Throughout his 13-year major-league career, Carlos Gomez played with a particular style and exuberance that, on several occasions, rubbed his opponents the wrong way. He admired his home runs (and triples) — even those that didn’t win games — by dropping his bat or throwing his arms into the air. He remembered precisely which pitchers had hit him with a pitch. He slid hard into second base before it was banned, even when leading by seven runs.
It’s not like Gomez, now 35, played with reckless abandon, though. He knew baseball’s etiquette. As a rookie with the Mets in 2007, he watched and learned from stars like Carlos Delgado, Moises Alou, Carlos Beltran, and Julio Franco. And, according to Gomez, he saw them swing at a pitch on a 3-0 count in close games but never in lopsided ones.
“Winning by 10 or 12 runs, based on the way I learned the game, you shouldn’t do that,” Gomez said in a phone interview in Spanish from his native Dominican Republic. “It feels like you’re humiliating the opponent. But it’s modern times.”
Even in 2021, baseball somehow cannot escape a controversy about its unwritten rules after so much hand wringing in the past. It’s a subject that Chicago White Sox Manager Tony La Russa, who recently admitted he didn’t know the written rules for extra innings, knows about well.
The apparent crime: Yermin Mercedes, the rookie designated hitter who is leading the majors in batting average, swung at a 3-0 pitch while facing a Minnesota Twins position player, Willians Astudillo, who was only pitching because his team was getting clobbered, 15-4, in the ninth inning on Monday. (It was a 47-mile-an-hour meatball over the plate, and Mercedes launched it 429 feet.) La Russa, a Hall of Fame manager who came out of retirement after 10 years to lead the White Sox, had wanted Mercedes not to swing at all.
“With that kind of a lead, that’s just sportsmanship or respect for the game or respect for your opponent,” La Russa told reporters the next day. “He made a mistake. There will be a consequence that he’s going to have to endure within our family. It won’t happen again.”
Although the Twins were miffed, La Russa seemed even more upset with his own player. He called the 28-year-old Mercedes “clueless” about the situation because he was a rookie. “But now he’s got a clue,” he said.
Mercedes, who spent eight years in the minor leagues before reaching the majors, stood by his actions, telling reporters, “I’m going to play like that. I’m German. I can’t be another person because if I do that, everything changes.” To which, La Russa retorted, “I heard he said something like, ‘I play my game.’ No, he doesn’t. He plays the game of Major League Baseball, respects the game, respects opponents, and he’s got to respect the signs.”
When Twins reliever Tyler Duffey threw a pitch behind Mercedes in apparent retaliation the day after the home run, La Russa again sided with his opponent, saying he had no problem with it. (M.L.B., however, did have a problem with it, handing down a three-game suspension, which Duffey is appealing.)
And when Mercedes’s teammates, like the veteran pitcher Lance Lynn, backed him (“the more I play this game, the more those rules have gone away”), La Russa doubled down.
“Lance has a locker; I have an office,” he told reporters. “I would be willing to bet that there wasn’t anyone in that clubhouse that was upset that I mentioned that’s not the way we compete.”