Friends of Tony La Russa noticed a restlessness about him in recent months. He is, and always will be, a control freak in need of something to micromanage, and a cushy job on Park Avenue wasn't enough. He needs significant responsibility, and his duties at Major League Baseball didn't afford him much.
So when the Arizona Diamondbacks bellowed for a knight in shining armor to rescue them, in came La Russa on his white steed. Never mind that what prompted Diamondbacks ownership to seek a change atop its baseball operations chain was the very sort of thing La Russa the manager would have dismissed with a snarl and smug glare: one bad month. Those happen. The Diamondbacks' unfortunately came in April. Since the calendar turned, only the three best teams in baseball, Detroit, Oakland and San Francisco, have played at a better clip than the Diamondbacks' .600.
Never mind that. This came down to internal perceptions, and no matter how much Diamondbacks officials and players admire general manager Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson – a great deal, it should be said – the awful start was like an unstoppable virus that poisoned everything around it. Certainly these Diamondbacks are flawed, but not fatally so. Though one wouldn't know as much when even Towers and Gibson would admit to confidants that they were simply waiting for the guillotine to drop.
It did, and in dramatic fashion, with La Russa's arrival this week. Towers and Gibson remain employed. Barring an about-face, that will end soon, and not as much because they're unqualified as it's how La Russa does business: his way and his way only. Which is only one part of why this was such a curious hire.
One of the Diamondbacks' greatest assets – the one it understandably loves to tout – is a strong organizational culture. The Diamondbacks believe they run their business like a modern franchise ought, and they're right in many ways. Buy-in from the baseball-operations is imperative to the plan's success, and the belief that La Russa will toe the company line when asked is naïve. It's not that he's insubordinate; it's that he rarely believes he's wrong.
Success led to such a tack. La Russa is headed into the Hall of Fame this summer as a manager with the third-most victories in history, six pennants, three World Series rings and one reputation as a genius. Indeed, La Russa's tactical chops were peerless. He invented the modern bullpen. He brought a lawyer's sensibility to the manager's seat. His achievements speak for themselves.
At the same time, La Russa is a first-time baseball-ops head at 69 years old. He is the oldest in charge, three years more wizened than his old boss in Oakland, Sandy Alderson, and six more than the next closest, Walt Jocketty, his old boss in St. Louis. Certainly La Russa worked with some of the best at the job. He's also transitioning from a career in which only the immediate mattered to one where a five-year plan is often more important than the season at hand.
Even if the Diamondbacks did all they could to insulate him from the rigors of the general manager's job by giving him the title of chief baseball officer, La Russa's hire reeks more of a name grab than something done to stabilize the franchise long-term. Baseball is not some sort of business where Bob and Bob can come in, make suggestions, pare down the workforce and move on to the next company that needs slimming. Ultimately, the success of the hire could boil down to whether La Russa sees this as something he wants to do well into his 70s or a bridge gig before retirement.
More than that is the seeming about-face from Diamondbacks managing partner Ken Kendrick, among the most vocal ownership voices in the game. Publicly ripping players is a favorite pastime of his – Stephen Drew and Justin Upton can attest – and his more recent target was Towers, whom he accused of playing the grit card too much with the construction of his team. It was a legitimate criticism; Towers' rejection of analytics, compared to other teams' interest, was stark.
After saying he wanted better balance, Kendrick went and hired La Russa, he of the most relied-upon gut in baseball this side of Bartolo Colon. In La Russa's media tour over the past couple days, he has doubled down on his anti-numbers sentiment. He says they're useful, but only so useful when compared to his instinct and what he knows about the game. He should know better. You can't have your WAR and eat it, too.
If Tony La Russa taught us one thing during his 33 years as a manager, it's never to doubt him. He owned a special quality: the ability to take almost anything and rally his team around it. Media, ownership, some innocuous words from an opponent – it didn't matter to La Russa. His influence in the clubhouse bordered on cultish. The Tao of Tony mesmerized more people than would care to admit.
His new job won't be easy. The Diamondbacks are heavy on difficult-to-deal contracts and short on impact prospects, both indictments of Towers' tenure. They're carrying their highest payroll ever and in the National League West cellar, a reflection of Gibson's. Change is coming, and knowing La Russa, there won't be a shortage of it, even if the Diamondbacks need more of a spit shine than a whole new shoe.
La Russa got the power he wanted, and it's incumbent on him to make it work in an organization so seemingly ill-suited for him. He doesn't exactly play chameleon well, either. His voice will be loud, clear and unrelenting. The question is not whether the Diamondbacks will hear it. It's whether they'll listen.
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