"I'm not looking for Kirk Gibson or any of these new players to wave a magic wand."
The Dodgertown spring training compound in Vero Beach, Fla., reflects much of what the Los Angeles Dodgers have stood for over the years. With the tidy shrubbery along Jackie Robinson Avenue, the cozy bungalows lining Sandy Koufax Lane and the well-kept fields at the end of Roy Campanella Boulevard, it's ordered and functional, a site for success.
But as the Dodgers began filing into camp last week, they found that the once immutable zoning laws of Dodger-town had been rewritten. The heirs to Branch Rickey's farsighted vision and Walter O'Malley's patient and prudent management style have been reduced to franchisers. A Relief-O-Mat has gone up on Koufax Lane. Over on Campanella Boulevard is a new PowerQwik outlet. A Jiffy-D blights Robinson Avenue. Once the most persnickety consumers in baseball, the Dodgers have become convenience shoppers.
The team's planning board—president Peter O'Malley, player personnel vice-president Fred Claire and manager Tom Lasorda—didn't grant these wholesale zoning variances just because Los Angeles wound up 16 games below .500 in 1987. They did it because the Dodgers were an identical 73-89 in 1986, too. In L.A., where people have to take out low-interest loans just to pay attention, one bad year is enough. Two, and you're in what George Bush calls deep do-do. And when attendance dipped below three million last year for the first time in a nonstrike season since 1979, the Dodgers acted.
March 7, 1988
For a full week at the winter meetings in Dallas, Claire never left the grounds of the headquarters hotel. In a pyrotechnical three-way, eight-player deal with the Oakland A's and New York Mets, L.A. gave up ace starter Bob Welch, plus pitchers Matt Young and Jack Savage, to get shortstop Alfredo Griffin and reliever Jay Howell from Oakland and reliever Jesse Orosco from New York. Then Claire signed free-agent outfielders Kirk Gibson and Mike Davis, along with Don Sutton, the former Dodger pitcher, who was released by the Angels after the 1987 season. Some say it took guts for Claire to trade Welch, the best No. 3 starter in baseball. Then again, as catcher Mike Scioscia says, "It would have taken more guts for Fred to put the same team on the field as last year."
L.A. fans are buying Claire's moves by buying season tickets, sales of which have been cut off at 27,000. And they will see plenty that's new in Dodger Blue. There will be seven new regulars; only 16 members of the club's 40-man roster were Dodger property two years ago. Says pitcher Orel Hershiser, "I look around the clubhouse and I feel like I'm the guy who's been traded."
Trades are one way of improving things. Free-agent shopping sprees are another, though not usually the L.A. way. The last time the Dodgers bought players was in 1979, when they spent $5.1 million on Dave Goltz and Don Stanhouse. "We were burned," says O'Malley. "Free agents are a high-risk, high-price way to go. But if we don't think the cards we're dealt will get the job done, we'll ask the dealer for new cards."
While Sutton, who will be 43 in April, came relatively cheap at $350,000 plus incentives, Gibson ($4.5 million for three years) and Davis ($1.9 million for two) push the Dodger payroll above $17 million, probably the highest in pro sports. More alarming is that management had little choice but to spend rashly and deal brashly. L.A. didn't sign but took long looks at New York Yankee reliever Dave Righetti and Minnesota Twins third baseman Gary Gaetti. In picking up three established major league outfielders in less than a year—Gibson, Davis and John Shelby (in a trade with the Baltimore Orioles last spring)—the Dodgers acknowledged that their farm system isn't teeming with the talent it once did. "This is not a departure from our development philosophy," Claire says. "It just signals where we are at this time."
If that's a roundabout way of saying L.A. went for the quick fix, well, Claire, a 52-year-old onetime sportswriter, is the guy with the toolbox. Heretofore, he was best known as vice-president in charge of perennial drug-problem relief pitcher Steve Howe. When Dodger veep Al Campanis resigned last April for uttering his misbegotten racial remarks on ABC's Nightline, Claire took over the team's day-to-day baseball operations. "I'm not looking for Kirk Gibson or any of these new players to wave a magic wand," Claire says. "I'm expecting a lot from the players who have been stung by the last two seasons, the Mike Scioscias and Pedro Guerreros. They're the ones who've been through the pits."
Besides all the new faces, many of the old faces are in new places. When Scioscia pulls on his catcher's mask in Dodger Stadium on April 4, he could be the only starter in the same spot he occupied on Opening Day '87. At third base, where 10 players—Dave Anderson, Phil Garner, Mickey Hatcher, Jeff Hamilton, Tracy Woodson, Mike Sharperson, Craig Shipley, Steve Sax, Bill Madlock and Alex Trevino—saw action last season, Lasorda may go with erstwhile second baseman Sax, who used to be called Michael Jackson (because both wore a glove on one hand for no apparent reason), or Hamilton, a good-field, no-hit-yet youngster up from Albuquerque. Either player will bring mixed blessings.
Griffin, a shortstop of the first order, replaces Mariano Duncan, who committed 21 errors last season, including a hat trick in one forgettable game. Duncan will move back to second, where he began, before injuries to others forced him to short. "He showed signs of brilliance at shortstop," says Scioscia. "But at shortstop you need consistency, not brilliance."
