In La Russa, D-backs have hired proven winner
Expect Hall of Famer to-be to approach front-office role as he did managing
When Tony La Russa was a young manager, he made it a point to befriend, among others, Sparky Anderson and Earl Weaver. He did this partly out of respect. He wanted them to know that he appreciated their accomplishments and understood their stature in the game.
La Russa had another motive as well. He wanted to pick their brains and attempt to understand why they'd been so successful. Through the years, he peppered them with questions about almost everything, from strategy to dealing with umpires to relationships with players.
He surely had his own ideas about all of these things, but he also wanted to see if they could help him understand various aspects of his job. And La Russa made an impression on both Anderson and Weaver. Both were touched that he held them in such high esteem. Both came to understand how deeply he'd studied the game's history.
Both also came to know that he was extremely ambitious and that he had a voracious appetite to learn. If La Russa was going to be a big league manager, he was going to try to be the best.
Anderson and Weaver knew before a lot of people that La Russa had a chance to do great things. That he would end up winning more games than either of these Hall of Famers surely traces some of its roots back to those early days.
La Russa's induction into the Hall of Fame this summer could be overwhelmingly emotional. His ceremony, along with that of Bobby Cox and Joe Torre, will put him alongside Weaver and Anderson to bring the number of managers in the Hall of Fame to just 23.
Here's the point: After La Russa managed the last of his 5,097 games in 2011, he immediately began planning for the day that arrived on Saturday, when the D-backs named him their chief baseball officer.
In three years, he has toured an assortment of front offices and met with owners and executives. And as he did with Anderson and Weaver, La Russa asked dozens of questions.
From Commissioner Bud Selig and White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf to Reds general manager Walt Jocketty, Braves president John Schuerholz and a long list of others, La Russa has tried to grasp what's important and what's not about running a team.
He understands that running a team is significantly different from managing one. Yet the key thing he brings to the table -- and this is the thing the D-backs are thrilled they're getting -- is an understanding of winning baseball.
Only Connie Mack and John McGraw managed more winning games than La Russa's 2,728. Perhaps more important than that raw number is how his teams did it. And that is what La Russa will bring to the D-backs.
La Russa knows winning, and he also knows winners. As one of his former players, Lance Berkman, once said, "When we make a trade, sometimes it's just as important to notice who we're getting rid of as who we're getting."
La Russa had a really simple philosophy about baseball games. He wanted the game played a certain way. He attempted to focus players on the absolute basics -- for instance, throwing to the right base, running the bases smartly, eliminating mental mistakes. That stuff is what decides a lot of games.
La Russa was a sore loser. One night in Milwaukee, he was so steamed about losing that he stormed out of the clubhouse and drove himself back to the hotel. Only later did he realize he'd left his coaching staff at the ballpark without a ride.
But he tried to divide losing games into a couple of categories. He said he could accept defeat if his team had played hard and played smart. Whether he did is open to debate, but that's what he said.
Stupid mistakes drove him crazy. When his teams lost games that way, he wasn't pleasant to be around. When a young player made a mental blunder a couple of years ago, he returned to the dugout after the inning to find Cardinals coach Jose Oquendo waiting for him. And then first baseman Albert Pujols. Finally, La Russa himself.
All had the same message: The Cardinals do not tolerate dumb mistakes.
When La Russa was asked about it, he said, "Well, you can't ignore that stuff. You can't let anyone think it's going to be acceptable."
This attitude served him well. One spring, when his Cardinals were picked to finish third or fourth that season, La Russa talked to his players almost daily about ignoring the outside noise and simply focusing on the team and the job at hand. To La Russa, that meant doing the right things an inning at a time. By July of that year, the Cardinals were rolling to another division championship.
He believed in the power of competitive fires and a mental edge. Attention to detail? On the morning after the Cardinals won an incredible Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, La Russa telephoned his two biggest stars, Pujols and Chris Carpenter.
La Russa's worry was that his team would spend too much time looking back instead of ahead. So he ordered a series of meetings before Game 7. La Russa -- and his leaders -- reminded every player that they were not to discuss Game 6, not to think about it and to ignore compliments.
He quoted Herb Brooks, the Olympic hockey coach, who reminded his team in 1980 that beating Russia, as historic as it might have been, would be irrelevant if it didn't also win the Gold Medal game that followed.
No manager invested more hours in his job. La Russa would show up seven or eight hours before first pitch and begin preparing. One afternoon, I approached his desk and saw him with a ruler and pencil drawing up spray charts where the opposing hitters were likely to hit the ball against that night's pitcher.
In talking to La Russa, though, it was clear this exercise, which anyone could have done, was part of his preparation. As he talked, he went through the other manager's bullpen options -- that is, which relievers were tired, which relievers were fresh -- and was already plotting late-inning matchups. He was playing the game before it was being played.
Through the years, La Russa got to know Bobby Knight, Bill Parcells and others who shared their secrets for dealing with players, motivating teams and dealing with both victory and defeat.
Yes, running a front office is complicated. There are contracts and arbitration hearings and the hiring of instructors, scouts and dozens of others. In the end, though, it always comes back to winning games.
With this hire, the D-backs have someone who has done as much winning as almost any man in the history of baseball. La Russa begins the job with an idea of what makes up a successful front office and how to get from here to there.
Some will criticize La Russa for dismissive statements he has made about advanced analytics in recent years. This is silly. La Russa's teams were dabbling in advanced metrics in their early stages. He will make sure the D-backs devour every ounce of available information. If he's convinced the club will be better, he will explore any avenue.
Yes, La Russa is unproven at running a team. But he has thoroughly prepared himself. He will watch, listen and learn. To plenty of people who've gotten to know him these last 30 years, it's almost incomprehensible that he will not be successful.
The D-backs are poised to succeed. They have a tremendous ownership in managing general partner Ken Kendrick and one of baseball's most respected men in president and CEO Derrick Hall. First baseman Paul Goldschmidt gives La Russa a Pujols-type superstar around whom to build the franchise.
And now, the D-backs have La Russa. He simply will not fail.