For 16 years, I analyzed, scrutinized and obsessed over every move Tony La Russa made as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. It'll put you in a strange head place. With other teams, you sense that on some days, everyone's taking a day off; there's that backslapping, towel-snapping "hey, we all work in baseball and therefore our lives are awesome!" complacency you grow accustomed to when you watch baseball teams work and co-exist. Tony La Russa teams, for better or worse, never have this. La Russa is so intense and so manically focused on winning baseball games that I have no idea how players handle it. It wore me out, and I was only watching.
This exhaustion is considerably leavened, eventually, by all the wins.
La Russa said, when he was introduced as the Arizona Diamondbacks' "Chief Baseball Officer" on Saturday, "I never missed the managing, but boy, I missed the winning and losing." This is how you knew that La Russa was never going to stay retired, on field or not, for all that long; the wonder, really, is that he somehow held out for more than two years, other than some side work in the commissioner's office. I imagine La Russa being insane in every vaguely competitive endeavor since October 2011; Lord help the poor soul who has ended up at the same trivia night as La Russa. (La Russa would spend two hours trying to figure out the perfect team name. Also, somebody's getting a dart thrown at them.) La Russa is controlling and overpowering and the biggest guy in every room, no matter the room. This could drive Cardinals fans crazy at times... but not nearly as crazy as losing would have driven them. Ultimately: La Russa is someone you're just grateful is on your side.
Unless, theoretically speaking, you happened to be in charge the day before your boss hired him.
Kevin Towers has been an object of some ridicule for the last few years among sabermetrically-inclined folks, mainly for his tendency to trade away young talent for veteran guys with grit and/or intestinal fortitude. "The Kevin Towers era is not good," ESPN's Keith Law said earlier this year. "Basically every major move he's made, particularly in the trade front, has made the team worse." The Diamondbacks brass apparently haven't agreed: Just three months ago, they extended Towers' and manager Kirk Gibson's contracts to an undisclosed length. "If you look at the track record, these are two guys that have not had a losing season," team president Derrick Hall said. "And I think that these guys are as loyal as it gets." Here was Towers at the time: "This is a place where we hope we get to spend the rest of our careers," he said.
Oops. "Loyal as it gets" is thrown out the window rather fast when you start 9-22. The Diamondbacks gave Towers an extension and a bunch of money, and then three months later, they've brought in a Hall of Famer who's rather infamous for wanting absolute power in all matters. With a made-up position -- "Chief Baseball Officer" is a term, by my research, that has never existed in the history of the game -- that basically means "person in charge of everything." Which, until about 72 hours ago, Towers thought he was.
Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal tried this morning to imagine a scenario in which La Russa and Towers (along with Gibson) could work together , but I'm not sure his heart was in it. (And he brought up two different general manager candidates and three different managerial ones.) This is not to imply that La Russa needs yes-men: La Russa, the beautiful maniac, will want whatever is required to win as many games as possible and fight down that screaming pain in his stomach. ("Losing sucks," he said after losing in the 1990 World Series. "I don't think most people understand how bad it feels." My favorite La Russa quotes are the ones that get across how much physical pain losing causes him.) But La Russa will not allow his power to be questioned. And why would he? There's no reason to bring in Tony La Russa and have him be some cog in the machine.
There are dozens of questions as to how this is going to work, but it's difficult to imagine La Russa as a Theo Epstein, big picture of the organization guy; no one's going to run any marketing plans by La Russa anytime soon. (I pity the poor Diamondbacks middle-management-exec who would have to try.) He's here for the roster, the on-field product, and I can't help but wonder if this "chief baseball officer" job the D-Backs have invented for him is a way to try to push Towers to resign before that extension -- again, the one he just signed -- kicks in.
If you were Towers, would you want to stick around? Whatever your thoughts on Towers' recent roster moves, he has been a baseball general manager -- the guy in charge -- for 18 years. Does that sound like someone eager to be a second fiddle to anyone, even a Hall of Famer? These two can't possibly co-exist, and the Diamondbacks (and, presumably, Towers and La Russa) have to know this. If I were a general manager wanting to hold onto power, La Russa is essentially the last person I'd want hired above me.
That's unfortunate for Towers, and Gibson. (I still wouldn't put it past La Russa to give himself both jobs someday anyway, just out of general antsiness.) But Diamondbacks fans are about to go on quite the ride. Having Tony La Russa be in charge of your team will drive you up the wall at times, and you'll have to adjust to instantly becoming everybody's least favorite team for a while. But your team will win, by any means necessary; losing hurts La Russa more than it hurts you. If that's what you want -- and like La Russa, don't care about anything else -- then you're going to have one amazing time. And isn't that all everyone really wants?
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