The Cardinals' Deadly Embrace

Bill DeWitt, Jr., Tony La Russa and potential Cardinals general manager candidates are seemingly tied up in waiting for each other to make a decision on their collective future. It is time for the man in charge to make his call.

A "deadly embrace" or "deadlock" is defined as a condition that occurs in the information technology industry when two processes in a program are each waiting for the other to complete before proceeding. The result is that both processes hang.


In layman's terms, nothing happens.


Doesn't this describe to a "T" the mess Bill DeWitt, Jr.'s St. Louis Cardinals are currently in?


They don't have a general manager and may not for two to three weeks while their field general is biding his time, stalling for the new GM to be named before disclosing whether or not he will return to the team.


The owner, not wanting to wait much longer, is pressuring the manager to make his decision first. Potential general manager candidates are likely scratching their heads over all this, wondering exactly what they are considering getting into.


Just another sideshow in what has been a most forgettable 2007 for The Cardinal Nation, arguably the worst post-world championship season for any club in recent memory.


Say you are a prospective general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. As you move into the interview phase, you probably have a million questions as well as a plan to sell yourself to DeWitt and team president Mark Lamping.


Among them is a giant question mark, more potentially irritating than Matthew Lesko, the obnoxious, screaming guy on late-night television hawking his "how to make money off the government" books while wearing the most garish outfit ever stitched together.


The prospective GM's question mark is the identity of his highest-profile direct report, the field manager of the Cardinals. On the positive side, at least the possibilities the general manager candidate may face are not endless. They include:


1)     I will get to name the manager myself, with approval from above.

2)     I will be allowed significant input on the identity of the next manager.

3)     Tony La Russa will be my manager.

4)     I have no idea whether La Russa will be my manager or not.


If I was interviewing, I would certainly prefer case #1. I would imagine that most self-respecting GMs would expect that level of responsibility delegated to them, especially given that manager job may be open very soon.


However, the Cardinals are not alone in that the ownership and senior executives seem to like to "help" their GM make important decisions; hence the real possibility of option #2 existing. Still, not unrealistic.  


Option #3 wouldn't be terrible, either. At least La Russa has a track record and the GM would know what he is getting into. Granted, Tony may be slightly-damaged goods based on the 2007 season and the brush-off his ex-boss was given by the same owner who ostensibly wants him back for a 13th season.


Undoubtedly, the least advantageous case for the prospective GM is #4, which also happens to be where the situation rests today and for an indeterminate time in the future. No one seems to know for sure what is going on.


Wouldn't this ongoing uncertainty provide a significant inhibitor to serious general manager candidates considering the Cardinals?


DeWitt apparently is seeing this problem first-hand, urging La Russa to show his hand sooner, rather than later. "I didn't tell him he needed to let me know today or tomorrow, but it needs to be a reasonably short period of time," said the owner to the Post-Dispatch this Monday.


But before we attack La Russa for "holding the Cardinals hostage", as one emailer suggested to me, let's look at it from the manager's side. La Russa just saw his boss and close associate Walt Jocketty unceremoniously sacked despite the ex-GM having a year to go on his contract.


The primary reason cited was a disagreement in philosophy, spiced with a heaping portion of organizational dysfunctionality. It is reasonable to guess that La Russa sided with Jocketty on these issues, and if so, it also would be natural for Tony to be at least a bit nervous about how things could change going forward.


In La Russa's case, his options are among these:


1)     Agree to return the Cardinals before the GM is named.

2)     Once the GM is named, determine if he can work with the guy before declaring his intentions.

3)     Walk away.


DeWitt clearly is pushing option #1, apparently unconcerned that if the wrong general manager is hired, his organization's communication problems could simply shift to the GM-manager relationship. That could happen if La Russa would be unhappy with the GM selection and if so, would potentially be very, very damaging.


La Russa is pushing for #2, citing personal experience with the White Sox, where he did not mesh with then-new GM Hawk Harrelson, leading to a bad situation for all that burned valuable time and energy to ultimately resolve via a firing.


If possible, why not head this off this time? In an ideal world, I can see why La Russa prefers this scenario. But, this isn't nirvana. The Cardinals need to get their management team in place and get to work on 2008 – La Russa or no La Russa.


Maybe Tony will take door #3 if George Steinbrenner and his millions come calling, but I have this nagging feeling that La Russa would prefer not to deal with the baloney that goes with the Yankees job despite the resources available there to win now.


Just three years ago, La Russa tried to counsel then-free agent shortstop Edgar Renteria away from signing with Boston, knowing the relentless pressure and scrutiny would not agree with the sensitive player. As hindsight shows, Tony was 100% right. For his sake, I hope La Russa remembers that speech and is currently practicing it in his mirror.


Or, even if Tony wants to go, he seems to be waiting for DeWitt to make the call for him. It's almost as if the two sides know the relationship is over, but neither has the guts to say what needs to be said.


How does the deadlock, this deadly embrace, get broken? Let's head back to the dictionary for advice.


"Ideally, the programs that are deadlocked, or the operating system should resolve the deadlock - but this doesn't always happen," says the textbook.


Clearly in this case, the man with the money is the Cardinals' operating system. It is time for DeWitt to break the deadlock. That is very much a binary decision for the owner:


1)     Force La Russa to decide before hiring his GM.

2)     Hire his GM before forcing La Russa to answer.


Both present risk. While DeWitt certainly seems to be on trajectory #1, it could cause him to lose La Russa and elongate the process to fill his management positions. That could generate discomfort in the short term but should wear off soon enough.


On the other hand, the second option might seem to provide the best chance for immediate success, or in the words of the Cardinals brass, "getting everyone on the same page". Ideally La Russa would make his call knowing who his boss would be. And if the skipper bailed out, the new GM could theoretically hire his own man.


If the GM search process can be accelerated, and it doesn't take two to three weeks more to get the new GM in the chair, this option could be feasible.


There is seemingly a growing segment of The Cardinal Nation that doesn't care as much what happens as much as they want to see something happen sooner rather than later.


In deadlock-speak, they're looking for the operating system to intercede and break the deadly embrace. But, can DeWitt crack the code?



Brian Walton can be reached via email at


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