MLB playoffs 2023: How Lovullo and Hazen's bond has endured

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PHOENIX -- NICOLE HAZEN just wanted it to feel like Christmas. It was the winter of 2020, six months after she had suffered a seizure that uncovered a cancerous brain tumor, and Nicole was seeking reminders of her festive childhood holidays in the Cleveland suburbs. Her husband, Mike, had always refused to climb atop their roof to install lights. But this time he offered a compromise. "We'll pay somebody," Mike, the Arizona Diamondbacks' general manager, told her. Nicole had a better idea:

Torey Lovullo would do it for free.

Lovullo spends about three-quarters of his year obsessing over his full-time job as the Diamondbacks' field manager. Much of the rest is dedicated to another passion -- meticulously decorating his Scottsdale home with various Christmas-themed accouterments, a fixation that has reached Clark Griswold levels of exorbitance. In 2019, he rented an aerial lift and overcame a slight fear of heights to outfit his palms with fluorescent lights 40 feet above the ground. Near the end of 2020, Lovullo promised he would take care of Nicole's lights, too.

She wanted something simple, elegant, so he lined the roof of her Arcadia home with white bulbs, then took them down shortly after the start of 2021. As the year progressed, Nicole's condition rapidly worsened. Treatments did not take; clinical trials were unsuccessful. It was becoming increasingly clear that glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer with a survival rate of less than two years, would soon take her life. And so Lovullo made her a promise: Every year, he'll be in charge of the Christmas lights at the Hazen house.

He went through the process again in December 2021, upgrading the hooks, replacing faulty bulbs, hiding stray extension cords and setting up a timer to keep them all on schedule. When it was time to take them down again, Mike -- Torey's best friend in baseball over these last 20 years, his boss for the last seven -- stopped him. "Leave them up year-round," he told him.

They turned on every night in 2022, up to and after Nicole's death that August.

They haven't shut off since.

"They're up right now," Lovullo said the weekend before he led the Diamondbacks into the National League Championship Series. "They'll stay up for the rest of our lives."

LOVULLO AND HAZEN have what Diamondbacks CEO Derrick Hall believes to be "more than a working relationship," one strengthened by hardship and built on brutal honesty. It now sets the tone for an entire organization.

"When a true partnership exists," Hall wrote in an email, "it can be magical."

Before the breakthrough 2023 season that saw their young, scrappy Diamondbacks sneak into the playoffs, race past the Milwaukee Brewers in the wild-card round and sweep the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers in the division series; before the 110-loss 2021 season that tested their relationship like never before; before the tragedy around Nicole that changed the dynamic between the two of them forever -- there was an old farmhouse on a massive tobacco field in a North Carolina town called Kinston.

It was the summer of 2004. Lovullo, by then approaching 40, was managing the Cleveland Indians' Class A affiliate in the area and rented a home that was big enough to house his kids when they came to visit. Hazen, who was in his late 20s, had been promoted as Cleveland's assistant director of player development and stopped by at least twice a month to watch some of the younger players. The team's other roving instructors -- a group that included current Pittsburgh Pirates manager Derek Shelton -- routinely joined him, often sleeping over. The front porch became their haven. They talked late into the night, drinking beers and smoking cigars and sampling whatever infused vodka Lovullo kept in his pantry. They usually stayed hungry.

"The only thing I remember from his house was there was no food in it," Hazen said. "The refrigerator had candy -- the s---iest candy you could ever find. You get hungry at night, and all the guy had in his house was candy. So you had to go to the freezer and eat Kit Kats."

Lovullo is from Los Angeles, the son of a man who produced the immensely popular, long-running television variety show "Hee Haw." Lovullo was laid back, calm, low-key, and he found himself drawn to Hazen, who grew up near Boston and was noticeably intense, hard-edged, animated. Their personalities fit the stereotypes of the cities that shaped them. It was obvious early on that, despite an 11-year age gap, they meshed.

