Hall of Famer will oversee all baseball operations in newly created position
PHOENIX -- Four weeks ago, after watching the D-backs drop the first two games of a series against the Cubs to fall to 5-18, team president and CEO Derrick Hall knew he had to start considering making changes in team's baseball hierarchy.
One of the options that Hall presented to managing general partner Ken Kendrick was bringing in a veteran baseball man above general manager Kevin Towers to evaluate the entire baseball operations department and make changes if he saw fit.
The pair decided on that option and that started a process that culminated Saturday with the hiring of Hall of Famer Tony La Russa to the newly created position of chief baseball officer.
"He has a free rein to do whatever he thinks he needs to do to make the organization better," Kendrick said. "There's always been an ultimate authority, either Derrick or me, but we're not experts. You tend to, maybe at times, you question decisions that are made, but you want to let somebody that you've hired have the authority that goes with the responsibility. It's not working like we wanted it to, so you've got to try something different."
Kendrick told MLB.com that La Russa's contract was for "multiple years" but declined to say how many.
According to Hall, the team interviewed several people for the position but early in the process locked in on La Russa.
"He exudes leadership," Kendrick said. "When you spend time with somebody and you interact and you talk and you ask questions, you know sometimes people just come across in a really impressive way. I had people say he's the smartest baseball guy they've ever known, the hardest-working guy they've ever been around."
La Russa had been serving as special assistant to Commissioner Bud Selig and was a member of the Commissioner's 14-member special committee for on-field matters since December 2009.
Being called the smartest baseball guy during his introduction by Kendrick made La Russa cringe a bit. To him, he's just had a lot of great mentors from whom he's learned during his time as a player and manager, including legendary Cardinals manager George Kissell.
"He said, 'If you go forward in this game, the key is, do you love it and do you want to learn it?'" La Russa said. "He told me that in Spring Training. At the end of the year, he said, 'I really think that you love it and you want to learn it.' That's just what this game is about. My mind is just a product of 50 years of being taught. I'm no smarter than anyone else, but I've been taught by some wonderful people."
La Russa was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame over the winter for his accomplishments during a 33-year managerial career, and he will be inducted in July.
Following the 2011 season, La Russa retired with a .536 career winning percentage and his 2,728 wins are the third most all-time behind Connie Mack (3,731) and John McGraw (2,763). His 70 postseason wins rank second all-time behind Joe Torre (84).
Though he does not have any front-office experience, La Russa possesses a keen intellect, as he proved by gaining a degree from Florida State Unversity's School of Law (he passed the bar exam in 1979), so the D-backs are confident that he will be able to pick it up quickly.
La Russa will have the final say on all trades and transactions in his new role. While familiar with the D-backs at the Major League level, he is less so when it comes to their Minor Leaguers. With that in mind, he will soon spend time traveling to each of the team's affiliates to evaluate the talent.
On Saturday he met briefly -- and separately -- with Towers and Gibson, and he plans on addressing the team prior to Sunday's game. Then he will sit down with farm director Mike Bell to get his thoughts on the farm system and scouting director Ray Montgomery to discuss the upcoming First-Year Player Draft. It's possible that La Russa could accompany Montgomery on some trips to scout potential Draft picks.
Both Towers and Gibson praised the decision to bring La Russa on board.
"To me, to be able to bring on a good baseball mind, you can't have enough good baseball people in your front office," Towers said. "I know that he loves to compete and he loves to win. That's what this is all about. It certainly will be good for Gibby and I and the organization. We're a better organization today than we were yesterday by having his presence here and being a Diamondback. I approach my job like I do each and every day until they tell me that I'm no longer here."
Of course, La Russa is the one who holds Towers' fate in his hands.
"He knows more about general managing than I know, so I'll be properly respectful," La Russa said. "I just think in this situation, you hold yourself to the standard of Major League excellence, because for the first time I've got a responsibility to an organization that said, 'Use your experience to help us get better.'"