Either Guerrero or Mike Marshall will play first, the only position where Lasorda can stash one of his extra hard hitters. In the outfield Shelby, who hit .277 with 69 RBIs after joining the team, could play center. So could Davis, who should have been chosen to represent Oakland in last year's All-Star Game, and then suffered a knee injury that caused his production to tail off to a .265 average with 22 homers and 72 RBIs. Then again, Davis may wind up in right, unless Marshall, who had 72 RBIs in 104 games in '87, ends up there.
Leftfield belongs to Gibson. He batted .277 with 79 RBIs for the Detroit Tigers last year, but thought he struggled at the plate, either hitting homers (24) or striking out (117). He promises to drive the ball more. He'll aim for the alleys of the National League's many carpeted outfields and use his speed to leg out doubles and triples. Gibson admits he neglected conditioning work this winter while an arbitrator was getting ready to rule on his (and six other players') collusion case against baseball's owners. Still, Gibson vows to be ready by the end of March, "when we head north—er, west."
From the comments of Tiger owner Tom Monaghan, which were published in his Domino's Pizza company newsletter soon after Gibson signed with the Dodgers, you would think the former Michigan State football star was the Noid, that obnoxious creature who turns your pizza cold. Monaghan ripped Gibson's arm, his glove, his inability to hit lefthanded pitching and even his grooming habits. "He was a disgrace to the Tiger uniform with his half-beard, half-stubble," Monaghan wrote. "I didn't like his long hair."
"Obviously it was a cheap shot," says Gibson. "I have many opinions about Mr. Monaghan and the way he does things, but Id say them to his face."
Gibson's swashbuckling style promises to spike the Dodgers' already volatile clubhouse mix. Marshall and Guerrero sniped at each other last season, and neither is popular among his mates. Marshall, in the minds of some Dodgers, has a tendency to jake it; one of the 58 games he missed in '87 was because of "general soreness." Guerrero is less than loved because of his pronounced tendency to act like a prima donna. As usual, he was the last veteran to report this spring, and a few players even joined the writers' annual "Pedro Pool" to guess the date he would make it up from the Dominican Republic.
That so many folks are fighting for the same positions should heighten the tension, creative and otherwise, in Dodgertown right up until Opening Day. Conjuring a lineup is a new task for Lasorda, whose toughest call in many years was whether to station Steve Yeager or Joe Feiguson behind the plate. If five players—three of them millionaires—competing for four spots (the three outfield spots and first base) augurs problems, the odd man out could be dealt for another starting pitcher. But Claire insists no trade is in the offing. "Considering our offense last season," he says, referring to the Dodgers' position at or near the league bottom in batting, RBIs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and pinch hits, "too much [hitting] talent is not one of my problems."
In fact, the Dodgers may not even need the extra starter a Guerrero, Marshall or Shelby might bring them. Sutton, who won 11 games for the Angels last year, will fall into the rotation after Fernando Valenzuela (14-14, 4.05) and Hershiser (16-16, 3.06). Alejandro Pena, who finally recovered from 1985 shoulder surgery and sparkled out of the pen over the final month of '87 when no one cared, is a happy camper now that he has been offered a shot as the fourth starter. The fifth slot may well go to Tim Belcher, the No. 1 pick in the draft five years ago, who came over in a trade from Oakland last September and seems finally to have conquered wildness.
L.A.'s bullpen was its undoing last season, accounting for a league-low 32 saves. "Our starters threw too many innings," says Scioscia. "We lost a lot of games in the eighth and ninth we had no business losing." Now the short men are Howell and Orosco, both grateful for a change of scene after hearing boos. Howell will be Lasorda's first right-handed choice out of the pen, with lefty Orosco, out of earshot of the Shea Stadium cries of "Fiasco," his man from the eighth inning on.
The Dodgers simply can't afford to lose. They are one of the rare franchises that are self-sufficient economic entities. No funds can be siphoned off from the owner's pizza business, beer company, hamburger, publishing or broadcasting concern if the team doesn't pull its own weight. Wall Street, seeing sluggish sales, poor product quality and lagging R&D, might not judge the Dodgers as blue chip anymore.
If the club doesn't ride the bull this season, Lasorda will have managed L. A. through its longest losing stretch in half a century. O'Malley has demurred on reworking Lasorda's contract, which is in the final year of three, until the end of this season. "There were too many off-the-field distractions last season," says O'Malley. "They started on Opening Day. But I'll predict right now that Tommy will do his best job of managing this season."
Indeed, last week Lasorda looked happier than Ted Koppel at a televangelists convention. On Wednesday he was singing Mack the Knife, hamming up his batting-practice pitches and schmoozing with two coaches from the Soviet Union and some members of the Chunichi Dragons, a Japanese team visiting camp. "I haven't lost any zest for this job," he said. "I'm the happiest man in the world."
Lasorda won't be if the chill of two 73-89 seasons follows his team from Dodgertown to L.A. "Sixteen below?" said Orosco, who's accustomed to more successful climes. "Hmmm, that's pretty cold weather. Hope it warms up a bit."