Will Tony La Russa “let the kids play”?
Major League Baseball has embraced the fun displays of personality we’ve seen grow in number over the last few seasons: the bat-flipping, the home-run celebrations, the fist pumps, the celebratory screams and the walk-off mobs at home plate. And the sport has embraced them for good reason. They’re fun.
But not every person under the baseball sun has signed up with equal enthusiasm. That’s why we see annual “enforcement” of the game’s unwritten rules, the tiresome kind of thing that requires “old-school” pitchers to hurl baseballs at guys who had the gall to be happy about hitting a home run.
Two years ago, White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson entered the national spotlight for emphatically tossing his bat after homering against the Kansas City Royals. In his next trip to the plate, he got a pitch in the side. He called baseball boring and declared a Jackie Robinson-esque crusade to break the game’s “have-fun barrier.” The White Sox took his words and used them as their marketing slogan in 2020.
His manager at the time, Rick Renteria, said it best: “You want him to not do that? Get him out.”
Renteria, though, is no longer Anderson’s manager. Instead, Hall-of-Fame skipper Tony La Russa has returned to the manager’s chair on the South Side, where he started way back in 1979.
As recently as this summer, La Russa made some comments disparaging the latest supposed affront to the integrity of the game, criticizing San Diego Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. for having the gall to hit a grand slam on a 3-0 pitch in a blowout.
The two managers in that game expressed the idea that Tatis probably shouldn’t have done what he did. Tatis apologized the next day. Anderson took to Twitter and said Tatis shouldn't have apologized. Trevor Bauer, the top free agent this winter who White Sox fans are begging to see come to the South Side, tweeted his full-throated support for Tatis, saying he should swing at any pitch he wants to.
La Russa, however, took a different approach.
“If you don’t think sportsmanship belongs in the game,” La Russa told The Washington Post in August, “you’re full of s---.
“It’s just not sportsmanlike. The way it was described to me was, it’s team against team. That’s what our sport is, with these very talented individuals matching up. What it isn’t, though, is an exhibition of your talents. You swing 3-0 in that game, and you’re up by seven, you’re trying to drive in more runs.”
Well, now La Russa is managing Anderson and a whole roster full of players who showed last season they’re at the forefront of baseball’s have-fun movement.
So is he going to let his White Sox play?
“I do believe, at the basis, that sportsmanship is important. Respect for the game and your opponent, I do believe in that. You don’t run up the score, things like that,” La Russa said during his introductory press conference Thursday. “But here’s what I see different. … You don’t do anything right or wrong in a clutch moment where you don’t get celebrated or criticized for. I’ve seen how that has impacted players emotionally.
“A great example is (Hall-of-Fame closer Dennis Eckersley) all those years when he had that very expressive fist pump when he got the third out. That’s a lot like what you see today. I always reasoned if it was sincere, I didn’t have a problem with it, with players that are being more exuberant.
“Take Tim Anderson as an example. Now it’s people showing that, ‘Hey, I’m coming through.’ In fact, Major League Baseball is encouraging them to. If I see it’s sincere and it’s directed toward the game, that’s displaying the kind of emotion you want. As a coach, you want to get players passionately involved with the competition. If you do that, that is how you get exciting games, you’re entertaining.
“If your team celebrates and their team celebrates, then neither team can be upset if you see celebrations as long as everyone is doing it sincerely.”
Who knows whether La Russa has deemed the fun-loving antics of Anderson or any other of his new players "sincere" or not. But given the fun-loving attitude they showed off in 2020, he'll soon get the chance to evaluate.