Hall of Famer helps to build young foundation as D-backs' chief baseball officer
By Richard Justice
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Tony La Russa is approached by a woman who would like him to pose for a photograph.
"OK, sure," La Russa says.
He stops his golf cart just off a D-backs practice field at Salt River Fields to accommodate the request. Before the woman can raise her camera, La Russa sees she's wearing a Cubs cap. Photo op halted.
"Not in that hat," La Russa tells her.
He is joking. Sort of. Competitive living, etc.
"D-backs," La Russa tells her, pointing to the one he's wearing.
"My husband," the woman says. "He's got one."
La Russa does not smile.
"D-backs, D-backs, D-backs," he says.
The woman removes the Cubs cap, La Russa poses for the photo and all is right with the world. This moment is not unimportant.
"It wasn't too long after I stopped managing that I realized being neutral is just unnatural for me," La Russa said.
La Russa is attempting to explain how he got to this point in life, at 71, as the chief baseball officer of the Arizona Diamondbacks. This was not the career path he'd charted for himself after managing the last of his 5,225 games -- winning Game 7 of the 2011 World Series for the St. Louis Cardinals.
La Russa's influence on baseball is dramatic and lasting. Everything that's happening with management of the modern bullpen began with his work with the White Sox, Athletics and Cards.
Also, in terms of communicating with and motivating players, aligning defenses and playing every single game like it was, well, Game 7, there has never been anyone better than La Russa. He's one of 22 managers in the Hall of Fame, but he waves away this kind of talk.
"Listen, everything I did, I got from someone else," La Russa said. "In 30 years, I've made a ton of friends -- Jim Leyland and Tom Kelly being the best examples. There's virtually no difference in the three of us."
Back to those months after the 2011 World Series. La Russa wasn't sure what he wanted to do, and when then-Commissioner Bud Selig phoned to offer a job helping Major League Baseball with on-field issues, he was thrilled.
La Russa helped baseball institute instant replay and was a sounding board on an assortment of other programs. Inside him, though, there was a gnawing for more competitive living.
"That's all I've ever done -- more than 50 years now," La Russa said. "It's a real simple existence. You wake up, and there's a game that day. ... Two teams. You win or you lose. You win, you shake everybody's hand. You lose, you tip your hat to the other side. You get up and do it again the next day."
Besides that, there was another thought lingering in La Russa's heart and mind. His mentors -- George Kissell and Dick Williams, Sparky Anderson and Chuck Tanner -- have given him so much, and La Russa believed he owed it to them to pass what he knew to another generation.
"I figured out that the only thing I'd been trained to do all these years was to evaluate what an October player looks like and what a team that plays in October looks like," La Russa said. "That's the only thing I know -- and a little bit about player development from talking to scouts."
La Russa did an internship of sorts, sitting in with then-Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski, a friend from their days with the White Sox.
"Dave gave me a crash course on what front office work is like -- how you build a scouting staff, things like that," La Russa said. "When I saw the complexity of what happens up there -- I mean, I had an idea about scouting and player development -- the whole range of what a guy like Dave does, I could see I wasn't qualified.
"Dave says, 'Well, why don't you figure out what you can do and then hire people to do the rest?' That was my formula if the ownership thing ever came along."
In 2014, D-backs president Derrick Hall telephoned.
"At the time, the D-backs were something like 9-22," La Russa said. "I told Derrick, 'Look, you've got a general manager and a manager. There's no way I'm going to talk about that.' He said, 'No, we've got a little different idea.' I went in, and they said, 'We'd like to put you in charge of competition.' That's exactly what I would do if I was with a team. The coincidence just bowled me over that they approached me with that."
La Russa spent most of that summer watching, touring the Minor Leagues, attempting to understand the culture and the environment.
"Our Minor League system -- our player development guy, Mike Bell, is as good as anyone I've ever been around," La Russa said. "Every team I went to -- all five of them -- had a great vibe. Our Major League team had a tough record, but we were beat up. It was horrific luck. But as the season went on, they kept a good attitude. They kept playing hard. They were just short. But the injuries gave us a chance to see David Peralta and some other guys."
In the nearly two years since, La Russa has kept some people and brought in some of his own -- Dave Stewart as general manager, De Jon Watson as senior vice president of baseball operations and Chip Hale as manager.
The D-backs went 79-83 in La Russa's first full season on the job. They had the National League's youngest team. Only the Rockies scored more runs in the NL, but the pitching was short. Arizona had highly regarded prospects such as Braden Shipley and Archie Bradley, but to compete in 2015, it needed more.
Free-agent pitcher Johnny Cueto was an early target, and when he reportedly rejected the D-backs' offer, managing general partner Ken Kendrick had an even bigger idea. Within hours, Arizona had stunned the baseball world by signing Zack Greinke to a contract worth $206.5 million over six seasons.
Forty-eight hours later, La Russa and his guys struck again, acquiring Shelby Miller from the Braves for a package of players, including the 2015 Draft's No. 1 overall pick, shortstop Dansby Swanson.
One of the criticisms of the Miller trade was that the D-backs paid too much, that Swanson should have been an untouchable. La Russa is sensitive to this talk.
"That's one of the things that [ticked] me off," La Russa said. "Everyone is looking for the easy answer. Sometimes the easy answer is not the most accurate one. People were saying, 'They're all in for 2016. They're depleting the Minor League system.' That's not true. Since we've been here, we've acquired over 30 players with an average age of 23. We've traded more than 20 players, and the average age has been 28."
And there's that whole thing about analytics. The D-backs are being perceived as being anti-analytics, which is odd, since La Russa, with his matchup cards and defensive shifts, was way ahead of others when he managed.
"We do have a lot of fundamental, traditional experience," La Russa said. "We also added two young [analytics] guys and last season, we were one of the leading shifting teams in terms of success. We've got a balance of that tool, plus the observation analytics.
However they intend to do it, the D-backs have inserted themselves back into the conversation in the NL West. The Giants and Dodgers are, as usual, probably good enough to win a World Series.
But the D-backs believe they've got a chance to be competitive, too.
"Because we're young, can our players really believe that we can get to September with a chance? I think so," La Russa said. "The last piece is that close games are won by intended execution, not accidental execution. Can we learn the game enough to be competitive contending in 2016? It remains to be seen. If I had to bet a dollar, I'd bet we're going to be contender this year."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.