Garagiola has answers -- without the questions

TUCSON -- When I say, "Joe Garagiola," what comes to mind?

Right, an old bald guy who says funny things about the 1952 Pirates and tries to convince dumb baseball players that they shouldn't put big gobs of tobacco in their mouths.

What's odd is that when I say, "Joe Garagiola," you don't immediately think of a younger guy with a decent head of hair who just happens to have built one of baseball's more successful franchises. Over the last four seasons, the Arizona Diamondbacks have won 375 games; only the Braves have done better in the National League.

So it was with these facts in mind that I eagerly anticipated my first meeting with Joe Garagiola Jr., senior vice president and general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks. And I wanted to be ready.

Tape recorder, Panasonic Model No. RN-505 with VAS (Voice Activated System) and SLE (Sound Level Equalizer).




Spare batteries.

(Nope, but the ones in the Sony just came out of a friend's fridge, so they should be fine.)

I would meet Mr. Garagiola at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, between games of the Diamondbacks' day-night doubleheader with the White Sox.

Except he wasn't there. Almost nobody was there. The game had been rained out.

Yes, you read that correctly. It's been raining in Arizona, and Sunday it rained enough to force the cancellation of the nightcap between the Diamondbacks and the White Sox, both of whom make their home in Tucson Electric Park.

So when I showed up at the appointed time – 90 minutes before the game was supposed to start – I found a nearly-empty ballpark, peopled only by a small clean-up crew, the clubhouse attendants, and a few scribes finishing up their stories about the first game.

My interview with Joe Jr. would have to wait.

Fortunately, and thanks to this wondrous thing we call the "Internet," in the absence of a new interview, I found an old one, conducted almost exactly a year ago by the Tucson Citizen's Ken Brazzle. And if this were the old days, when baseball writers had to bang out three or four stories per day and couldn't do that without cheating, I'd just graft last year's (Garagiola) answers onto this year's (Neyer) questions. It would have been easy.

For example, I was going to ask Garagiola why he doesn't seem to get as much credit as a lot of other successful GM's, but Brazzle beat me to it.

Garagiola's response? Predictably, he credited others in the organization. Not so predictably, he actually admitted that he's just a part of the decision-making process, and went out of his way to name not only his owner (which is just good politics) but also his assistant GM (which is just being nice) as other significant parts.

I also was going to ask Garagiola if the franchise's success to this point will eventually lead to failure, but Brazzle beat me to this one, too.

Garagiola's response?

I'm probably overly fond of saying, "If you know three things about the Diamondbacks, you can hold your own in any conversation. Those three things are that 'we're old, we're broke and have no prospects.' There is this perception that we have no prospects in our system and the few we had, we traded away. We've made some trades, but we have a lot of prospects in our farm system.

You'll notice that Garagiola didn't argue with being old or broke, so we'll leave those alone for now. A year later, do the Diamondbacks have any prospects?

Well, sure. Second baseman Scott Hairston should probably go ahead and move to left field, but he's a better hitter than Craig Counsell right now and should be in the lineup somewhere by 2004. First baseman Lyle Overbay is something of a commodity, but at this point he's got Doug Mientkiewicz's bat but not Doug Mientkiewicz's glove. Third baseman Chad Tracy is probably going to hit .300 in the majors someday, but it's not real likely that he'll OBP .400 or SLUG .500.

That's the cream of the crop, at least among non-pitchers within two years of contributing to the bottom line. And not an obvious future star among them.

Similarly, the Diamondbacks boast a quartet of young pitchers who could be good but don't yet look great. Mike Gosling is perhaps the most highly regarded in the group -- which also includes John Patterson, Brandon Webb and Edgar Gonzalez -- but Gosling's strikeout and walk numbers weren't brilliant last season in Class AA; he struck out 115 and walked 62 in 167 innings. On the other hand, he gave up only seven home runs in 167 innings, which of course is outstanding (especially when you consider he was pitching in the Texas League).

So yeah, they have some prospects. But while granting that players can and do surprise us, I just don't see any future Rookies of the Year or MVP candidates here. There's hope, but there's also plenty of work to be done if the franchise is going to avoid a major rebuilding process, two or three seasons from now.

Because the Diamondbacks are old. If they're not the oldest team in major-league history (which they might be), they're certainly the oldest good team in major-league history. Considering that most of the old guys played well in 2002, though, I don't see any reason to predict disaster in 2003. Arizona was good last season, and the Diamondbacks should be good again this season. The question isn't 2003; it's 2004 or 2005, at which point things figure to get a bit dicey. But it's been a hell of a fun, and it's not over quite yet.

Before we leave that interview of a year ago, just for fun I'd like to present Garagiola's answer to a question about the Diamondbacks getting Rick Helling instead of David Wells for their rotation. Remember, Wells verbally agreed to sign with the D'backs, but backed out in favor of a deal with the Big Stein. Anyway, here's how Garagiola responded:

I haven't had one person say to me, "Gee, it's too bad Wells got away and we had to settle for (Rick) Helling." It has been the other way around. People are saying to me that we're going to be much better off and that we're going to look back on this and realize this was a good thing. What happened is what happened. I know we're going to be happy Rick is a part of the rotation. Maybe things do work out for the best.

OK, so it wasn't a killer. After all, the Yankees advanced into the postseason exactly as far as the Diamondbacks did: one round. On the other hand, for their $3 million, the Yankees got 19 wins and a 3.75 ERA in 206 innings, while for their $4.5 million (including a 2003 buy-out), the D'backs got 10 wins and a 4.51 ERA in 176 innings. Of course, what's funny here is that Garagiola got burned signing the younger guy (though, to be fair, he did his best to sign the geezer).

Just think, if Wells had signed with the Diamondbacks a year ago, in 2003 they'd have a rotation featuring a 40-year-old (Wells), a 39-year-old (Johnson), and a 36-year-old (Schilling). And you know what? It would probably be the best rotation in the league, if not the world.

Garagiola didn't get Wells, of course, but he did get Johnson and he did get Schilling. And for that alone, this Joe should be a "Somebody," and maybe he should be even more famous than his old man. When Arizona signed "The Big Unit" to a five-year contract for $64 million, we all said, "That's crazy! Johnson's injury-prone and he'll be 40 years old when that deal is finished!"

How crazy does it look now, after four straight Cy Young Awards?

When Arizona signed Curt Schilling to a three-year contract for $32 million, we all said, "That's crazy! Schilling's injury-prone and he might never pitch 200 innings in a season again!"

How crazy does it look now, after two straight seasons in which Schilling led the National League in innings and won 45 games?

Yes, Garagiola does seem to have a sometimes-unhealthy fascination with veterans, and most of us can agree that the Jay Bell and Matt Williams contracts haven't worked out particularly well. But if we're going to nail Garagiola for those deals, don't we have to hail him for putting together what is perhaps the greatest one-two combination since ... well, since anybody?

And don't we have to give him some credit for building a team that's reached the postseason in three of the last four years? You can call it luck and you'd have something of a point, but since when did we hold luck against anybody?

While you're thinking up the answers to those questions, I'll work on some new questions just in case I finally get my chance to talk to the Joe Garagiola who isn't famous but probably should be.

Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published in April by Fireside, appears here regularly during the season and irregularly in the offseason. His e-mail address is rob.neyer@dig.com.