Unwittingly, what brought Adam Eaton to this point has also dumped him in the center of baseball’s creaking evolution.
He was a too-short, 19th-round pick in 2010. Eaton lifted, worked and hustled to elevate himself from rookie ball in the Pioneer League to a major-league debut just two years later. Eaton went back to the minors, back up to the majors, was traded to the White Sox, then became a grinding player advanced stats loved, even if his teammates did not feel the same way.
Eaton doesn’t know a different style or mentality, and why would he change? His outwardness -- the same demeanor that caused clubhouse flubs and on-field effort -- made him the only position player in his high school’s history to reach the major leagues. In short, he’s not supposed to be here.
But, he made it. And in doing so ended up winning a World Series ring with a veteran-laden team. Just more than a year later, he’s back in Chicago, a 32-year-old caught in the league’s slow-moving changes.
Eaton joins the young, bubbly White Sox team now being managed by 76-year-old Tony La Russa. The age gap between La Russa and the stars of his team is massive. He could easily be a grandfather to many of them. Tim Anderson (27), Lucas Giolito (26), Eloy Jimėnez (24), Yoán Moncada (25) and Luis Robert (22) are the core of this up-and-coming team. They are demonstrative by baseball standards, especially Anderson, who has fully embraced bat flips no matter the circumstance.
In the fourth inning of a scoreless game against hapless Kansas City in 2019, Anderson homered to deep left field. He put his bat in his right hand, threw it back at his dugout, said something, then turned to face first base and started jogging. The catcher popped his mask up to give Anderson a glare. Pearls were clutched across the league. Unwritten rules gasped and certain members of the league groaned.
Which is why Eaton was asked in his initial radio interview since signing with the White Sox if he thought La Russa could relate to the younger players on the team. It’s been a question since La Russa was hired to manage for the first time since 2011.
“There’s some concern because he’s older and he’s been away from the game for a while, at least as a manager he hasn’t been in the dugout for a while, he might have a hard time relating to today’s player,” the host asked. “Would that be a problem?”
“All right, you guys have a good day,” Eaton said.
“That’s it?” the host said.
“I’ll talk to you guys later. I appreciate it,” Eaton said. “Yeah, I gave you guys your two minutes. Thanks guys.”
A tweet of the exchange suggested Eaton flatly hung up (and prompted multiple crying-from-laughing emojis in a reply from Anderson). He did not. Eaton, instead, was the way he always is: ready to talk on his terms and joust with those who aren’t walking the same path.
Eaton’s media events in Washington occasionally waded through terse discourse when it appeared unnecessary. During a 2017 in-dugout press conference, Eaton sat with his crutches, ready to update reporters on the recovery process from his unfortunate early ACL tear. He laughed, was talkative and extremely amicable until asked if doctors found any other damage when reconstructing his ACL, as is often the case because they can’t see everything before the actual procedure. He immediately turned stern then informed the media he was doing them a favor by participating in the meeting. Questions resumed after a surprised lull.
In 2019, Eaton left his locker to inject himself into a conversation between another player and a reporter on the other side of the clubhouse. The player being interviewed had no problem with the line of questions. Yet, there was Eaton, calling the questions a “joke” as he walked back to the trainer’s room after interrupting and physically joining the conversation.
It’s hard, and perhaps unfair, to measure someone on limited samples. Everyone has bad days at work. Or says things they should have stifled. However, this is pertinent in Eaton’s new situation -- and across baseball -- as the sport creeps forward. In Chicago, Eaton will be his chatty, at times outspoken, self. La Russa will be scrutinized for how he handles the younger players. The younger crowd in charge of the White Sox will look at both with some skepticism, especially after La Russa publicly groused about Fernando Tatis Jr. hitting a grand slam in a 3-0 count when the Padres led by seven runs in the eighth inning in August. He elaborated on his position when introduced by the White Sox.
“A great example is (Dennis Eckersley) all those years when he had that very expressive fist pump when he got the third out,” La Russa said. “That’s a lot like what you see today. I always reasoned if it was sincere, I didn’t have a problem with it, with players that are being more exuberant. “Take Tim Anderson as an example. Now it’s people showing that, ‘Hey, I’m coming through.’ In fact, Major League Baseball is encouraging them to. If I see it’s sincere and it’s directed toward the game, that’s displaying the kind of emotion you want. As a coach, you want to get players passionately involved with the competition. If you do that, that is how you get exciting games, you’re entertaining. “If your team celebrates and their team celebrates, then neither team can be upset if you see celebrations as long as everyone is doing it sincerely.” Who is judging the sincerity is always the wrinkle. A 76-year-old manager, a 32-year-old veteran or a 20-something who was an actual kid when MLB first said, “Let the kids play.”
Juan Soto and Victor Robles -- whose on-field, in-game celebrating was corralled by Davey Martinez -- provided Eaton a look at what will be a more prevalent mindset in Chicago, where Eaton will be one of six players on Chicago’s 40-man roster born before 1990. For comparison, the Nationals have six pitchers alone on the 40-man roster born before 1990.
Which makes Eaton the middle man between his manager, the media and the young players. All the recent layers baseball is trying to tangle with will combine in one clubhouse, attempting to co-exist and survive, set to to provide a telling narrative.