Former Cleveland Guardians President Gabe Paul once quipped that “a manager really gets paid for how much he suffers.”
If that’s still the case, Tony La Russa deserves a raise.
No one has suffered quite like the Chicago White Sox manager, who still was the talk of baseball Friday one day after “the walk.”
Not since Kevin Cash lifted starter Blake Snell in Game 6 of the 2020 World Series has a strategic move generated so much disdain.
By ordering left-hander Bennett Sousa to issue an intentional walk to Los Angeles Dodgers hitter Trea Turner with a 1-2 count and first base open in the sixth inning Thursday, La Russa inadvertently opened the door to a world of pain.
When Max Muncy followed with a three-run home run, the second-winningest manager in history knew the decision would be questioned. Yet La Russa maintained a postgame posture of being completely surprised by the questioning, which made the moment exponentially worse.
It was the intentional walk heard around the baseball world, in which a 77-year-old manager made an indefensible move, then got defensive trying to defend it. If this was just the usual Sox Twitter mob on his back, La Russa possibly could’ve shrugged it off as another bump in the road on his much-publicized comeback after leaving the dugout in 2011.
From the Yermín Mercedes incident last season to Thursday’s intentional walk on a 1-2 count, he has been in a few crazy episodes but survived them all. Teflon Tony was real.
But virtually no one agreed with La Russa, leaving him on an island. Even Fox News called it “perplexing” and mentioned a Sox fan yelling “He’s got two strikes, Tony!”
NBC Sports Chicago analyst Ozzie Guillén told WSCR-AM 670′s “The Mully and Haugh Show” he was “shocked” by the move. MLB Network showed that 42.8% of hitters with a 1-2 count strike out, and former major leaguer Cameron Maybin brought up La Russa’s other head-scratching decisions.
No one was under the delusion La Russa wouldn’t survive this. Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf is a loyal friend. Case closed. But it gave La Russa’s already sizable legion of doubters one more reason to call for a change.
The move already has zoomed to the top of the charts on the “La Russa Top 40,″ surpassing “YermínGate,” the controversy over homering on a 3-0 pitch in a rout. Tumbling down the chart was La Russa leaving in closer Liam Hendriks as a ghost runner last season, not knowing the rule, and bringing in left-hander Tanner Banks to face right-handed New York Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton last month.
Unless another manager calls for an intentional walk on a 1-2 pitch, La Russa will have the category to himself the rest of time. Imagine that.
One decision in one game isn’t the end of the world. The Sox went into Friday’s game against the Texas Rangers knowing starter Lance Lynn would soon return, with shortstop Tim Anderson not too far behind. And La Russa is not the first manager to make some crazy moves.
Former Cubs manager Don Zimmer, who was beloved in Chicago for ignoring conventional wisdom in the summer of 1989, said that season he never worried about fan or media backlash as long as he had a good explanation for every decision he made.
La Russa had an explanation as well: A lefty on lefty matchup — Sousa vs. Muncy — had a better chance of succeeding than Sousa facing Turner, even with two strikes. La Russa challenged an MLB.com writer, asking if he knew Turner’s and Muncy’s numbers.
As an MLB Network graphic showed, Turner had a .254 career average with a 1-2 count, and a .378 average this season, with a 31.4% strikeout rate. Muncy is hitting .146 versus left-handers this season (and was at .125 before the at-bat, one of the worst in the majors in that category). Over his career, MLB Network pointed out Muncy has a much more respectable .252 average against lefties.
One stat both MLB Network and La Russa ignored belonged to the 27-year-old Sousa. Left-handed batters are hitting .364 off Sousa, who now has an 8.20 ERA. Just because he’s left-handed doesn’t mean he has been successful against left-handed hitters.
No matter. The deed is done. Now it’s time to watch the fallout.
General manager Rick Hahn did not fire La Russa Thursday night while everyone was sleeping, in spite of the pleas by Sox fans on Twitter. Hahn, who didn’t personally choose La Russa, coincidentally discussed this week how he reacts when bad stuff happens to the Sox.
“I throw (stuff),” he said. “I’ve been walking a lot. I leave the house when I’m not with the team. Actually here (at Guaranteed Rate Field), I walk in the tunnels a lot. My wife accuses me of acting like Jerry West in ‘Winning Time,’ which I think is (expletive). I don’t act like that. I think it’s slander, apparently West and me.”
Hahn is not the first Sox GM to wander around collecting his thoughts when things go bad. When executive vice-president Ken Williams was GM in 2002, he went for a long walk around Edison Field during a 19-0 loss to the Anaheim Angels, the most lopsided defeat in team history.
At the very least, Sox GMs traditionally get their steps in during times of stress.
So what’s next for the Sox? Time to audible?
Cubs President Jed Hoyer talked about adding on last June before an 11-game losing streak led to the biggest sell-off in team history. Hahn said he doesn’t expect to be in “sell mode” at the trade deadline.
“I really don’t hope I have to sit here in six weeks and eat these words,” he said.
The Sox invented the “White Flag Trade” in 1997. Don’t expect likewise on the 25th anniversary this July.
But at the very least it should be an interesting six weeks for the Sox, and for La Russa, who seems to live by the words of Gene Mauch.
“I’m not the manager because I’m always right,” Mauch once said. “But I’m always right because I’m the manager.”