It’s great to have Tony La Russa back in a dugout, in charge of a team and reestablishing his formidable presence in the sport. Like him or not, he’s good for the game of baseball.
My opinion has little to do with the pros and cons of TLR’s decision to unretire at age 76 and resume a Hall of Fame managing career after a nine-season adjournment. And my view has little to do with the fortunes of La Russa’s team, the Chicago White Sox, though certainly I wish him well.
MLB, the fans and the media need La Russa because he’s interesting, opinionated, edgy, colorful and controversial. And baseball — an increasingly dull and tedious undertaking — needs La Russa’s bold personality. He has things to say, and won’t hesitate to speak out. The spice is nice.
And whether you agree or disagree with La Russa on a specific topic … well, that isn’t the point. Just appreciate his willingness to candidly put his ideas out there to be scrutinized, discussed or even criticized. Appreciate that he will challenge the establishment and push for baseball to do better. La Russa isn’t always right, but again, that’s a separate issue. If he gets us thinking and discussing and debating the sport’s problems and issues, that’s a welcome development.
Your idea of how baseball should be played may be different than La Russa’s set of beliefs, but there’s no need to take it personally or dislike him for confidently using his voice. After 33 MLB seasons of managing and another decade working in a front-office capacity for several teams, La Russa has earned the opportunity to say whatever the hell he wants to say,. And La Russa is unafraid of the reaction.
Let’s face it: managers are boring now.
Most (not all) have turned into rote-by-numbers automatons, programmed by the front office and analytics departments. They come equipped with a spin cycle that wrings the juice, and the flavor, out of potent questions. They regurgitate cliches, offer answers that are largely devoid of substance, and decline to venture into anything that has even a trace amount of controversy. They’re bland and safe and homogenized. They are a remedy for insomnia.
And La Russa?
He’s been back on the job for a few days, and he’s already kicking up dirt over the new rules for Grapefruit and Cactus and League games in spring training.
MLB has signed off on shortened games (if managers desire to do so.) And as we saw in the top of the first inning with Jack Flaherty pitching in the Cardinals exhibition opener, managers have the authority to shorten innings. The option is permissible if the managers want to halt the inning once a pitcher has thrown 20 pitches. Doesn’t matter if there’s one out or two — just “flip” or “roll” the inning and end it. And move on.
And based on early returns we’re seeing a lot of GroupThink out there, with managers predictably copy-catting each other (because that’s easy) and deploying the “flip” or “roll” with absurd frequency.
The idea, of course, is to protect pitchers and keep them from overdoing it too soon. And with limits placed on the number of pitchers each team can have in camp, baseball people want to be cautious about a pitcher’s workload after a Covid-shortened 2020 season. But how far do managers go with this?
La Russa initially was fine with the altered format and praised the effort to minimize risk to pitchers — and he said so before the White Sox played Texas on Tuesday.
But the White Sox and Rangers shortened multiple innings during the game.
The Rangers cut the first inning short — and did it again in the second inning with two outs and reigning American League MVP José Abreu approaching the batter’s box with the bases loaded.
A fun situation!
Nope. Abreu walked back to the dugout. Never got a chance to swing the bat with the bases jammed and the fans buzzing with anticipation. Spring training or not, the moment was yet another buzzkill by MLB.
And La Russa had seen enough.
“Both sides had men on base when the innings were called,” he said in a Zoom conference that he personally initiated after taking time post-game to think about the issue. “I just think, that’s when you get fans excited, right? You score some runs, what’s going to happen next? Are you going to get an out, more base hits? And all of a sudden, the inning is wiped out. And once both (teams) did it, and more, it’s painful. And so it’s more a question of doing right by the fans, in my opinion.”
All 30 teams are performing in front of fans for the first time since 2020 spring training was shut down due to Covid-19 concerns. The World Series games had a limited percentage of fans last fall, but teams played a 60-game regular season without fans in the ballparks.
Unless they’re fibbing players and Flotida and Arizona have expressed joy for having the ballpark atmosphere enlivened by happy, smiling, cheering, chirping, noisy fans.
But hey, let’s make sure to put a lid on the possibility of thrilling showdowns. Let’s work on killing interest in the game some more. Bah humbug. Forget these bases-loaded situations with fearsome sluggers coming to the plate.
END IT RIGHT NOW!
NO FUN ALLOWED!
Fans booed as Abreu left the home-plate area without seeing a pitch.
The White Sox “flipped” two innings. The Rangers “rolled” three innings. That’s five innings terminated early by pitch-count anxiety.
“It’s painful,” La Russa said after the six-inning game, a 5-5 tie.
Added Rangers manager Chris Woodward: “It’s not baseball. It’s not something that we want to do.”
La Russa felt guilty for letting the fans down and vowed that he would make an effort to prevent it from happening again.
“So we’ll do everything we can to avoid it,” TLR said. “Not putting any pressure on any other teams, but we just think we will do everything we can to avoid it.”
But what about the safety of pitchers?
“There’s all kinds of professional reasons why it makes sense, but fans are paying to come in games,” La Russa said. “I know they were disappointed, they voiced it several times. So from the White Sox side, we’re going to do everything we can to avoid doing it.
“The way you do it, we’re going to try to get enough protection in an inning where we can maybe bring somebody, maybe from the minicamp, so we can finish the inning and the other team can score as much as they can. It’s purely the correct thing to do for fans.”
Goodness … we have an actual MLB manager with the guts to speak out, and challenge the system, and pledge to put the fans’ interests ahead of the new rules.
And to no one’s surprise — especially in St. Louis — that manager is Tony La Russa. He’s good for the game. And the La Russa haters know it too. They just won’t admit it.
MLB is unlikely to adjust the rules. Question: if the commissioner’s office is OK with putting a sudden stop on innings because of pitch-count worries — then why not allow teams to have more pitchers in camp to share the work?
“Fans were excited about what’s going to happen next and then you walk off,” La Russa said. “There’s no way to explain it to them, and I don’t second-guess anybody that does it. But for our part, we are going to do everything possible to avoid flipping any innings from here to the end of spring.”
La Russa will do it his way.
The White Sox are learning. La Russa is winning over the players. Abreu had a role in that. When the CWS made the unconventional decision to hire La Russa, Abreu called Los Angeles Angels DH Albert Pujols for a scouting report. Pujols knows best after his 11 seasons with TKR in St. Louis.
“Pujols just told me that he was a great manager, an outstanding person, a manager that I would like to play for. And I’m just looking for forward to it,” Abreu said in November.
“A few days ago, Pujols called me,” Abreu said recently. “He said, ‘I know you haven’t started your preparation with the team and haven’t had your first workout with Tony, but after your first day call me and let me know your impressions.’ ”
“He’s right,” Abreu said of Pujols. “Throughout all the conversations I’ve had with Tony, I can tell he cares about people. He cares about us and the team, and that is something that will be very important for us. It will unite us and make us stronger. And baseball? He’s a Hall of Famer. We’re glad he’s here with us. We can take advantage of his knowledge. He is going to put us in position to succeed. I’m just glad to be here, and I am glad he is here with us.”
Thanks for reading …
Please check out Bernie’s sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen live online and download the Bernie Show podcast at 590thefan.com … the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.