"He's very similar to the people that, as I was growing up, that I would spend most of my time with," Lovullo said. "I tend to be a little bit boring, I tend to be very vanilla, and I like to be the audience and let somebody else more or less entertain me, and I think that's how our conversations went. I was intrigued by him, and I liked being around him -- because of his wit, because of his intelligence, because of his kindness."

Lovullo, a major league infielder for more than a decade, continued managing in Cleveland's minor league system until 2009, then joined the Boston Red Sox's Triple-A affiliate in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, for a year. He spent the next two seasons as the Toronto Blue Jays' first-base coach, and throughout, he and Hazen remained close. When Lovullo returned to the Red Sox as their major league bench coach in 2013, Hazen was in his eighth year in Boston's front office, working as an assistant general manager under then-GM Ben Cherington.

Three years later, in October 2016, Hazen was given his first opportunity to run a baseball operations department when the Diamondbacks hired him as their executive vice president and GM.

Less than a month later, in a move that had been widely anticipated from the outset, Hazen hired Lovullo to be his manager, choosing him over a list of candidates that included Alex Cora and Phil Nevin.

"I knew that a major component of this job was the relationship between the manager and the front office," Hazen said. "And I worked with him for so long, in so many different capacities, that I felt like I knew almost everything about him on a personal level."

LAST WEEK, HAZEN sat in a suite at Chase Field in Phoenix and took a moment to appreciate the circumstances. Two years ago, his team finished tied for the worst record in the sport. Now it was the middle of October, a time when Hazen is usually leading meetings steered toward the upcoming offseason, and the Diamondbacks were preparing for another postseason round, a mere four wins away from their first pennant in 22 years.

He has become better at appreciating that sort of thing.

"We're focused on beating the Phillies right now," Hazen said, "but I have not lost sight, one iota, of where we're standing right now."

The Diamondbacks put together a winning record in Hazen's and Lovullo's first three years together from 2017 to 2019, but they flopped during the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season and finished a whopping 55 games out of first place in 2021. Hazen spent most of that year juggling the demands of his job while caring for his four sons and accompanying his ailing wife to the hospital. He called them his "darkest days."

Lovullo's darkest day arrived on Sept. 19, 2021. It was a Sunday getaway day in Houston, the morning before the Diamondbacks' 101st loss in 149 games, and Lovullo was screaming at Hazen through his cellphone.

Intense arguments were nothing new for Lovullo and Hazen by then. They quibbled over countless trivial issues and had it out over bigger roster decisions. But the arguments never got personal and the anger they triggered never lingered. Hazen recalled only two instances in which a heated discussion even necessitated a follow-up phone call. They knew how to have a fight.

This time, though, it was different.

The Diamondbacks were terrible, and it wasn't on purpose.

"We weren't trying to tank," D-backs assistant GM Amiel Sawdaye said. "We were trying to put a team together to win."

They lost 17 in a row in June and allowed 22 runs in one night on July 10. By the start of September, they sat 44 games below .500. With two weeks remaining in their season, Hazen's mind had already shifted to the following year. But Lovullo's contract remained unsettled at a time when fans were clamoring for his firing. That day, during a heated phone conversation, "it all came to a head," Lovullo said.

"I snapped at him. I legitimately snapped at him."

Lovullo can still recall the details from that morning. He remembers what he wore and where he stood. He remembers chastising Hazen for never having his back. And he remembers retreating to the stands at Minute Maid Park shortly thereafter and sobbing. "It was an ugly moment personally for me," Lovullo said. He had made it about himself, at a time when Hazen was navigating through unspeakable tragedy, and he made claims he knew to be untrue.

"In reality," Lovullo said, "he always had my back."

Four days after the most heated exchange of their time together, Lovullo signed a contract extension. Hazen had consistently placed the shortcomings of that year squarely on his own roster construction. Firing Lovullo never actually crossed his mind.

"I would've gone out and tried to replace Torey with Torey," Hazen said. "That didn't seem very smart."

