By John Perrotto
Tony La Russa woke up on the morning of May 17 with a funny feeling in his stomach. It was a feeling he had not experienced since Oct. 28, 2011, the day of Game 7 of the 2011 World Series. Yet while his stomach was churning, the 69-year-old was enjoying every minute of it.
La Russa was going to be introduced by the Arizona Diamondbacks as their Chief Baseball Officer, a new position in which he would oversee the franchise's baseball operations, at a press conference at Chase Field in Phoenix later that day.
It was not, at least by definition, a return to the game for La Russa. After he retired as the Cardinals' manager following their victory over the Texas Rangers in that 2011 World Series, he spent a little more than two years working in Major League Baseball's operation department. Yet La Russa, in some ways, felt like he was coming out of retirement.
"I really appreciated being able to remain close to the game but there's a difference when you don't have a personal investment in the competition that day," La Russa said. "From day one, I would talk to the Commissioner and the people at Major League Baseball and tell them at some point that I'd like to get back with a team. All I'd ever known for 50 years was get up the morning, have a game that night, compete then be happy if you win and upset if you lose. I missed having that churning feeling in my gut on game days."
The way the Diamondbacks started this season was enough to make anyone sick. They dropped two games to the Los Angeles Dodgers in Sydney, Australia to begin the season, beginning a tailspin that saw them lose seven of their first eight games and have a 9-22 record at the end of April.
Going into Tuesday's game, the Diamondbacks are 51-67 and in fourth place in the National League West, 16 games behind the division-leading Los Angeles Dodgers. Just four teams have a worse record than Arizona: the Chicago Cubs (50-67), Houston Astros (49-70), Colorado Rockies (46-72) and Texas Rangers (46-72).
It would seem like a perfect situation in which to clean house and that has been the general assumption around baseball of what will happen with the Diamondbacks at the end of the season. However, La Russa isn't tipping his hand about any potential changes he might make.
"This is mostly a learning curve," La Russa said. "A lot of it is just working at learning the people in the organization, whether they be the ones in the front office or in uniform in the major leagues or in the minor league system -- and especially learning the players. I know the reputation of the organization and now I'm verifying it in person."
La Russa said he was impressed with having the chance to watch scouting director Ray Montgomery run the war room during the first-year player draft in June and how player development director Mike Bell and the minor league managers go about their business. While it is generally assumed GM Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson will be gone at the end of the season, the new baseball boss has been pleased with what the Major League club has shown in terms of effort.
"I like the way they go about things, both at the major league and minor league level," La Russa said. "The minor leagues team are energetic and enthusiastic about competing and winning. The same thing with the Major League club, even though things got off to a rough start, they've hung in there and didn't get discouraged."
The finish could get ugly, though.
First baseman Paul Goldschmidt, the Diamondbacks' best player, is likely done for the season after suffering a broken left hand earlier this month when hit by a pitch from Pittsburgh Pirates reliever Ernesto Frieri. Goldschmidt getting hurt is a continuation of an injury-marred season that is underscored with a slew of pitchers on the disabled list who are recovering from Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery --- left-handed starter Patrick Corbin, right-handed starters Bronson Arroyo and Daniel Hudson, and relievers Matt Reynolds and David Hernandez.
The Diamondbacks are just three years removed from winning the NL West with a 94-68 record and seemed poised to capture more division titles. However, they fell to 81-81 each of the last two years before the bottom fell out this season.
Though the Diamondbacks are trending downward, La Russa was intrigued when owner Ken Kendrick called. La Russa had his fill of managing after 33 seasons and 2,728 wins, the third-highest total in major league history, and he did not want the round-the-clock responsibility of a general manager.
"It came out of the blue," La Russa said. "I knew they had a tough time early on and were struggling. One of the things Ken wanted to outline was that he wanted me to have the responsibility to impact who would play and how they would play the game. He presented me an opportunity very close to what I thought I would like at this stage of my baseball career."
La Russa, who interviewed for the Seattle Mariners' club president job last November, did not hesitate to join the Diamondbacks despite their fall.
"Once you start working for MLB you get a lot of information on all 30 teams and you're not looking through such a narrow lens where you're totally focused on your own team like when you're managing," La Russa said. "I learned how respected the Diamondbacks were as an organization. I knew there was a commitment to winning.
"I was very lucky, I managed three teams in Chicago [White Sox], Oakland and St. Louis where there was never one day that either my coaching staff or I felt we didn't have the full support of ownership. I have the same feeling here and I wouldn't want to work somewhere where the support wasn't there."
Kendrick is a big baseball fan and even owns a T206 Honus Wagner, the most valuable baseball card in existence and considered the Hope Diamond of sports collectibles. However, some in the Diamondbacks' front office believe Kendrick gets too involved in the baseball end of the operation.
Two sources --- one currently in the organization and one now working for another club --- confirmed that it was Kendrick who told Towers to sign outfielder Cody Ross and right-hander Brandon McCarthy as free agents during the 2012-13 offseason against the objections of the baseball operations department.
Ross is in the second year of a three-year, $26 million contract and has hit just .264 with 10 home runs and a .694 OPS in 160 games with the Diamondbacks. McCarthy was also a disappointment after being signed to a two-year, $15.5 million contract as he went 8-21 with a 4.75 ERA in 40 starts before being traded to the New York Yankees on July 6.
There is also the question of exactly what kind of organization Kendrick wants. When he fired general manager Josh Brynes and manger A.J. Hinch midway through the 2010 season, Kendrick said he felt the Diamondbacks relied too much on analytics in their decision-making process and not enough on scouting acumen and baseball sense. Before hiring La Russa, Kendrick switched gears earlier this season and said he wanted the Diamondbacks to start using more statistical analysis in making player moves.
La Russa's thought on sabermetrics are along the lines of separation between church and state. He believes statistics have their place in player evaluation and game preparation but not so much in determining in-game strategy.
"When I started managing in the major leagues with the White Sox in 1979, I'd had a half a season managing in Double-A, a half-season managing in a Triple-A and a season of winter ball, so I was studying my butt off in order to narrow the gap on all those great managers in the American League," La Russa said. "I did a lot of preparation and I'm devoted to information.
"There is a lot of emphasis on metrics and analytics and I'm convinced that have a very important place in the game but that place ends when the game starts. There is a lot of push in some organizations to dictate to the manager and the coaches who should play, how the pitchers should be used and things like that.
"I firmly believe leadership is so important for a major league manager," La Russa continued. "The way you earn respect is by making the decisions about who plays and how they play. You respect the information process but once the game starts the manager and coaches have to be in charge because the game can change so much from inning to inning."
La Russa has achieved seemingly everything in his career. He won six pennants and three World Series as a manager and was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on July 27 in Cooperstown, N.Y. Yet he isn't quite satisfied yet.
"You've have this unique opportunity to pursue a dream and I'm almost embarrassed to try to explain it because it's so simple," La Russa said. "As a kid, you grow up wanting to win the World Series as a player but I wasn't a good enough player to do that. But i was able to win a manager, so that dream did come true. This is the one level, the office, where you can still chase the dream. I'm still turned on by chasing the dream of getting the Diamondbacks into October and then saying we won it all."
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John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, USA Today Sports Weekly, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.