Editor’s Note: Scott Jennings, a CNN contributor and Republican campaign adviser, is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and a former campaign adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Imagine you went to work one day, did a terrific job, and your boss then publicly excoriated you, promised that you’d be punished and later applauded the way another person in the industry tried to commit actual physical violence against you.
You might be Mike Pence last January. Or this week you might be Yermín Mercedes, rookie sensation for the Chicago White Sox. They call him “The Yerminator” for the way he’s hitting this year – a .368 batting average (tops in the American League) with six home runs and an electric style that has Chicago fans excited for their first-place team.
On Monday night, the Sox were clobbering division rival Minnesota, 15-4. Late in the game, the Twins did the baseball equivalent of giving up by putting in position player Willians Astudillo to pitch the final inning. (Astudillo is amusingly nicknamed “La Tortuga” – the turtle – because he’s a little shorter, girthier and slower than the average Major Leaguer.) Baseball teams do this kind of switch to acknowledge they have lost the game and don’t wish to tax their actual pitchers with useless work.
Trying to end an unmerciful beating, Astudillo haplessly threw three pitches to Mercedes that were all called balls (and that averaged about 45 mph).
One of baseball’s “unwritten rules” is that batters don’t usually swing on a 3-0 count, especially when their team is way ahead. It isn’t forbidden, rather a custom. But Mercedes, who toiled in the minor leagues for a decade to achieve his Major League dream, ignored that rule and blasted “La Tortuga’s” fourth pitch some 429 feet for a solo home run, making the game 16-4.
After the game, Mercedes’s White Sox manager, Tony La Russa, (Mercedes’ day-to-day boss, who, incidentally, I revere because of his long and successful stint with my beloved St. Louis Cardinals), castigated his star player for making a “big mistake,” promising some sort of “consequence he has to endure here within our family.”
La Russa may have also invited retribution from the other team by saying: “That’s just sportsmanship, respect for the game, respect for the opponent. … He’s not going to do that again.”
The next night, maybe you can guess what happened. Twins pitcher Tyler Duffey intentionally threw a 93 mph fastball at Mercedes’ knees, which sailed just wide and behind the hitter. Duffey missed, underscoring that Major League pitchers aren’t 100% accurate. Duffey and his boss – Twins manager Rocco Baldelii – were ejected by the umpires.
After the game, La Russa said of the attempt to kneecap Mercedes: “I don’t have a problem with how the Twins handled it.”
First, La Russa publicly all but endorses retribution against his own guy, and then essentially applauds it after it happens? In what other line of work (our current politics notwithstanding) would this be tolerated?
The future of baseball lies in players like Mercedes, who scrape and claw for one chance at MLB glory. Nobody comes to the yard to see La Russa skulk around the dugout; they come to see Mercedes hit baseballs so hard that the cows from whence the leather came can almost feel it.
Moreover, baseball is undergoing an epidemic of pitchers who throw harder and with less control than ever, according to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, who noted that average fastball velocities are up and so are scary moments where batters are plunked in the head, hands and beyond. The video of New York Mets player Kevin Pillar suffering numerous nasal fractures after taking a ball square in the face is frightening.
Being a Major League hitter is scary enough without your own manager endorsing the other team throwing at you.
Baseball is a dangerous sport. And it is also one that its stewards believe needs refreshing, as evidenced by rule changes implemented a few years back to encourage faster games and more offense.
But aren’t sports best refreshed by colorful, successful personalities with great stories? That’s what the White Sox have in Mercedes, who doesn’t deserve his manager’s flogging. In Tiger Woods’ day, nobody would’ve ever said to him: “You are disrespecting the game by beating the other golfers this badly. You may want to shank a few or make some bogeys to keep it fair.”
From a business perspective, it is pure insanity to threaten Mercedes for hitting a home run on a 3-0 count – home runs, incidentally, are one of the things ball players are paid to do! La Russa crazily claimed that if the count had been three balls and one strike he would not have minded, suggesting an alarming level of stupidity for someone who is allowed to speak publicly on behalf of a $3.66 billion industry.
Further, Mercedes will be paid in the future based on his individual statistics, not on his imagined level of respect for the game as judged by La Russa. If he can’t hit home runs when the mood strikes him, his future earning potential is limited.
On Wednesday, La Russa said that he figured his players agreed with his view, “I’m willing to bet there wasn’t anyone in that clubhouse that’s upset that I mentioned that’s not the way we compete” he said, according to James Fegan, White Sox reporter for The Athletic Chicago. But several players – including star pitchers Tim Anderson and Lance Lynn – appeared to indicate on social media that they thought La Russa was wrong to come down on Mercedes for the sin of trying to be good at his job.
MLB executives should act against La Russa immediately, suspending and fining him heavily at a minimum. The White Sox have grounds to fire him because he clearly supported violence against one of his subordinates.
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As for Mercedes, thank goodness for players like him, who still see Major League Baseball as a dream worth achieving. I hope he swings at every 3-0 pitch for the rest of the year and hits a few of them into the stratosphere. I hope he becomes a huge star and can provide forever for himself and his family (he currently makes the league minimum salary of $570,500).
And I hope Major League Baseball’s executives continue their quest to keep the game fresh by standing up for its future – players like Mercedes – instead of protecting dumb vestiges of its past.