Fox is in the Hunt With a blockbuster trade brokered by a TV exec, the new owners of the Dodgers served notice that it won't be business as usual in L.A.

May 24, 1998

A giant flashing neon sign on the facade of Dodger Stadium would
have done the job. UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT it might have blinked
madly. But no. Too subtle. Instead, the worldwide media
conglomerate that has owned the Los Angeles Dodgers for two
months announced itself last week with unmistakable and
characteristic boldness. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., more
specifically its Fox division, left no doubt that the
mom-and-pop operation of the O'Malley family is no longer the
Dodger way. Imagine The Simpsons preempting Masterpiece Theatre,
and you only begin to grasp what is happening at Chavez Ravine.

This is how the new Dodgers do business. When a Fox Television
executive called the Florida Marlins last Thursday to inquire
about purchasing team owner Wayne Huizenga's regional cable
sports network, he wound up a few hours later trading one of the
greatest hitting catchers in baseball history, Mike Piazza, to
the Marlins for five players and possibly a cable network to be
named later. The Marlins are one of only six major league teams
for which Fox hasn't yet gobbled up local broadcasting rights.
Los Angeles did get outfielders Gary Sheffield and Jim
Eisenreich, catcher Charles Johnson, third baseman Bobby Bonilla
and minor league pitcher Manuel Barrios for Piazza and third
baseman Todd Zeile. Check your local listings for further
developments on both ends.

"If anyone is looking for some smoking gun, they will be looking
for 500 years. It just doesn't exist," Vince Wladika, senior
vice president-media relations for Fox Sports, said of a
possible connection between the trade and Fox's ongoing interest
in Huizenga's cable network. "There is no connection whatsoever."

Even assuming that's true, this was the biggest trade in
baseball history by the yardsticks of money ($108.1 million in
contracts) or marquee value (four All-Stars), and the exchange
of players was set without the involvement of any baseball
people. The deal was consummated by team presidents, one a
marketing man, the other an accountant, and two TV suits from
Los Angeles. "It's unprecedented for the Dodgers," said Los
Angeles general manager Fred Claire about the team's G.M. being
cut out of the process. "I'd like to think it was a one-time
occurrence. Let's put it this way: I wasn't thrilled."

In one day the Dodgers boosted their payroll 19.6% to $57.3
million--not including the deal-closing $5 million they gave
Sheffield to pay his anticipated California state income taxes
and persuade him not to scuttle the deal by invoking his
no-trade clause. The jump in payroll served notice that Fox is
ready for baseball's luxury-tax neighborhood in a way that Peter
O'Malley, the previous owner, could never stomach. Don't gag on
your Dodger dog, but there are hints that to help pay the bills,
luxury boxes and billboards will soon join the newly installed
pavilion strobe lights at what used to be the classically
understated Dodger Stadium. No word yet on a disco ball.

When Sheffield walked into the clubhouse last Saturday, there
was no doubt the face of the organization would never be the
same. No one had bothered telling him to shave his goatee. That
night he became the first player in Dodgers history to drive in
a run by the hair of his chinny-chin-chin. "We've never been
allowed to have goatees before," first baseman Eric Karros told
reporters after the 9-4 win over the Montreal Expos. "Now [with
the change in ownership] we can. Same with earrings and wearing
jeans on the road. The last 24 hours have been a complete
turnaround. It may seem trivial, but it's big."

The attitude adjustment from the same people who brought you
Bart Simpson and Al Bundy accounted for another new addition:
laughter. Bonilla, who can throw away one-liners as well as he
can grounders, provided needed levity to a team infamous for
having the worst chemistry since the Love Canal. "Bobby had
everyone in the dugout laughing," Sheffield said. "I think
that's what this ball club needs, a good laugh now and then."

The initial results were good, as evidenced in two weekend wins
over the Expos after Los Angeles had dropped to 19-22 with the
third-worst offense in the National League. The Dodgers are a
better team immediately, having addressed needs for lefthanded
hitting, a run-producing outfielder and a catcher to extract
more out of an underachieving pitching staff. As for the
future...well, why worry with the Fox bankroll behind you?

