Baseball Is Broken

The game is supposed to be fun.

A baseball player looks up and points his index fingers to the sky.
Jordan Johnson / USA Today Sports / Reuters

Updated at 3:51 p.m. on June 4, 2021.

On the night of May 17, at Target Field in Minneapolis, something terrible happened. It divided clubhouses, spawned a wrenching national conversation, resulted in fines and suspensions, and pitted a Hall of Fame manager against his own rookie outfielder, who had been one of the feel-good stories of this young MLB season—until that fateful night. All it took was a single pitch.

Trailing the Chicago White Sox 15–4 in the ninth inning, the Minnesota Twins waved the surrender flag by bringing in a position player, the catcher Willians Astudillo, a.k.a. “La Tortuga,” to spare the Twins’ bullpen and get the game’s final three outs. He got the first two without incident, and then, after throwing three straight balls to the White Sox slugger Yermín Mercedes, he lobbed a 46-mph beach ball right over the plate, which Mercedes blasted over the center-field fence. Home run. Sox up 16–4.

Outrage ensued.

“Big mistake,” Mercedes’s own manager, Tony La Russa, said after the game, all but apologizing to the Twins. “The fact that he’s a rookie, and excited, helps explain why he just was clueless. But now he’s got a clue.”

If you’re feeling a bit clueless right now about what exactly Mercedes did that was so outrageous, let’s pause here for a brief reading from baseball’s unwritten rule book: Thou shalt not show up thy opponent by swinging on 30 in the ninth inning of a blowout. This is because, according to the unwritten rule book, fun should be to baseball what dancing is to Footloose. And accordingly, La Russa, who is 76, a three-time World Series champion, and one of the game’s undisputed geniuses, gave Mercedes the take sign, which Mercedes, a 28-year-old power hitter who’d toiled for a decade in the minor leagues before finally making it to the show, ignored and swung through. In other words, Yermín Mercedes had committed baseball’s greatest sin: He’d failed to show proper respect for the game. And all he did was crush a 46-mph pitch 420 feet, which is actually really hard to do at that velocity.

If a gazelle stops for a snack 60 feet, six inches away from a lion, you can’t give the lion the take sign. Respect for the game should begin with the root acknowledgment that baseball is a game, and that you show respect for games by having fun while you play them.

For what it’s worth, another of baseball’s unwritten rules is that bringing in a position player to pitch is an act of unconditional surrender, akin to saying, Screw it. It means: This game’s over—let’s save our bullpen and have a laugh. The fans paid good money to be here; we’re getting paid good money to be here. From a pure entertainment perspective, it’s a sure thing. A spontaneous home-run derby. Guaranteed smiles. Few things in baseball are more fun than a position player lobbing an eephus so slow that it deserves a third E and outright daring a big-league hitter to swing and miss. In fact, a similar scenario had presented itself just a few weeks earlier, when the Chicago Cubs’ All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo cleaned up a blowout and got to face the Atlanta Braves’ All-Star first baseman Freddie Freeman, who just so happens to be a good friend of Rizzo’s. Thank God La Russa wasn’t in the dugout, or he would’ve ruined this season’s most delightful strikeout.

Baseball purists grumble about respect for the game on a daily basis, and in fairness to La Russa, he wasn’t the only one insulted by his hitter doing his job. The Twins are led by MLB’s youngest manager, 39-year-old Rocco Baldelli; after the game, Baldelli told reporters he was “surprised” that Mercedes swung at a very slow pitch right down the middle of the plate, and he hinted that his team would “deal with it.” The next night, the Twins starter Tyler Duffey threw behind Mercedes in his first plate appearance, earning suspensions for both Baldelli and Duffey, meaning that the Twins lost an actual pitcher for two games because they were so butt hurt over someone hitting a home run off their fake pitcher.*

So far, this is all pretty standard big-league macho posturing. What made this particular case so unusual is that La Russa’s own players stuck up for their “clueless” teammate and fought back. “We all support Yermín,” said the Sox ace Lucas Giolito. “We love home runs here.” “The game wasn’t over! Keep doing you big daddy,” the superstar shortstop Tim Anderson tweeted. Another veteran Sox pitcher, Lance Lynn, got downright philosophical during a radio appearance the next day: “The more I play this game, the more those [unwritten] rules have gone away, and I understand it,” he said. “The way I see it, if a position player is on the mound, there are no rules … Can’t get mad when there’s a position player on the field and a guy takes a swing.” Even some of the Twins didn’t get all the fuss. “It was another homer, no?” said the Twins designated hitter Nelson Cruz. “Just a homer, I guess.” (Curiously, no one seems to have asked the victim here, Astudillo, what he thought about the whole scandal.)