Barely two years later, the Diamondbacks -- trailing the Philadelphia Phillies 2-0 with the best-of-seven series shifting back to Arizona for three straight games -- are the first team in the 54-year history of the league championship series to reach that round within two years of losing at least 110 games, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The core of their team was built through successful drafts (of Corbin Carroll, Alek Thomas and Brandon Pfaadt in particular), savvy trades (Ketel Marte from the Seattle Mariners, Zac Gallen from the Miami Marlins, Gabriel Moreno and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. from the Blue Jays) and shrewd acquisitions (Christian Walker was plucked off waivers, Merrill Kelly was signed out of South Korea). But their turnaround, many will say, was sparked by the authenticity of Lovullo's and Hazen's relationship and the effective problem-solving it produced under difficult circumstances.

Lovullo apologized days after his blowup, but Hazen deemed it unnecessary. By the end, the 2021 season had seen both men gain a deeper appreciation for one another. Hazen was in awe of the consistency Lovullo showed in the midst of a torturous season. Lovullo will never forget the poise with which Hazen handled the unthinkable.

"I just admired how, in the face of so much adversity and so much unknown, something so personal to him, he posted, showed up, brought the same passion every single day," Lovullo said. "He cared for people at a time when he shouldn't be caring for anybody else. I would leave my office sometimes and I'd be like, 'Am I seeing this right? He just came in and talked about A, B, C and D, and I can't believe he's actually paying attention to that when he should be paying attention to nothing but his wife.' The way he separated it, he was everybody's hero. He defined the word 'courage.'"

KRISTEN LOVULLO AND Nicole Hazen met through their husbands, but they bonded over raising boys and navigating the tumultuous schedules of their significant others. When Torey and Mike were off running a baseball team, Kristen, Nicole and their children were often together.

"We were unintentionally put together, and then we just made it happen ourselves," Kristen said in a phone conversation. "Our friendship flourished on its own."

Nicole first suffered a seizure in May 2020 and received a definitive diagnosis of glioblastoma about two months later, after multiple MRIs. In August, doctors surgically removed as much of her cancerous tumor as they could, triggering six weeks of chemotherapy and radiation. Over the better part of the next two years, Nicole underwent three craniotomies and three different drug therapies in an effort to slow the advancement of her tumor. Her resolve hardly wavered, even as her condition worsened.

Over the last few months of her life, Kristen barely left her side.

"It wasn't necessarily a responsibility that I saw it as; I saw it as just time with my friend," Kristen said. "It was extra time that I got with her, that I wouldn't ever be able to get back. I needed that."

Nicole died on Aug. 4, 2022, at the age of 45, shortly after she and Mike celebrated their 18th wedding anniversary. She was remembered in the days after as a dedicated mother, a supportive wife and a passionate educator, teaching middle school English more than a year after her initial diagnosis. Her personality, according to those who knew her, was magnetic.

When Hazen thinks about Nicole's illness, he also thinks about the people who formed a community around her. It replaces some of the sorrow with gratitude. He thinks about his bosses, Hall and principal owner Ken Kendrick, who gave him the freedom of unlimited time off, even though he didn't necessarily take it. He thinks about his front-office executives, namely Sawdaye and Mike Fitzgerald, who picked up so much of the slack while he worked from home. And he thinks about Torey and Kristen, who basically dedicated their lives to his family.

"I don't know how to express that gratitude to them ever," Hazen said. "I don't know what to say, I don't know what to do. I don't know. I'll never be able to say anything other than 'thank you.' A billion times."

Hazen's goal in 2021 was to maintain normalcy. Baseball had been a central part of his entire relationship with Nicole, and she wanted to keep it that way. Later, after Nicole lost her ability to speak and eventually began hospice care, Hazen's focus shifted to his boys, all between the ages of 13 and 17. Hazen was ready to give up his job to raise them full-time. He left it up to them.

"If they had wanted me to stop," Hazen said, "I would've stopped."

But they all wanted him to keep going, and they found it weird that he would even ask.

