The Diamondbacks invest in Tony La Russa and the cult of the winner
Whatever Diamondbacks brass may say in the public, it should be clear they hired Tony La Russa for one reason, and one reason alone.
By hiring Hall of Famer Tony La Russa as their chief baseball officer, the Diamondbacks acquired a gravitas they've lacked for much of the last decade. After trying to win with a young core, then trying to win with grit, the Diamondbacks are trying to win with the game's foremost winner over the past half-century.
They are happy to have bought more time before making any rash judgments, but they are especially thrilled to add La Russa, a consummate competitor and winner, who'll bring a reasoned, fresh and neutral voice to a team that has made a lot of big gambles with gutsy moves but hasn't always won the bets.
La Russa knows winning, and he also knows winners. As one of his former players, Lance Berkman, once said, "When we make a trade, sometimes it's just as important to notice who we're getting rid of as who we're getting."
This is, after all, the man currently ranked third on the list of all-time managerial victories. La Russa will be entering the Hall of Fame this summer. There are no serious arguments about the merits of his case. The fact that it took more than two years after La Russa retired as the manager of the 2011 World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals ranks as a small upset.
It has been clear for some time that the Arizona Diamondbacks organization believes heavily in the power of attitude. They believe grittiness begets winning. They believe hitting opposing batters begets toughness. And clearly, as the language around the La Russa hiring shows, they believe "winning" is merely a state of mind.
Chapter 6 of Harry Edwards's 1973 work Sociology of Sport covers the institutional role of the coach in sports. He writes, of the professional coach:
In professional sports, coaches are typically selected by owners or boards of directors for the commercial enterprise, in consultation with general managers or other knowledgeable persons. Here the coach's single duty is to win. If he does this, little or nothing else matters.
From this recognizable mantra -- "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing," as the model coach Vince Lombardi famously put it -- follows the great dilemma of the coach. The coach has limited control over the actual results of the game, but his job status is dependent on won-loss records. For most coaches, the dilemma is resolved by grasping absolute control on all possible areas (and taking credit for it), even those with minimal impact on game results. Edwards continues:
Theoretically, coaches may react to strain by avoiding decisions and escaping responsibility. In reality, however, this choice is a practical impossibility. For the coach, no decision constitutes a decision not to act. If this passive "decision" does not bring positive results, he is nonetheless responsible for the outcome. Hence, for the coach there can be no escape from responsibility through inaction.
But, along with liability for defeats, the coach is also free to claim or accept credit for successes though he may have had only limited control over the factors which determined victory. It is, then, generally felt that, over the long haul, a persistently successful coach is successful primarily because he is competent and efficient at his job; and that a persistently unsuccessful coach is simply incompetent and inefficient in the performance of his role responsibilities.
The logic here is clearly circular -- La Russa is a winner because his teams have won, and La Russa's teams have won because he is a winner. Despite this, it is the same logic deployed by the writers with access quoted above, and it is the same logic Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers deployed at a town hall meeting with season ticket holders:
At least in professional baseball, the general managerial position has taken on a similar tone to that of the coach. Particularly since Moneyball, which made the actions of the GM much more visible and public than the past, the coach's dilemma of low control but high responsibility for results can be applied to the front office as well. And thus it should be no surprise that the "winner" term ascribed to coaches has found its way into the GM's office.
La Russa is a proven winning manager. But he has zero previous experience as a front office worker. Read every one of these worshipful endorsements of La Russa quoted above and his inexperience will either be dismissed or not even mentioned at all. La Russa has the singular qualification, "winner," and that is enough.
Tony La Russa may be a perfect fit in his new executive role. He may have no idea what he's doing. But judging by the reporting and other quotes surrounding this move, the primary purpose of this hiring was to add a "proven winner" to the organization and to reinforce "winning" as a state of mind. But the Diamondbacks of recent years have hardly been concerned with substance. Why start now?