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PHOENIX – I'm not sure how this helps him in his current job, and this might speak more for the company he now keeps than his own personal disposition, but Dave Stewart, at 57, is still the coolest guy in the room.
The room today is fellow baseball general managers and reporters, and the room tomorrow will be the headquarters of what was in 2014 the worst team in the game, so, yeah, the competition for coolest is rather thin.
He enters with a backpack slung over his shoulder, his walk easy and rooted, his eyelids at half-mast, his clenched jaw leading him. Going on 20 years since he threw a pitch, he still carries himself the way he would from dugout to mound to dugout again, and doesn't seem at all concerned that nearly every man in this room looks at the game differently than he does. Today, they are the ones with their caps pulled to their brows. Their eyes smoke with confidence. They're the ones with the fastballs.
Dave Stewart is general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Has been for about six weeks. His boss is Tony La Russa. La Russa's boss – the owner Ken Kendrick – has a tendency lately to run through general managers. Some, turns out, are too analytically inclined, others are not analytically inclined enough, and sometimes it seems he's endlessly tuning a guitar that refuses to be tuned. But, it's his team, so he gets the Goldilocks act.
Baseball has been running toward broader and deeper statistical analysis for a couple decades, so this isn't exactly news, and it doesn't mean Stewart can't catch up. After all, he's done some time as an assistant GM. He's been an agent. Those guys are smart and have computers. And, as La Russa revealed Wednesday, the Diamondbacks are close to hiring a director of analytics, a message he concluded with a wry grin and the kicker, "We'll give it the emphasis it deserves."
The numbers will have their place. So, too, will La Russa and Stewart and Dave Duncan (who was out in front of some of this stuff a long time ago, but didn't give it a name) and the new manager, Chip Hale. While the trend is running toward increased statistical analysis, certainly in the general manager's chair, Stewart is asked about his familiarity with that end of things and he says, "I want to know about it and I'm going to educate myself in it."
That said, he added, "We're not going to be an organization that's going to [run on] 70 percent metrics. That's not going to happen."
Said La Russa: "We'll use it. It stops before the first pitch is thrown."
Beyond that, he said, "It's not possible. The game is too dynamic. Men versus men. It changes every day."
It makes sense. In-game decisions, he said, fall under the category of preparation, not analytics.
"It's not that we devalue it," La Russa said. "We value it when it's used appropriately. We do not value its intrusion into the game. You've got to allow your uniformed people to observe the dynamics of the competition."
Where this all leads and what it means for Stewart and his evolution as a general manager in today's world will be the interesting part. He follows a general manager – Kevin Towers – reportedly fired in part because of his resistance to the newer statistics. He starts with 98 losses and a roster chopped up last season by injury. Based on time alone, the Diamondbacks should be somewhat better. He's hunting pitching, which he knows something about.
"If that sounds like a big job," Stewart said, "then it's a big job."
More, he's alongside La Russa again, all these years after they did Oakland so well together. Now they're a little older, a little thicker, a little farther from the field. But, they're still shoulder-to-shoulder in a game that requires plenty of stubbornness and some humility, along with a friend or two, and a good plan, and then a backup plan.
And Stewart is still the guy who can remind a reporter of a question he considered dumb from the day before, smile and say, "I wanted to wring your neck," prompting everyone to step back to give him room to do it. He seems confident. He seems to believe in the path they're clearing.
As La Russa said, there'll be plenty of people studying the numbers, "And then Stew's going to be looking at 'Can he play? Is he a championship-caliber pitcher?' "
Yeah, at the end of every day, he'll still be that guy. It's not that there's nobody quite like Stewart in those chairs anymore, it's that there's fewer. A lot fewer. The distance Stewart (and La Russa) has to cover is a lot farther. But it's still the game, right? They were good at what they did in the game, right? Can't it happen again?
"I think we're the same guys," Stewart said. "The core of who Tony is is what he's always going to be, which is what you know about him. I think I'm the same.
"I'm hoping I'm getting better every day. My guess is Tony feels the same."