By Eric Nusbaum
A few months ago, I interviewed Arizona Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers for a different story on this site. We talked about globalization and baseball and how the Diamondbacks organization is embracing an international future for the game. He told me he used the money from his first signing bonus to go backpack through Europe. I had heard some of his previous comments about Justin Upton, and questioned some of his moves as an executive. But that day, Kevin Towers seemed like a pretty worldly guy. Please try to keep this in mind.
By now you have likely heard -- or heard about -- the comments Towers made on sports talk radio in Phoenix on Tuesday. He said, essentially, that the Diamondbacks of 2013 were insufficiently tough, insufficiently willing to defend their own honor against slights real and perceived. As Towers put it, this lack of toughness, which manifested itself as an inability or unwillingness to pitch inside, affected the Diamondbacks in ways both tangible (they gave up a lot of home runs because they didn't use the inner half), and intangible (pitchers not protecting teammates hurt chemistry). It came off as kind of crazy and overly aggressive and missing the point. Baseball teams generally win by having good players. Meanness is not a prerequisite for success.
One of Towers' exact quotes referred to the lack of retaliation after Paul Goldschmidt was hit by a pitch in a September game:
"Not that I don't take any of our guys from a lesser standpoint," Towers said, "but if Goldy's getting hit, it's an eye for an eye, somebody's going down or somebody's going to get jackknifed."
This is a good quote to talk about because like Kevin Towers himself, it contains multitudes. The first thing we have to consider is that the first clause is a complete lie. Of course Kevin Towers looks more highly upon Paul Goldschmidt than other players. And he should. Paul Goldschmidt is the best player on the Diamondbacks and one of the best hitters in the National League. He is a franchise cornerstone who loves living and playing in Phoenix.
In the same interview, Towers explains the firings of pitching coach Charles Nagy and first base coach Steve Sax by stating that the Diamondbacks are playing a "performance-oriented game," which is generally what most major league teams are playing (insert cynical Marlins joke here). The pitching staff was prone to allowing too many home runs and base stealers were prone to getting thrown out this past season. Perfectly logical. And by that same "performance-oriented" logic, Kevin Towers values Goldschmidt differently from, say, Cody Ross. A pitcher who has thrown at Goldschmidt has committed a much greater sin. Denying the symbolic importance of a team's star player is as silly as denying his statistical importance.
Another thing about the above quote: it sounds very aggressive. Despite what Towers said to MLB.com afterward about not wanting to hit batters, just to brush them back, and about the technical meaning of "jacknife," you can't really un-say "an eye for an eye." We can, however, try to make sense of it.
The lack of internal logic in Towers' comments about value and performance is a big clue that he was not really thinking about what he was saying. The Goldschmidt quote oozes frustration: The frustration of an executive whose company is not performing at the level he thinks it should be. What Towers was doing -- albeit in an ill-advisedly public setting, especially for a general manager -- was venting. He was trying to talk himself into a reason for his roster's 81-81 performance last season that goes beyond his own front office's work in constructing that roster. This was not really tough talk or some Angry Baseball Manifesto. It was the strained overcompensation of a person who is secretly doubting himself. After the pool incident, after the whimpering conclusion to the Diamondbacks season, Towers was trying to talk his team's confidence back up to an acceptable place.
Which brings me to this: The Arizona Diamondbacks are not just any franchise when it comes to confidence. They are a very well-run organization, obsessed with their own process. The Diamondbacks organization is famously loyal, famously brand-conscious, and famously wonderful to work for. Self-confidence is integral to their identity. There is an insular jocularity about the front office. Executives are asked to wear Diamondbacks hats and polos when they represent the team outside of Phoenix. The franchise is aggressive about marketing itself, and extremely involved in the Phoenix community, as well as across the border in Mexico.
Perhaps the inverse of that fierce pride is an unhealthy obsession with doing things "the right way." And perhaps when turned inward, the feeling of specialness, the obsession with correctness, the pride itself, burns so brightly that it makes perspective impossible. All that specialness has a dark side. Insecurity looms under the valedictorian's perfect report card. Consider the incident earlier in the season when franchise majority owner Ken Kendrick forced a group of Dodger fans to change jerseys in the middle of a game, because they were sitting in a suite that was highly visible on television.
And consider Towers' comments themselves. It has been pointed out that the Diamondbacks hit opposing batters far more than they were themselves hit in 2013. It has been pointed out that Ian Kennedy, who seemed perfectly happy to throw at Yasiel Puig's face and Zack Greinke in the same game, was traded to the Padres midseason. Kevin Towers is not oblivious to these things. He may not be an especially media savvy executive, but he also likely understands how his comments sounded to the baseball fans who heard or read them.
So was this really some neat statement of purpose? That the Diamondbacks will use the 2014 offseason to get even grittier? Or -- considering the context -- was it something else? A person getting carried away, a symptom of a highly pressurized club culture, the frustration of a highly disappointing season spilling out into the public realm.