Arizona Diamondbacks baseball pope discusses Zack Greinke, Bryce Harper and fist-pumping.

Tony LaRussa

Written by Craig Outhier Category: Spotlight Issue: May 2016
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Never fall in or out of love with what you see in spring,” Tony La Russa says with a wry smile. On this  March afternoon at the Arizona Diamondbacks’ spring headquarters at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale, the baseball legend is referring specifically to rookie outfielder Socrates Brito – whose monster pre-season is fueling speculation he might start for the D-backs – but also to the general wisdom that baseball fans shouldn’t get too excited by anything they witness before the season starts. Not that La Russa isn’t tempted. Following the off-season acquisition of starting pitchers Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller, expectations are the highest they’ve been for the team since it lured La Russa out of semi-retirement in 2014 by creating an entirely new position: Chief Baseball Officer.

Having amassed three World Series rings during a 32-year on-field career managing the Chicago Cubs, Oakland Athletics and St. Louis Cardinals, the Hall of Famer – who has a law degree and pioneered dugout analytics a decade before Moneyball – would like nothing more than to prove his mettle as an executive by adding a fourth. 

Do you miss the dugout? Being a manager?

Yeah, some. But not so much that I want to go back. What you have [as a manager] that the front office guy doesn’t: Once the game starts and you’re down in that dugout... you have a tangible effect on the game. If you’re upstairs, your effect is zero. It’s a hopeless feeling.

What is a “chief baseball officer”?

That was a creation of [owner] Ken Kendrick and [team president] Derrick Hall. And it has to do with recognizing the essence of our product, which is quite simply: a game between two teams. The most important part of what we present is how well we compete. So they looked at my background, and said “we want you to have an impact,” which means how we scout, how we develop talent, how we make acquisitions from the professional ranks, and then how we actually play the game and who plays it. 

 A lot of players want to chase the glitz, play in a big market. Greinke’s a different bird. Did that help the team court him?

When the winter started, two [free agent] pitchers were available: Zack and David Price. The market was set and we thought we didn’t have any shot. But Greinke has a very well-deserved reputation as a baseball fanatic. He studies other organizations. At the [2015] All-Star game, with [A.J.] Pollock and Goldie [Paul Goldschmidt], he had told them that he liked the way we played. So that fit. We just didn’t think we could afford him. But with the improvements we made last year, and the way we played defense, we hoped that Zack would be interested in us.

 What do you think about the recent controversy involving nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, who called baseball “tired”?

More and more, having some flash or personality is appealing to fans. Where I draw the line, here it is: I think if the sentiment is sincere, and has to do with something important you did to lose or win the game... then I think it’s OK to be demonstrative. We had [Dennis] Eckersley as a closer [in Oakland]. The pressure was on him. Late in the game. We need three outs. So when he gets that out...

He was a fist-pumper.

Right. So I think if it’s sincere, I’m OK with it. When it becomes part of your brand, doing it just to draw attention to yourself, I don’t think it’s sportsmanlike. I just don’t think you can go out to promote your brand and be the most colorful bat-flipper. [Toronto outfielder José] Bautista had a big [bat-flip] last year... and that was right on the edge. So I think my answer is just what we tell our players. If the moment overwhelms, you’re OK. But if you lose, you tip your cap.