La Russa, though, was undaunted: “I heard [Mercedes] said something like, ‘I play my game.’ No, he doesn’t. He plays the game of Major League Baseball, respects the game, respects the opponents.”

Anytime you start poking around under the hood of vague platitudes like “respect for the game,” you quickly notice how they all seem to prop up the authority of men like Tony La Russa. Unwritten rule books are pernicious because they’re an attempt to govern culture and control behavior, and they get written by whoever is really in charge. To Tony La Russa, showing respect for the game means showing respect for him, and the way you show respect to Tony La Russa is by doing what he says. That was the real sin here. It wasn’t the home run; it was the insubordination.

The bigger issue for baseball is that La Russa’s sacred rule book has nothing to do with the fans—the people who paid to be there, the ones watching at home, the folks paying his salary, and Willians Astudillo’s, and Yermín Mercedes’s. Like it or not, they’re all in the entertainment business, and forcing a bright, young slugger to lay off the biggest meatball he’ll ever see is the least entertaining decision La Russa could’ve made in that situation.

On October 28, 2020, the day before the White Sox stunned baseball by hiring La Russa eight years into his retirement, he was charged with drunk driving and wound up pleading guilty to misdemeanor reckless driving following his arrest in February near his home in Maricopa County, Arizona. According to reports, he’d smashed his gray Lexus into a curb, blown out a tire, and left the vehicle smoking. This was La Russa’s second DUI. In 2007, a few months after winning his third World Series, he’d passed out behind the wheel at a traffic light and then flunked a videotaped field sobriety test. “I accept full responsibility for my conduct,” La Russa said in a statement at the time, “and assure everyone that I have learned a very valuable lesson and that this will never occur again.” Thirteen years later, after he was arrested again, he got belligerent with the officers. He flashed his World Series jewelry (“You see my ring?” he asked), and when that didn’t work, he lashed out at the arresting officer like he was a rookie slugger who’d just swung through a take sign.

“I’m a Hall of Famer,” he snapped, sounding almost offended that the laws of Maricopa County applied to him.

Once you’ve been caught trying to big-time your way out of your second DUI arrest, you don’t get to call anyone “clueless.” You don’t get to decide what’s a “big mistake” and what’s harmless fun. And you certainly don’t get to monologue about respect for the game like you’re James Earl Jones in a cornfield.

Once a generation, the game of baseball suffers through a fun crisis, and the story of this MLB season so far is how alarmingly not fun baseball has become. These crises always seem to coincide with pitchers nosing ahead of hitters, followed by a nosedive in offense. Despite what the purists and baseball lifers and respect-for-the-gamers would have you believe, though, MLB has responded with drastic changes every time. And now it’s time to do it again. Modern baseball has lots of problems—too many strikeouts, too few runs, too little action on the basepaths—but all these problems are symptoms of the same root cause: Major League Baseball is afraid of fun. When you’re a humorless corporation with no capacity to distinguish between fun and controversy, between a charisma machine and a giant prick, they all look like time bombs. Stir in the game’s historical insistence on modesty, on keeping your head down and doing your job, even though this isn’t an oil rig, and before long, your sport turns into a snooze.

After the 1968 season, the so-called year of the pitcher, when Bob Gibson posted a 1.12 ERA and six other starters finished with ERAs below 2.00, MLB lowered the pitching mound by five inches, from 15 to 10. Think about that. It didn’t just add a pitch clock that everyone ignores. The “purists” of baseball nuked the very geometry of the game—lopped five inches of dirt right the hell out of America’s pastime forever—for the express purpose of goosing offense, and it worked. Five years later, the American League introduced a gimmick called the “designated hitter” to spare us the tedium of watching pitchers flail at the plate. Fifteen years after that, the power boom peaked with the Bash Brothers, Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, and the dynastic Oakland Athletics of the late 1980s, who were managed by Tony La Russa. He never seemed to mind all those boastful forearm bashes. It was almost as if he’d evolved with the game.

