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Column: Sports need more Yermín Mercedes and less Tony La Russas

Sports are supposed to be fun.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Chicago White Sox Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

It isn’t easy to find yourself wrapped up in controversy while also having the best record in the American League, but that is exactly where the Chicago White Sox found themselves this week. In case you aren’t the biggest baseball fan and somehow missed it, I’ll give you a quick rundown of the events that led us to this point.

On Monday night, the White Sox were blowing out the Minnesota Twins 15-4 in the 9th inning. As is common in baseball when a team is down so many runs, the Twins elected to have a position player pitch the final inning so as to not waste a bullpen arm. Willians Astudillo received the honor to take the mound, and he was facing off against White Sox rookie Yermín Mercedes.

After taking the first three pitches in the at-bat, Mercedes had worked a 3-0 count. On the next pitch, Astudillo floated a ball 47 mph over the heart of the plate, and Mercedes promptly blasted it over the fence for his 6th home run of the season, extending the White Sox’s lead to 16-4, which would turn out to be the final score.

Now, before we go further into this story, it is important to note that Mercedes is one of the more interesting and fun stories of the 2021 season. At 27 years old, the catcher/designated hitter out of the Dominican Republic has spent the past eight seasons in the minor leagues before finally getting his chance to play for the big league club. He made history right out of the gate, becoming the first player in the modern era to begin a season a perfect 8-for-8 at the plate, and is currently hitting a staggering .358 on the year as one of the sport’s top rookies.

Following their lopsided win over the Twins, the White Sox 76-year-old manager Tony La Russa was not happy with Mercedes hitting that home run. According La Russa, Mercedes broke an “unwritten” rule of baseball to swing 3-0 with a big lead against your opponent.

“Big mistake,” La Russa said on Tuesday, per ESPN. “The fact that he’s a rookie, and excited, helps explain why he just was clueless. But now he’s got a clue.”

To which Mercedes responded:

“I’m going to play like that. I’m Yermin. I can’t be another person because if I change it, everything is going to change. … We’re just having fun. It’s baseball.”

The following night, Twins pitcher Matt Duffey intentionally threw a ball behind Mercedes in a likely attempt to hit him as retaliation for his homer the previous game. After Tuesday night’s contest, instead of sticking up for his own player, La Russa instead defending the actions of the Twins.

“I don’t have a problem with how the Twins handled it,” La Russa was quoted as saying.

Now, we saw a similar situation last season, when the young San Diego Padres phenom Fernando Tatis Jr. hit a grand slam on a 3-0 pitch in a game when his team already had a large lead. In both cases, the issue came down to dumb, outdated ‘unwritten rules’ that are supposed to be some sort of show of sportsmanship, but instead just make an already slow game of baseball even less fun.

As you could imagine, current day players had no issue with either swing in either case, and both pitchers and hitters on both the White Sox and around the league have been quick to come to the support of Mercedes.

Here is my biggest issue with the whole situation. Personally, I am a Mets fan, but I love the game of baseball in general. The White Sox are one of the most young and fun teams the league has right now, and people want to see them play like it. The MLB started an initiative a few years ago called “Let the Kids Play,” highlighting the game’s young stars like Mike Trout, Aaron Judge, Tatis Jr., and others. However, by keeping dinosaurs like La Russa around, it is the very antithesis of letting the kids play.

Sports are supposed to be fun. They are played for entertainment purposes. What is more entertaining to a casual baseball fan: hitting a 450-foot home run, or watching someone take a 3-0 pitch down the middle for a strike? Baseball is a very slow game, and while I love it, I can definitely understand why many people do not. There is a reason that the average age of an MLB viewer is 57, while the average age of a sport like the NBA is 42. If you want to keep the game growing among a younger audience, you have to actually let the kids play and stop bitching and moaning every time someone god forbid does something exciting.

And if you’re coming at it from a “sportsmanship” aspect — save it. Big leads get blown in sports all the time. In 2018, the Atlanta braves had a 10-2 lead over the Cubs after the first three innings, and wound up losing the game 14-10. If the game is still going on, there is no reason to not try and keep scoring. If you’re so worried about “showing up” an opponent by scoring a ton of runs, then enact a mercy rule. Until then, there is no reason to give up trying just because you have a big lead, especially when your own personal stats can affect your contract later on down the line.

Which brings me to my most important point when specifically talking about baseball: arbitration. In baseball, after a certain amount of years into your rookie contract, you reach the arbitration stage, which basically allows you to present a dollar amount that you think you are worth to the team. They can then count with their own number, and if you cannot agree, then you go to an arbitration hearing where a third party decides whose number is more realistic.

When Mercedes reaches arbitration, is Tony La Russa offering the pay the difference in his contract when he gets less money because he didn’t hit enough home runs? When he ends the year with a few less homers and RBI because he didn’t swing on 3-0 pitches with the lead like his manager wanted and he misses some kind of threshold to earn a bigger contract, will La Russa be arguing for him in arbitration? I’ll answer that for you: absolutely not.

While this is obviously the biggest problem in baseball because old people hate fun, the same sentiment exists in other sports. For some reason or another, it seems like a large percentage of those over the age of 65 hate when athletes show any sort of personality or look like they’re having the least bit of fun playing a child’s game for money. We saw this when the NFL earned the monicker “No Fun League” not too long ago for trying to get rid of touchdown celebrations, which they have rightfully since gotten much better with the past few years.

I say: let these players do whatever the hell they want in big moments on the field. You hit a massive home run? Flip the shit out of that bat. Score a huge touchdown? Do a TikTok dance in the end zone. If the opponent doesn’t like the other team celebrating in their face, maybe they should have played better and not allowed the score that led to the celebration. It goes both ways. If a pitcher wants to strut around on the mound after a big strikeout or a defensive back is jumping around celebrating a pass breakup, so be it!

Why? Because these players are all people with real human emotions, and they should be allowed to express themselves however they want. Athletes are not robots, as much as the old heads would like them to pretend to be. The players on both sides are grown men who aren’t going to have their feelings hurt because they’re now down 16-4 instead of 15-4 or because the opposing star receiver danced after a one-handed touchdown grab. Sports are supposed to be fun and exciting. Let the kids play!

At the end of the day unwritten rules in sports are inherently stupid. The reason they are unwritten in the first place is because if someone were to actually write them down, you wouldn’t be able to get through the first sentence before you realized how dumb and outdated they truly sound. La Russa is completely out of touch with today’s game, and until he can follow the written rules of the road, his players shouldn’t have to follow his nonsensical unwritten rules.