There was a moment when Jerry Dipoto was forced to assess how he fit with the Arizona Diamondbacks, a team in transition all around him, when it seemed almost nothing fit.
Baseball jobs tend to come and go, they being only slightly more stable than a counter job at Wendy's.
So, if not in Arizona for the bright baseball man, a former pitcher who'd done his time on the field and in enough front offices to know the score, maybe somewhere fresh.
The Diamondbacks had trudged into last winter with an interim general manager – Dipoto – and an interim field manager, a team with 97 losses that drew barely two million fans, and an organizational philosophy – or a method of employing it – that had run aground.
In mid-summer, and in spite of long contracts for both, general manager Josh Byrnes and manager A.J. Hinch were fired. Dipoto took Byrnes' seat. Kirk Gibson took the top step.
And everybody hung on.
Dipoto was asked to move payroll, which he did at the trading deadline, bringing big league pitching and organizational pitching depth for Dan Haren(notes) and Edwin Jackson(notes). Gibson was asked to bring stability and passion to the dugout, which he generally did in spite of a flammable bullpen and strikeout-leaning lineup.
For three years the Diamondbacks had trended backward in wins. For the last two, they'd finished last in the National League West.
They needed change. More change.
Their core young players, men such as Chris Young, Justin Upton(notes), Mark Reynolds(notes), Stephen Drew(notes) and Miguel Montero(notes), were in most cases capable, yet hadn't reached their prime, and it showed. The pitching was mostly awful, young and old alike.
The Diamondbacks bore the look of a team that would fade out before its time ever came.
The club, then, hired Kevin Towers as general manager. He'd built winners in San Diego. He knew the West and even came with a cool nickname, "The Gunslinger." Soon, he'd retain Gibson.
That meant Dipoto was in limbo. He did not get the GM job, but he did get his moment to think things through. He could return as senior vice president, scouting and player development. Or not. He could see this through. Or not.
"At any point, change is difficult for most people," Dipoto said this week, the Diamondbacks then seven games in first place. "You want to be a team player. I felt like I'd been a part of building something here."
Owner Ken Kendrick wished he would stay and continue what he'd started with those mid-summer trades.
"If you feel a part of this," Kendrick asked him, "why do you want to walk away now?"
Dipoto didn't have an answer.
What he had was a sense that, despite all appearances, the Diamondbacks were coming. With a rebuilt bullpen, Ian Kennedy(notes) and Daniel Hudson(notes), another year behind the young guys, and Gibson for a full season, what he had was a sense this wasn't a last-place team anymore.
"Obviously, it was a great decision for me personally," Dipoto said.
Not because the Diamondbacks are three weeks from their first division title in four years, crafting one of the great worst-to-first stories in decades, all of this rising from 97 losses, though that's part of it.
But because these Diamondbacks, no matter what happens in October, might be here for a while. And while folks soon will be affixing faces and reputations to the resurgent D'backs, and while men such as Towers and Byrnes and Gibson and former GM Joe Garagiola Jr. and former scouting director Mike Rizzo and current president Derrick Hall each get a piece, let's not forget Dipoto, the company man.
For a few months one lost summer, he stood in and made the tough decisions, trading two pitchers when everyone in the game knew he had to. Lacking the leverage of patience, he turned Haren into Joe Saunders(notes) and three others, including lefty prospects Tyler Skaggs and Patrick Corbin. For Jackson, he pulled Hudson and another lefty, David Holmberg.
Minor league depth isn't all that sexy in big league towns, but it runs organizations, especially mid-market organizations.
"At the time, you really can't explain that," Dipoto said. "There's not a lot of people waking up in Arizona throwing on a Mobile BayBears hat."
Hudson is a 15-game winner at 24. Saunders is a reasonable back-end starter. Both file in behind Ian Kennedy, who has blossomed from New York Yankee disappointment into Diamondback ace. It's going on two years since that three-way trade that brought Kennedy – the Detroit Tigers sent Curtis Granderson(notes) to the Yankees – and now it seems all three teams will ride parts of the trade into the postseason. Dipoto had scouted Kennedy from the time he entered USC, through the minor leagues, for each of a half-dozen starts in the '09 Arizona Fall League and decided he was looking at a Mike Mussina knockoff.
"I do think he was unfairly labeled as a guy with ordinary stuff," Dipoto said of Kennedy.
Yes, there's a lot that went right for these Diamondbacks, after almost everything went wrong for two years. Upton became a star. Towers fixed the bullpen in about a week. And most nights they turn unremarkable into something more.
After 140 games, what stands out for Dipoto is between the trades, beyond the numbers.
"If this team is about anything," he said, "it's character. It's makeup. It's a real grinder club."
Suddenly, it's about hope, too.
So, don't forget Jerry Dipoto.
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- Jerry Dipoto