"They've grown up in baseball, through the Red Sox, through here," Sawdaye said. "I think if he left and, whatever, took a job in the private sector, his boys would be really disappointed."

Hazen has spent the 2023 season carving out the type of schedule that would allow him to be everything to everyone. On most weekdays, he'll pick his sons up from school and cook them dinner and help with their homework and watch the Diamondbacks' games from his living room. He'll still come into the office when needed, and he weighs in on every baseball decision, but he'll leave most of the logistics for Sawdaye and Fitzgerald and the rest of his staff to sort out in person. He's learning how to separate.

"I'm not going to have my 13-year-old put himself to bed," Hazen said.

On Sunday afternoons during homestands and throughout the offseason, Hazen's house is a gathering place. Sawdaye, Fitzgerald and any other front-office members in the neighborhood stop in at 5 p.m. and bring their kids. Often, Lovullo and his wife will make the short drive over, too. Nicole loved to cook. Now Mike is the one trying out different recipes.

Hazen often finds himself second-guessing whether he did right by his kids in returning to work. He's comforted by the knowledge that he made the decision with their interest, not his, in mind.

But it helps him, too.

"These people that I work with are my best friends," Hazen said. "They're my entire life."

AS THE YEARS have gone on and their lives have become increasingly intertwined, Lovullo, 58, and Hazen, 47, have found themselves reversing roles. Lovullo has taken a harder edge on team performance, and Hazen is the one trying to talk him down.

Somehow, they always seem to balance each other out.

"They are supportive of one another," Hall wrote, "yet brutally honest and critical at the same time."

Lovullo admires Hazen's ability to see the bigger picture.

"One of my limitations is I just see the pile of mud right in front of me; I wish I saw the dirt field a little bit more clearly," Lovullo said. "His perspective is eye-opening."

Hazen admires Lovullo's authenticity.

"He dives into conversations to a level that I sometimes really want to have but have a hard time doing," Hazen said. "He gets into the nuance of the players that he manages -- into their lives -- in a way that is so genuine."

On the fourth day of October, Hazen signed an extension that will keep him with the Diamondbacks at least through the 2028 season. At some point this offseason, Lovullo, whose contract runs through 2024, might sign one, too.

At this point, they've become inseparable.

"We're married to one another," Lovullo said. "My wife and his wife used to say we're like an old married couple."

And like most married couples, they argue. Lately, their most intense discussions revolve around subjects outside of baseball. Hazen, who, according to Lovullo, "can self-loathe with the best of them," will talk about never finding love again. Lovullo will tell him he's being foolish. He'll also remind him that people are eager to help him take care of his sons, an offer Hazen will often dismiss.

"His mindset is, "I've got this. I have to do this. This is for my children and me. I'm raising my children as a mother and a father, and I got this,'" Lovullo said. "I want him to know that we're there to help him whenever he needs it. And he's like, 'I got this. Shut up, dude, leave me alone.'"

Less than a month after Nicole died, the Diamondbacks raised an initial $1.5 million to launch the Nicole Hazen Fund for Hope, which supports medical research for aggressive brain tumors. Her four boys (from youngest to oldest: Sam, Teddy, John and Charlie) each threw out the ceremonial first pitch before Game 3 of the NLDS, which qualified as the franchise's first postseason home game in six years. Lovullo, of course, caught one of them.

It took Lovullo 14 years, from 2002 to 2016, to earn a job as a major league manager. Along the way there were several interviews and a handful of other teams that came close to hiring him. He could have landed with any one of them, and instead he wound up working alongside his close friend and helping him through tragedy.

He thinks about that a lot.

"I believe in fate, and I think there's a lot of times where you want something so bad, you don't know the reason why you don't get that or achieve that goal, and so you're on a totally different path," Lovullo said. "Personally, I couldn't have imagined it going any other way. I'm so grateful for the hardships that I've had to go through and endure, because it's landed me here in Arizona with Mike Hazen."