Tony La Russa's Hiring Could Be First Step of the Rise of the 'Baseball Czar'

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Tony La Russa's Hiring Could Be First Step of the Rise of the 'Baseball Czar'
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One hiring doesn't equal a trend. This is worth acknowledging, if for no other reason than it's true.

But since one hiring can start a trend, let's venture to do a little bold talking about Tony La Russa, the Arizona Diamondbacks and what their partnership could mean for the future of Major League Baseball.

It was about a week and a half ago that the Diamondbacks hired La Russa, who we know as the Hall of Fame manager of the Oakland A's and St. Louis Cardinals. But rather than replace Kirk Gibson as the club's skipper, La Russa's taking on a different job.

He's going to be the Arizona's "chief baseball officer," a position heretofore unknown to MLB.

And 'tis indeed an important position. In the words of MLB.com's Steve Gilbert, La Russa's role in Arizona is to "evaluate the entire baseball operations department and make changes" if he sees fit. In addition, he'll have "final say on all trades and transactions."

Unlimited power. That's what La Russa has, basically. He's the new boss man in Arizona. The club's new Baseball Czar, if you will. 

And as far as the here and now is concerned, it's easy to like where the Diamondbacks are coming from. At the least, what they're getting in La Russa is a shot of credibility.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

The Diamondbacks needed one of those, and not just because they've sunk like a boulder to the bottom of the NL West with their 21-32 record. Just as upsetting is the general sense of incompetence that had been surrounding the powers that be in Arizona.

Managing general partner Ken KendrickSI.com's Jay Jaffe once called him a "desert Steinbrenner wannabe"has been impatient to a fault. Gibson and general manager Kevin Towers, meanwhile, have used a misguided philosophy to jettison far too much talent in the last few years.

In the long term, however, the Diamondbacks hope that La Russa will be an agent for change. Maybe one day in the not-so-distant future, they'll be able to look back on his hiring as the start of a new era.

With the long-term goal taken together with the short-term credibility gain, the closest baseball comp for what the Diamondbacks are going for is Nolan Ryan and the Texas Rangers. They got instant credibility when they brought Ryan aboard as their president in 2008, and he did have a hand in changing the club's culture en route to back-to-back World Series in 2010 and 2011.

However, Ryan and the Rangers aren't quite a perfect comp for La Russa and the D-Backs.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
After Ryan came aboard in 2008, the Rangers saw their win total go up three years in a row between 2009 and 2011.

Ryan had a say in the Rangers' business interests in addition to their baseball interests, after all, and his role on the business side of things was eventually heightened for good when he was named CEO in 2011. Things got complicated after that, with the end result being Ryan's resignation last October.

So the next Ryan? Nah. Not quite.

Better comps are found outside baseball's borders. Rather than Ryan, it seems the D-Backs have it in mind for La Russa to be more like Bill Parcells with the Miami Dolphins, Mike Holmgren with the Cleveland Browns or, most recently, Phil Jackson with the New York Knicks.

The idea, in so many words: Take respected veteran of the sport, give him power, gain credibility from his apparently grand expertise and hope like heck there's more to be gained from said expertise.

I, frankly, have my doubts that the last part there will work out for Arizona. For while the instant credibility thing is all well and good, it obscures how La Russa's an odd fit in Arizona.

With Towers at the controls, D-Backs CEO Derrick Hall granted to Tyler Kepner of The New York Times that the organization hasn't been as reliant on metrics as others. Given how that approach has worked, you'd think that the D-Backs would have been itching to bring in a saber-minded guy to run things.

And that's not La Russa.

La Russa, to his credit, did acknowledge sabermetrics as a "valuable tool" in a recent interview on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM (via ArizonaSports.com). But he also said he doesn't want to go "overboard" with the application of metrics, which fits with what he had to say at his introductory presser. La Russa said, via MLB.com:

There really is no mystery or magic. And I’ll guarantee you there are no metrics. I’m not bringing up a computer sheet that says, "This is how we do it, boys." No. It’s basic baseball. Basic competitive winning baseball with the right attitude and the guts to play it the right way.

I won't say that having more of an old-school-minded person like La Russa in a front office can't work. But such a mind is best served working in tandem with a new-school mind. That's a dynamic the D-Backs may not have unless La Russa cans Towers and replaces him with a more saber-friendly GM. Given La Russa's stance on metrics, I'm not holding my breath for that.

Whether Arizona's Grand La Russa Experiment works, however, might be irrelevant. That the idea of his hiring is sensible could be good enough for a copycat league like MLB, and it's hard to ignore how ripe the league is for this particular idea to be copycatted.

Matt York/Associated Press

It's all in the way La Russa was introduced. Kendrick made a point of noting how he's often referred to by people as "the smartest baseball guy they've ever known." Kendrick also said La Russa "exudes leadership." La Russa himself kicked things up a notch by calling attention to his competitive spirit.

"I just wanted to get back into the action," he said, via MLB.com's Mike Bauman. "I never have missed the managing. I missed the winning and losing."

Beyond his track record as a manager, it's stuff like this that highlights why the hiring of La Russa works as a credibility booster. You don't hear run-of-the-mill front office types characterized as great baseball minds who exude leadership and are hyper-competitive, nor do we tend to think of them as such. 

And that's not surprising in light of where today's front office types are coming from.

Sal Veder/Associated Press/Associated Press
Billy Beane hit just .219 in parts of six years. So yeah, he's been a better GM than he was a player.

By my count, only three current GMs—Billy Beane of the Oakland A's, Ruben Amaro Jr. of the Philadelphia Phillies and Jerry Dipoto of the Los Angeles Angels—played in the big leagues. Instead, many come from backgrounds in business, economics and the like. Rather than celebrated baseball men, they're more like corporate number crunchers.

Which is not a complaint, for the record. The numbers guys have built too many great teams for their place in baseball to be questioned. They belong. No question about it.

But with baseball overrun by these types, there's nothing if not abundance of places for baseball men like La Russa to be installed. Some teams could be interested simply for the credibility. Other teams could be legitimately interested in a front office that balances the old school with the new school.

With La Russa spoken for, there aren't many other chief baseball officer candidates for interested clubs to turn to. But there are some, and certainly more coming.

There's Joe Torre, for example. Or Jim Leyland. Or Davey Johnson. Or Lou Piniella. And perhaps sooner rather than later, maybe guys like Buck Showalter, Mike Scioscia and Bruce Bochy.

Any of the aforementioned names would fit pretty well in the La Russa mold, that being an experienced baseball man capable of bringing credibility and the kind of voice found in so few contemporary front offices. And looking later on down the line, it's easy to see the next step in the revolution being more saber-minded managers—Bob Melvin and Joe Maddon, for example—taking the leap.

We'll see. It's possible that MLB's first chief baseball officer will also be its last, in which case, no, one hiring will not have equaled a trend. 

But in the realm of possibilities, the rise of the Baseball Czar is an intriguing one. And given the state of things in baseball, the board is certainly set for La Russa to be the first of many.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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