Tony La Russa’s last stand

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Give Tony La Russa credit: if he’s going to go down, he’s going to go down swinging. He’s deluded as hell, but he’s certainly swinging.

Last week ESPN’s Keith Law set forth a scathing indictment of the Dbacks front office. Last night USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reported that the Diamondbacks brass is considering firing La Russa and not renewing the contracts of his general manager, Dave Stewart, and assistant GM De Jon Watson, whose deals are up next week. There’s blood in the water.

Against that backdrop, Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic spoke with La Russa who hit back at critics of his regime. He had some particularly sharp comments for those who take issue with his and Stewart’s trade of shortstop prospect Dansby Swanson, outfielder Ender Inciarte and pitching prospect Aaron Blair for Shelby Miller, who has struggled mightily this year and who is now in the minors:

“How many front offices, if you polled the other 29, how many would have questioned it or said it was a bad deal?” La Russa asked. “At the same time that we were hearing the criticisms, I was also hearing from people that I knew personally saying, ‘Hey, man, we know where you were coming from. We were interested in Shelby, as well.’

“I would always like to know who criticizes it. There are some people that I have a ton of respect for and there are others I don’t have the same level of respect. If it’s somebody I have big levels of respect, then I would be bothered. If it’s not, then I’m not.”

Tony La Russa is so thoroughly cocooned that butterflies are trying to stage an intervention.

Yes, the idea of picking up another front-to-mid-rotation starter to pair with Greinke was a good idea and no, no one thought Miller would have as poor a year as he’s having, but virtually everyone with an opinion on the Miler-Swanson deal thought that the Dbacks paid far too high a price. Maybe you trade a shortstop prospect for a pitcher, but if you’re unloading that prospect, another prospect and a good everyday outfielder, you had either best get an ace back — which the Dbacks didn’t — or you get a couple of Miller-esque pitchers, not just one. Yet here La Russa is, clearly implying that most other front offices do that deal. He’s dead wrong about that, as reaction to the deal revealed at the time. Hell, Piecoro notes that the Braves were actually worried that the Dbacks would renege on it after seeing the howls around baseball when it was first reported.

I’m more interested in the second paragraph of his quote, though. It’s such a basic appeal to authority that it’s laughable on its own terms, but it’s particularly bad coming from a man of La Russa’s stature. Whatever issue anyone has with Tony La Russa, it’s hard to argue that he isn’t one of the preeminent living figures in baseball. He’s widely considered to be the best manager of the past half century. He’s already in the Hall of Fame, which is rare for a person who is still actively working a legitimate, critical job in Major League Baseball as opposed to filling some ceremonial or emeritus status. Put differently: Tony La Russa really has no peers, yet here he is, saying that he’s not going to acknowledge criticism from those who he does not respect.

All of which would be fine if Tony La Russa was the type who took criticism well, who showed some level of humility when he was questioned or second guessed or who showed that he respected people who are not of his stature. He’s not, though. Which was pretty damn defensible when he was managing a baseball team because, honestly, if you’re second guessing Field Manager Tony La Russa and your name isn’t Jim Leyland or Dusty Baker or Bobby Cox or something like that, you had best prepared to be wrong most of the time. But he’s not doing the job that got him inducted into the Hall of Fame anymore. He’s running a baseball operations department, he had little experience with that sort of stuff before and he’s doing a poor job of it now. He’s just as due for criticism for a bad trade as any other baseball executive. This was a bad trade at the time and has turned out to be worse than expected.

The crazy thing about this is that, despite his claims that all he got was praise for the deal, La Russa seems to actually know this now. As Nightengale and others are reporting, in late July he and Stewart tried to unload Miller to the Marlins, only to have ownership put a kibosh on the deal. Nightengale offers that as a defense of La Russa, claiming that ownership is more worried about optics than baseball at the moment. Maybe he’s right about that, but it’s also an admission on La Russa’s part that the deal was a bust, is it not? Maybe even an admirable one! “Hey, this went south. Win some, lose some. Let’s try to make some lemonade out of the lemon we bought.”

Yet, for whatever reason, La Russa can’t seem to publicly own up to that. Which I’ll acknowledge is a lot to ask of anyone when it comes to their high profile mistakes. But maybe there’s something in between owning up to a mistake and denying the very notion that anyone thought it was a mistake in the first place as La Russa is doing here.

I suspect that La Russa can’t find that middle ground because there’s nothing and no one really forcing him to. There’s no one who can realistically serve as a check on La Russa or who can give him negative yet constructive feedback. A front office equivalent of Dave Duncan or something. I don’t know.

I do know, though, that the Diamondbacks are in a worse place now than they were a year or two ago. And that someone will ultimately be held responsible for that. I suspect it will be La Russa and his underlings. I wonder if he’ll respect or acknowledge his dismissal if and when it comes. I suppose it depends on who communicates it to him.