With D-backs, La Russa sees game through new eyes
Now an executive, the Hall of Famer continues to adjust to latest role
PHOENIX -- After 33 seasons as a Hall of Fame manager, Tony La Russa said this week that his nearly one full year as a club executive has been "eye-opening."
"I've got new respect for the guys who work upstairs," the D-backs chief baseball officer said in a wide-ranging interview with MLB.com this week at Chase Field. "The responsibility is definitely different."
Trying to get the most out of the talent the front office gives you instead of acting in the role of providing those players is a completely different experience. After one of the most successful managerial careers in Major League history for the White Sox, A's and Cardinals, La Russa went to the other side this past May 17, and the transition hasn't been easy.
La Russa said he always has been fortunate to work in organizations that sought player personnel opinions from the manager and coaches. And that's the way he operates in Arizona.
"You understand [as a manager] that as long as you have an opinion to give that, in the end, they pick the guys in uniform and then your obligation is to get the most out of them," La Russa said. "It's a very good question, because it's the first year I've ever had that responsibility. It's the other side. But what we did then and what we do now is very inclusive.
"Even if we have a disagreement, it's based on everybody putting their two cents in with the understanding that the guys upstairs are the ones who have to make those last tough choices. In the end, we have the hammer. So it's different. It's been eye-opening."
There have been a plethora of tough choices since La Russa joined the D-backs. The organization was very much in turmoil last spring when managing general partner Ken Kendrick interviewed now-Braves president of baseball operations John Hart and La Russa to fill a new position as baseball czar in the organization. Hart had the front-office background and experience, but Kendrick was impressed with La Russa and the ideas he brought to the table.
Since then, La Russa has replaced Kevin Towers with Dave Stewart as general manager and Kirk Gibson with Chip Hale as manager. Like La Russa, both Stewart and Hale have long, impressive resumes, but no experience in their current positions.
For La Russa, the final few months of a 98-loss season chocked with injuries to almost every key player was spent evaluating and trying to stop the bleeding. He worked closely with Gibson.
"You could have been Sparky Anderson or John McGraw and you wouldn't have won with that club," La Russa said. "It was unfair to lose all those pitchers early and later on the [position] players. And in Gibby's behalf, and certainly the coaches, the players never quit. In the end, it was a very, very tough decision, and it came down to the fact that there was so much newness and freshness that was part of me coming over, that we decided to go new and fresh.
"But if Chip Hale would have managed that club last year, they weren't going to have a winning record."
With all that as background, the D-backs came to camp this spring with very low expectations. There were more tough decisions. Trevor Cahill was traded to the Braves and Cody Ross was released, in the process, the D-backs assuming about $17 million in obligations. The big offseason free-agent acquisition of Yasmany Tomas for $68.5 million proved to be a work in progress.
Near the end of Spring Training, Tomas was sent down for good reason.
"We thought if there were at-bats here, he could hold his own. I think we all believed that," La Russa said. "But he didn't win the third-base job and he wasn't one of the four best outfielders."
Now Tomas is back, brought in to pinch-hit this past weekend because Hale and the coaches asked for another body. But as fate would have it, when young third baseman Jake Lamb went on the disabled list with a stress reaction in his left foot, the focus again shifted to Tomas, who is having a difficult time adjusting to third base.
"He wasn't going to be here very long as pinch-hitter, but unfortunately because of Jake missing time, he'll get some more at-bats," La Russa added. "We'll see how he does."
La Russa is a realist, but inordinately positive. At 70, he's taking the same approach he did as manager, going from game to game. But La Russa understands the duality of analyzing what's good for the organization in the long term. The idea is not to just produce a winner immediately, but sustain that ethos. That's a new wrinkle to the job.
"We're hoping that we can put together a team that competes sooner rather than later and competes for a number of years," La Russa said.
La Russa's intensity never waivers. Ask him before a night game how he's doing and he'll invariably answer: "Ask me at 11 o'clock." Before a day game, ask him at 5 p.m. During the course of 2,728 regular-season games as a big league manager, La Russa says he never missed a pitch.
Watching a game from his box these days, "It's worse," he said. "I can't make any moves. I have no control. I used to have to remember to breathe most of the time. Now I have to remember to breathe all the time. You're helpless. It's harder. It's nerve wracking."
But unlike some of his younger brethren -- Billy Beane, Andrew Friedman, just to name two -- La Russa watches the games.
"I can understand them doing that," La Russa said. "But part of what my personal responsibility is how were playing the game and pitching that game as individuals. If you don't watch, how can you make a comment to Chip or the coaches? So I have to watch."
That's still part of the job.