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The Tony La Russa that emerged from the dugout in the eighth inning of the White Sox’s victory over Cleveland on Friday night was the Tony La Russa I expected to see earlier this season.
OK, maybe I didn’t anticipate him hauling ass out of the dugout in the particular fashion he employed …
… but in terms of pole-vaulting on his indignation into the middle of on-field policing? Absolutely. He had that history in St. Louis and Oakland, including the beaning of Terry Steinbach in the first year of New Comiskey Park back in 1991.
There are a couple of similarities between the Steinbach and Abreu incidents. Most notably, personnel from La Russa’s team shoved the most concerned party from the opposite side out of the way regardless of the compassion displayed.
Back in 1991, La Russa added a couple of flourishes his age probably wouldn’t allow anymore. He flung Steinbach’s bat against the screen in frustration, which earned him an ejection. After the game, he got into a screaming match with an AP reporter who asked him a rather basic question.
La Russa then took exception to a question regarding Steinbach’s status and got into a heated argument with Associated Press stringer Bob Glass.
“That had to be a very scary moment,” La Russa was asked.
“I don’t want to talk about that,” La Russa answered, raising his voice.
“OK, but don’t yell at me,” Glass replied.
“I’ll yell if I want to,” La Russa screamed before ending the group interview and ordering the reporter out of the room.
“Don’t pull that. Be a man,” Glass shouted.
La Russa turned back toward the reporter and was visibly upset.
“Be a man? My player is on the ground! That guy has about as much sense as a buzzard,” he said, referring to Glass.
At that point, several Oakland players and coaches moved toward the scene and Glass was escorted out as players shouted at him to leave.
That stands as La Russa’s most severe flare-up in a career full of them, which is why I’m surprised it took until the end of his fourth month to see it in his return to the White Sox. It’s also what made his blasé dismissal of Minnesota’s purpose pitch at Yermín Mercedes especially galling.
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That said, the beaning José Abreu absorbed was enough to get anybody’s adrenaline spiking. Abreu took James Karinchak‘s first pitch behind the earflap. It was a direct hit at 96 mph. Abreu hit the dirt, Karinchak crouched and turned away in a manner I don’t think can be faked. And even if Karinchak didn’t express such horror, it wouldn’t make sense for him to throw at Abreu with the bases loaded.
Yet when it’s this kind of result, “It was an accident” doesn’t always register as a sufficient excuse.
There’s also the matter that it was Abreu’s second HBP of the game, and 13th of the season. He gets plunked a lot for somebody who doesn’t hang over the plate. His feet set up in the middle of the batter’s box, and his elbow is over the inside chalk. He also wears zero body armor. Nothing about the way he sets up asks for the punishment he absorbs.
Abreu is as tough as a baseball player gets, and as long as he’s not drilled on skull or bones, he usually tries to jog to first in a way that demonstrably shows his indifference. But when he gets hit for the second time in a game — and Friday marked the 11th time Abreu’s been drilled multiple times — he often takes more time in order to let everybody notice his noticing. MLB.com has findable video of the last seven such instances:
It also doesn’t help matters that Cleveland has plunked Abreu four times in 12 games this year. Such tension arose earlier back in May when Abreu was drilled in consecutive games, and Abreu responded with his characteristic level of tolerance for each one.
When Cal Quantrill plunked him on the thigh on May 1, Abreu sprinted to first.
And when Zach Plesac plunked him with a high-and-tight miss the next day, he took his time leaving the batter’s box.
Abreu’s teammates seemed to take notice. Before the game ended, Matt Foster drilled José Ramírez, joining Maikel Cleto (2014) and Josh Osich (2019) as pitchers who retaliated on Abreu’s behalf.
Before Abreu’s beaning on Friday, the two teams once again exchanged plunkings of lineup linchpins, although neither had the classic markings of intent. Lance Lynn clipped Ramirez’s elbow, or maybe Ramírez dipped his elbow into it when he tried to check his swing in the top of the first. In the bottom of the inning, J.C. Mejía’s slider slipped and scored a direct hit Abreu’s elbow, although it would’ve squarely struck hip if Abreu hadn’t flinched.
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Such pitches are the kind of incidental toll a great hitter has to deal with. It’s a sign of respect, in baseball’s strange way. For most people and situations, being careful results in avoiding contact with a stranger. Here, pitchers exercise caution by missing towards a hitter.
The problem is that there’s an asymptotic jump where “very careful” suddenly becomes “severely reckless,” and it’s somewhere between a Mejía slider to the hip and a Karinchak fastball to the skull. Where one draws that line depends on which side was on the receiving end, which is why Lance Lynn’s reaction …
… differs wildly from that of Franmil Reyes.
Reyes’ defensiveness is understandable, the way a kid would rather punish himself than spend a day bracing for the unknown. I think he’s also flattering himself here, because history shows the White Sox consider Ramírez the equal of Abreu in this weird court system. It’s like Andrew Vaughn watching Lynn doink Ramírez and screaming about his livelihood being on the line.
Regardless of Reyes’ feelings, retaliation is a tool the White Sox have at their disposal when they’ve been out-plunked 48-32 over the course of the season, and Abreu’s bruises account for most of the disparity. The hand and wrist injuries the White Sox suffered in games against Cleveland from a decade ago reflect the danger in letting a team miss inside with impunity. It’s not about exchanging a welt for a welt, or, in this case, a concussion threat for a concussion threat. It’s about getting the attention of umpires when certain staffs prove incapable of trust.
The White Sox hold a nine-game lead over a Cleveland team that”s thinking about 2022 or beyond, so just like Lucas Giolito with Josh Donaldson, the Sox may be better off letting the threat dangle instead of jumping in the pit, as annoying as injustice can be.
If they’re taking their cues from Abreu, his apparent acceptance of Karinchak’s apology might be where he wants to leave it. At the same time, the White Sox still have seven games with the Future Guardians, including a five-game set at Progressive Field in September. They shouldn’t have designs on starting a brawl, but it’s in their interest to draw a line.
(Photo by Mike Dinovo/USA TODAY Sports)