La Russa hiring points D-backs in right direction
It was only a matter of time before some baseball organization hired Tony La Russa as a front-office executive.
This is, after all, the man currently ranked third on the list of all-time managerial victories. La Russa will be entering the Hall of Fame this summer. There are no serious arguments about the merits of his case. The fact that it took more than two years after La Russa retired as the manager of the 2011 World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals ranks as a small upset.
So the D-backs have hired La Russa to fill the newly created post of chief baseball officer. With the team currently fifth in the National League West, with the league's second-worst record, team management understandably decided that a new and knowledgeable overview was needed.
"This is something that [managing general partner] Ken [Kendrick] and I discussed as our results were not improving," said team president and CEO Derrick Hall. "We had some really good names, but the name at the top was Tony's."
With La Russa now at the top of Arizona's baseball operations flow chart, there will be considerable speculation about what impact La Russa's powerful new role will have on the careers of D-backs general manager Kevin Towers and/or manager Kirk Gibson.
Those are very interesting cases, but time, not speculation, will tell about each. Gibson, asked about La Russa's new position, responded exactly the way he needed to respond:
"I look at it as a great opportunity for me," Gibson said. "He's got a lot of wisdom. I'm certainly open to what Tony has to lend to me."
La Russa's primary problems are not the existing management personnel or the existing structure of the D-backs' organization. His primary problems are these two: the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants.
The Dodgers, as those keeping score have noticed, are absolutely loaded with revenue, and they are now in a posture in which they are spending their mega-millions wisely. The Giants are a less flashy operation, but they did win World Series in 2010 and '12. They have built their success on the firmest foundation of all -- pitching -- and this being another even-numbered year, they are back in first place in the NL West.
These are the challenges facing Arizona. The club's next direction is uphill. Make that relentlessly uphill. The D-backs have to catch organizations with either greater resources or a better base of talent, or both.
If you were in this kind of situation and you had the opportunity to hire La Russa, you would take that opportunity, too.
In the La Russa introductory news conference, Kendrick reported that baseball people who knew La Russa well had described him variously as "the smartest," "the hardest-working," "the most competitive," and "a guy of impeccable integrity."
Those are not overstatements. The competitive aspect of La Russa cannot be overstated in any way. La Russa had been a special assistant to Commissioner Bud Selig. By all accounts, La Russa had played a leadership role in the formation of the expanded replay system.
This was a fine role for a baseball man of La Russa's stature, but in this job, they didn't keep daily track of the victories and defeats. La Russa had to be headed for a job in which the measurement of competition was ever-present.
"It was really special," La Russa said of his time with MLB. "I was very hesitant to walk out on a commitment. I just wanted to get back into the action. I never have missed the managing. I missed the winning and losing."
The essential La Russa was on display again as he accepted the management position in Arizona. The team would be seen as a family, he said. The real answers, La Russa said, would not rest in mystery, in magic or in metrics.
As far as the D-backs are concerned, they have never completely recovered from a previous baseball administration firing Bob Melvin as manager and replacing him with A.J. Hinch in 2009. Melvin had won the NL Manager of the Year Award in 2007, taking an undermanned Arizona team to a division title.
Hinch was out by 2010. Melvin won the American League Manager of the Year Award in '12 with Oakland, and he has won two division titles in a row with the A's, who are leading the AL West again this season. Melvin, very simply, is one of the best managers in the game. Hinch was not. Mistakes as large as this one have a tendency to have long-term ramifications.
But the D-backs are back on the A list with the selection of La Russa as the main man in their baseball operation. Taking over the D-backs with the quality of the opposition they face is a genuine challenge. But La Russa typically did his best work when the circumstances were most challenging.