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.

A’s running out of time to find home in Oakland, Las Vegas

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LAS VEGAS — The Oakland Athletics have spent years trying to get a new stadium while watching Bay Area neighbors such as the Giants, Warriors, 49ers and Raiders successfully move into state-of-the-art venues, and now time is running short on their efforts.

The A’s lease at RingCentral Coliseum expires after the 2024 season, and though they might be forced to extend the terms, the club and Major League Baseball have deemed the stadium unsuitable for a professional franchise.

They are searching for a new stadium in Oakland or Las Vegas, but they have experienced difficulties in both areas. The A’s missed a major deadline in October to get a deal done in Oakland, and there has been little indication they will receive the kind of funding they want from Las Vegas.

“I think the A’s have to look at it in a couple of ways,” said Brendan Bussmann, managing partner at Las Vegas-based B Global. “Obviously, they have struggled in Oakland to get a deal across the line. It isn’t for a lack of effort. . You have an owner that’s willing to pony up money, you have a club that wants to sit there and figure out a way to make it work, and you keep running into obstacles along the way.

“It’s time to fish or cut bait. Oakland, do you want them or not? And if not, where are the A’s going to get the best deal? Is it Vegas? Is it somewhere else? They’ll have to figure that out.”

What the A’s are thinking is a little bit of a mystery. Team President Dave Kaval was talkative earlier in the process, saying the A’s are pursuing two different tracks with Oakland and Las Vegas. But he went silent on the subject several months ago. A’s spokeswoman Catherine Aker said mostly recently that the club would withhold comment for now.

The A’s have been negotiating with Oakland to build a $1 billion stadium as part of a $12 billion redevelopment deal.

Newly elected Mayor Sheng Thao said reaching a deal is important as long as it makes economic sense to the city. Her predecessor, Libby Schaaf, led prior efforts to reach an agreement, but after the city and the A’s missed that October deadline, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred expressed reservations a deal will ever get done.

“The pace in Oakland has not been rapid, number one,” Manfred said at the time. “We’re in a stadium situation that’s really not tenable. I mean, we need to do something to alter the situation. So I’m concerned about the lack of pace.”

Recent California history justifies his concerns. SoFi Stadium in Southern California and Chase Center in San Francisco were built with private money, and Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara was 90% privately financed.

“And then I think there was some contagion where around the country people realized these deals could be done well privately and could generate a return on investment to those investors,” said David Carter, a sports business professor at the University of Southern California. “Why are we throwing public money at it at all?”

That’s also a question being asked in Las Vegas, even though the Raiders in 2016 received $750 million from the Nevada Legislature for a stadium. That then was the largest amount of public money for a sports venue, but it was surpassed last March by the $850 million pledged to construct a new stadium for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills.

Another deal like the one for Allegiant Stadium, where the Raiders play, appears unlikely in Nevada. T-Mobile Arena, which opened in 2017, was privately financed. An arena planned for south of the Las Vegas Strip also wouldn’t rely on public funds.

Las Vegas, however, has shown financing creativity. Its Triple-A baseball stadium received $80 million in 2017 for naming rights from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Room taxes fund the authority, so it was public money in a backdoor sort of way.

Clark County Commissioner Michael Naft, who is on the board of the convention authority, has spoken with A’s representatives about their interest in Las Vegas and said he is aware of the club’s talks with other Nevada officials. He said the A’s are taking a much different approach than the Raiders, who identified Las Vegas early as their choice landing spot after many years of failing to get a new stadium in Oakland.

“When the Raiders decided to come to Las Vegas, they had a clear plan,” Naft said. “You had a clear body that was tasked with assessing the worth and the value, and they committed to the destination. I have not seen that from the Oakland A’s at any level, and it’s not really our job to go out and beg them to come here because we have earned the reputation of the greatest arena on Earth. We have put in both the dollars and the labor to make that the case.

“I think I’ve made myself clear, but from conversations with others, I don’t think I’m alone on that.”

New Nevada Gov. Joe Lombardo “will not raise taxes” to attract the A’s or any other team, his spokeswoman, Elizabeth Ray, said in a statement. But she said the club could qualify for other ongoing “economic development programs,” which could mean tax breaks similar to what Tesla received in 2014.

Manfred said in December that the A’s relocation fee would be waived if they move to Las Vegas, a savings to the club reportedly of up to $1 billion.

“We’re past any reasonable timeline for the situation in Oakland to be resolved,” Manfred said then.

Naft said Allegiant Stadium filled a hole that went beyond landing an NFL team. It allowed Las Vegas to attract major sporting events such as the Super Bowl and Final Four and major concerts such as Garth Brooks and Elton John that “in many cases we would not otherwise have.”

He said he doesn’t believe a baseball stadium would accomplish that, and sports economist Victor Matheson agreed.

“I think there’s a real question about how much people are willing to watch baseball in Las Vegas,” said Matheson, a professor at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. “It’s not like locals don’t have a huge number of entertainment options right now, and it’s not clear exactly how much people might travel to watch baseball in Vegas, either.”

If the A’s truly want to be in Las Vegas, Naft said they need to make that clear.

“I just believe you can’t play destinations against each other,” Naft said. “If you want to come here and you want to be met with open arms, you’ve got to commit.”

Should the A’s fail to reach an agreement in Oakland or Las Vegas, they could consider other destinations such as Charlotte, North Carolina; Nashville; and Portland, Oregon. Whether they would have the time to explore such options is another question.

Oakland has already shown it will watch the Raiders move to Nevada and the Warriors go across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco.

Las Vegas, Matheson noted, is hardly in a desperate situation. He also expressed caution that Las Vegas could go from being among the largest metropolitan areas without a major professional sports team to among the smallest with three franchises.

“So you’ve gone from kind of being under-sported to being over-sported in a short period of time if the A’s were to go there,” Matheson said.