MLB’s next fun crisis took hold in the mid-’90s, after a strike by the players’ union that supposedly shattered the sacred trust between fans and the game of baseball. Hogwash. A decade earlier, the NFL had survived a work stoppage just fine. It wasn’t the players’ strike. It was the fun strike. The culprit this time was the arrival of the internet, and the dawning awareness that baseball was being played at dial-up speed. The unhittable Atlanta Braves dork Greg Maddux, with his dad bod and 5 o’clock shadow, was spinning shutouts every start and teaching junior-high physics in between. The sub-2.00 ERAs were back—Maddux followed up a strike-shortened 1.56 ERA in 1994 with a full-season 1.63 in 1995—but this time, MLB didn’t reduce the mound. That would’ve been ludicrous. Cy Young himself would’ve rolled over in his grave. Instead, the league let hitters gobble up steroids like Skittles until juiced-up sluggers wrecked every record in the (written) book. It worked, because as Maddux himself famously lamented, “Chicks dig the long ball.”

In the social-media age, baseball is once again in the throes of a fun crisis, and given all the competition out there for our attention, especially relative to 1968, this might be the big one. MLB must find a way to restore the equilibrium on the field, and that will require a fundamental shift in the game’s talent pool, away from power and back toward speed, back toward action on the basepaths, stolen bases, plays at the plate, extra-base hits that don’t leave the park. Home runs may count for more, but anyone who loves baseball knows that triples are way more fun. Minor-league baseball is currently experimenting with slightly larger bases—18x18 inches, versus the traditional 15x15—a minor safety measure with a major consequence for game action: It brings the bases a few inches closer together. Just enough to tilt the risk-reward balance toward stealing bases, or stretching a double into a triple, or tagging up on a shallow fly ball, versus playing it safe. Just enough to make speed super valuable again. One or two more tweaks like that, and baseball will fix its latest fun crisis for another decade or two … until home runs vanish entirely and the game evolves into a mouse maze of bunt singles, and we have another fun crisis, and then the cycle repeats.

Breaking the cycle forever will require a fundamental shift in how MLB views itself in relation to the world beyond the foul lines. Which is why, as goofy as it was, the fissure in the Sox clubhouse represents such a consequential moment. It’s a war for the soul of baseball, and it’s being waged in public, and in a sense, every fan of the game gets a vote: the La Russa Way, or the Yermínator Way. Take the pitch on 3–0, or swing for the fences on 3–0. Show some respect for the game, or have some fun out there (because, after all, it’s just a game).

Few stories in baseball so far this season have been more fun than the rise of Yermín Mercedes, whose 11-year professional journey to the big leagues took more than a dozen stops in the minors. Then he set an MLB record by starting his big-league career with eight hits in his first eight at-bats. He’d already made a name for himself, in other words, with an accomplishment that was a testament to his hard work, determination, and love for baseball, not to mention the game’s singular gift for the improbable.

Now Mercedes is known for this one controversy. He has been dubbed a disrespecter of the game by the great Tony La Russa. He is clueless. Ignorant. Wrong. He needs to be sat down and taught a lesson, not just about being a professional but also about being a man, and Tony La Russa, consummate professional, is just the man to do it.

Yermín Mercedes is 28 years old. He is a married man. He’s been earning a living for himself since he was a teenager. He loves to play baseball, and his teammates love the way he plays it. His .304 batting average is currently second in the White Sox. He and his young, talented teammates and his Hall of Fame manager are in first place in the AL Central. They’re winning games and are on their way to the playoffs, contending for the World Series.

As for L’Affair La Russa? The manager lost, but the rest of us won. We got a super-fun highlight on the field, a roast-worthy tantrum by a name-brand crank, and a comic feast for any sports fan blessed with a sense of humor. Baseball is a beautiful game.

*This article previously misstated that Tyler Duffey beaned Yermin Mercedes. In fact, he threw behind Mercedes.