on a 3-0 count with his team leading the Twins 15-4.
But he’s not wrong for publicly criticizing Mercedes, even if modern sensibilities howl that it was a horrible, horrible thing to do.
When a manager or coach points out, for all the world to hear, what he thinks a player has done wrong, he is not burning the guy at the stake or planting him in front of a firing squad. But you would certainly have believed that was the case had you listened to the outrage that followed La Russa’s criticism of Mercedes, who homered on the 3-0 swing Monday night. He threw the player under the bus! The kid might never recover from the humiliation! How can La Russa face his players, who are now, as we speak, planning a rebellion?
There’s no way to say this without offending today’s incredibly sensitive athletes, so, oh, well: How did we get here, to Wimpyville?
I wasn’t a fan of La Russa’s hiring nor am I a fan of it now that he’s 40-plus games into his second stint with the Sox. But it’s clear he truly believes that, by speaking out, he was educating Mercedes about how the sport should be played. That might be another example of how out of touch the 76-year-old manager is with today’s game. But there’s also the distinct possibility that the world has tilted a bit too far in the direction of soft.
When everyone knows that a player made a mistake in a game, why is it so wrong for his coach to point it out publicly? Why is it such an egregious betrayal of trust? The offending emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. You know it. I know it. But the coach won’t say it for fear of alienating a player clad only in his birthday suit.
Why won’t coaches and managers speak up when players screw up? They’re afraid of getting fired, and, for a lot of these people, continued employment is Job One. They’re concerned about losing the locker room only as it applies to keeping their jobs. Shielding players from criticism thus becomes as important as knowing when to change pitchers.
Hence, all the zipped lips.
Maybe it takes a senior citizen, Hall of Fame manager to point out that there’s nothing wrong with calling out a player. Will the player be embarrassed? Quite possibly. Will he make the same mistake again? Probably not.
Again, I’m not defending La Russa for wanting to uphold the unwritten rules of baseball. I’m defending his ability to criticize players in public.
In Chicago, we’ve had a run of coaches who see no evil and speak no evil. Former Bears coach Lovie Smith was the king of complimenting all his players, including players whose football abilities deserved universal condemnation. This made him very popular in the locker room but perhaps the most boring quote in the history of quotes. Current Bears coach Matt Nagy has taken a similar tack of not criticizing players. Former Cubs manager Joe Maddon did the same thing, except he’d throw in a “groovy’’ now and then.
At least you could interpret former Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville’s grunts and know when he was mad at a player.
Everybody stands at lecterns and lies these days. Without blinking, they let the listening audience know how much contempt they have for them.
Given the uphill public-relations battle La Russa is fighting, he won’t be the man to start an honesty movement in professional sports. But wouldn’t it be nice if telling the truth became contagious?
We’re told that there’s nothing in it for a coach or manager to be truthful. How do we know that? Perhaps he starts to develop players who realize their leader wants to bring out the best in them. Maybe, gasp, players toughen up a bit.
Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians publicly criticized Tom Brady for inaccurate throws last season, and Brady somehow survived. There are people who can handle criticism, who actually perform better when they’re on the business end of some unpleasant truths. Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl, and, as far as we know, Brady didn’t rack up massive mental-health bills.
It’s a different world than when La Russa was in his prime as a manager. Social media can be a brutal thing. Fans have ugly thoughts that must be aired (no they mustn’t). Athletes need as many people in their corner as possible. But when a coach makes a fool of himself defending the indefensible at a press conference, surely it’s cold comfort for the offending player. Surely the player is no less mortified.
It’s possible to tell the truth without tearing down the athlete: “He made a bad pass. We can’t have that. But he won’t do it again. That’s how much I believe in him.’’
Whoever is offended by that has the mental strength of a dandelion puffball.
How about we man and woman up, and see what happens?