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Tony La Russa's Inflection Point

This is being written before Lucas Giolito takes the mound this afternoon in Minneapolis in what very well could be the pivotal game thus far this baseball season for the Chicago White Sox. In fact, we might be able to look back four months from now just to see how crucial this contest turns out to be.

That may sound panicky and an overreaction, but the events of the past two nights have thrust the team into a situation of their manager's creation, and it's not a pleasant place. We awakened this morning wondering which ballclub, the Sox or the Twins, Tony La Russa is managing. He publicly chastised Yermin Mercedes on Monday night for tomahawking a ninth-inning, 47-mile-an-hour, three-and-oh offering from position player Willians Astudillo over the wall in left centerfield. That would have been splendid had the score been tied or close. However, with the White Sox in command at 15-4, and with the take sign on, poor etiquette doesn't come close to describing La Russa's interpretation of the Yerminator's zealousness.

So much so that the Sox boss called out the most surprising player of this season for his disrespect for "the game, the competition . . . the opponent."

Let me get this straight. The Yerminator was supposed to respect the five-foot-nine, 225-pound, first baseman-catcher who was lobbing the ball toward the plate in what has become a white-flag gesture in today's game in which managers opt not to use a legitimate bullpen pitcher in a lopsided game.

La Russa even sent a message to the Twins' clubhouse apologizing for Mercedes' behavior. And last night when Minnesota pitcher Tyler Duffey threw a fastball behind Mercedes' butt - the umpires ejected Duffey - La Russa said, "What did they do? The guy might have just been trying to get a sinker in. I don't have a problem with the way the Twins handled it."

Sure, Tony, just like you would have done.

Tuesday's starter Lance Lynn, who pitched six innings of two-run ball in a game the Sox lost 5-4, blowing a 4-0 lead, chimed in, "The more I play this game, the more those rules have gone away and I understand it. The way I see it is for position players on the mound, there are no rules. Let's get the damn game over with. And if you have a problem with whatever happens, then put a pitcher out there."

This from a guy who played on the last team La Russa managed in 2011, the Cardinals, a World Series champion.

Of course, Lynn is not alone. Not surprisingly, Tim Anderson, the embodiment of the young, talented, exuberant ballplayer of today, was excited at the time of Mercedes' dinger. He 'grammed his support, making the optics for the club absolutely awful.

La Russa also was upset because Mercedes either ignored or wasn't aware that third base coach Joe McEwing had given him the take sign. La Russa even claimed that he yelled "Take, take, take" from the dugout. Incidentally, a manager doesn't do that unless he fears that his player has his own agenda. Maybe Mercedes not only disrespected the game and the Twins, but also his manager, which really pissed off La Russa.

This is not the first time a player ran through a stop sign at third base or failed to hit-and-run after getting the sign. So you fine him. Bench him for a game like La Russa did when Mercedes was late showing up one day. But this is a new day, and despite what La Russa says, the new rules dictate that social media magnifies and elongates each and every issue and controversy not only in sports but in everyday life.

So much is made about clubhouse cohesion and spirit that one might conclude that what happens there is more important than what occurs on the field. The belief is relations between players, managers, coaches, front office, and the media have deep ramifications for actual performance during the game. If that, indeed, is the case, the Sox now have problems. Maybe they did previously this season but have overcome conflicts to lead the Central Division by three games while posting the league's best record.

Years ago, when Al Lopez was managing the White Sox, players said that communication never came from him. His coaches talked to the players, relaying Lopez's edicts. Nevertheless, the Sox teams of the '50s were consistent winners.

Perhaps that would be a workable arrangement for La Russa today. You know, old school. What I do know is that physical illness will result the next time I hear someone like general manager Rick Hahn talking about someone being "good in the clubhouse." We don't have to guess what's happening there now, and no one is to blame except Jerry Reinsdorf and guys like Hahn and Kenny Williams, whose influence is negligible.

I say this months after learning of La Russa's hiring. While I favored hiring Cleveland coach Sandy Alomar, a fellow who deserves a manager's role but never has received one, my mood was, "Give Tony a chance." My enthusiasm about the team wasn't diminished.

La Russa is getting blasted now for being out of touch and too old. I don't buy that at all. He's been like this for a long time. Just read Buzz Bissinger's Three Nights in August: Strategy, Heartbreak and Joy Inside the Mind of a Manager, which chronicles La Russa's thinking during a three-game series against the Cubs in 2004. I'll do the math. Tony was 59 at the time.

This afternoon's game is well worth watching because the dynamic between the manager and his players has been heaped upon the team in the wake of losing Eloy Jiménez and Luis Robert. José Abreu also has been idled for this series with a swollen ankle. That's major firepower on the sidelines.

In addition, we can only hope that the failure Tuesday night of setup man Aaron Bummer, who inherited a 4-2 lead but was charged with the loss after closer Liam Hendricks inherited the runner who scored, giving up the game-winning hit, was simply a blip on the radar. Over the long haul of the season, this patchwork lineup will not continue to blow out the other guys like they've been doing.

The pitchers, both starters and the bullpen, will determine how high the club can fly, with the hope that everyone regains his health by October. So far Giolito, the Opening Day ace of the staff, has been the most inconsistent, and he'll be facing a team today that created an infusion of energy and optimism with its comeback victory Tuesday night.

With a trip into Yankee Stadium this weekend, if Giolito can twirl a gem today, the turmoil of the last two days can be stymied to a certain extent. On the bright side, the Sox still are leading the pack. However, rapid change is not unknown in sports and other diversions, and now would be a scary time to see a negative reversal in light of the events of the past couple of days.

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Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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Posted on Jun 9, 2021