No other team in baseball would dare touch Sheffield (owed $61
million through 2003) or Bonilla ($17.7 million through 2000).
With the Marlins up for sale and prospective owner Don Smiley,
the team's president, trying to cut the 1997 payroll of $53.5
million in half by Opening Day, the only nibble for Sheffield
came last November from the New York Mets, who insisted the
Marlins pay a sizable chunk of the salary. Now here were the
Dodgers taking on both contracts and giving Sheffield even more
money. Unless they don't mind eating huge contracts, they had
better be right about the players, especially Sheffield, who at
29 has been traded three times and who since 1993 has driven in
fewer runs (418) than either Bonilla (483) or Zeile (446). In
four of his nine full major league seasons, Sheffield has played
in only 95 games or less because of injuries, and he built his
playing reputation primarily on two monster seasons--in '92,
when he made a run at the Triple Crown with the Padres, and in
'96, when he hit .314 with 42 home runs and 120 RBIs for the
Marlins. Playing for his fifth team in eight years, Bonilla, 35,
is still good for 20 homers and 90 RBIs, but he's a handful to
manage and didn't leave his teammates laughing in the Mets or
Baltimore Orioles dugouts.

"Yes, we better like this team," Claire says. "The financial
implications stretch on for years."

None of this could be possible without the spiteful fire sale
initiated by Huizenga, who put the team on the market last June
and in the last seven months has authorized the unloading of all
but nine players from a world championship team because South
Florida wouldn't build him a stadium. If Piazza and Zeile, who
has played for six teams in 35 months, are moved again before
the July 31 deadline, as everyone expects, Livan Hernandez
($1.075 million) could be the highest-paid player on Florida's
active roster. Earlier this month Smiley, the team's former vice
president of sales and marketing, circulated a memo to his
fellow prospective investors stating that he wanted to hold the
Marlins' payroll at $16 million in 1999, 2000 and 2001. With
Piazza and Zeile, the payroll stands at $24 million; without
them, it would drop to $12.8 million.

"What happened in Pittsburgh was gradual," says Marlins manager
Jim Leyland, who almost certainly will quit in frustration, just
as he did after a similar purge by the Pirates in 1996. "This is
more like a mass murder."

Initial contact regarding Piazza was made last month when
Florida general manager Dave Dombrowski asked Claire about
acquiring the catcher as a way of unloading Sheffield and
Bonilla. Though Piazza was Los Angeles's alltime leader in
batting (.334) and slugging (.576), his star in the city began
to dim last spring when he turned down a six-year extension
worth a record $80 million. Eligible for free agency after this
season, Piazza was seeking $105 million for seven years. "The
difference between the bid and the ask was so significant that
it was hard to see a way of bridging the gap," said Dodgers
president Bob Graziano, an accountant who was a financial
officer with the team for 13 years before being named to head
the club after Murdoch assumed ownership.

Soon after the Dombrowski-Claire conversation, Graziano began
internal discussions with Fox Television CEO Chase Carey and
News Corp. president Peter Chernin about the possibility of
trading Piazza. Claire and manager Bill Russell were asked about
certain Marlins players after the Dodgers' four-game series
against Florida in early May. Murdoch was occasionally updated,
though Graziano says, "The Dodgers may be very visible, but they
are a fraction of his worldwide business. He was not involved
aggressively or actively." Carey, who was involved, refused to
comment.

For weeks the team and Piazza had languished, and the Dodgers
fell eight games behind first-place San Diego. Piazza had one
extra-base hit in the first two weeks of May. The idea of
trading the franchise player became more realistic, especially
since the Piazza era was such a fruitless one. The Dodgers have
not won a postseason game since Piazza joined the club in 1993.

Then last Thursday morning, while Graziano was in the Dominican
Republic, Carey called Smiley about Huizenga's SportsChannel
Florida, which carries the Marlins' and Tampa Bay Devil Rays'
games, as well as those of the NHL Panthers. According to acting
baseball commissioner Bud Selig, major league owners had
"expressed concern" about the blurring of Fox's baseball and
broadcasting interests before Murdoch was approved as Dodgers
owner. "The long tentacles of media conglomerates are something
that we have to watch very carefully," Selig says. "We watched
this [trade] very closely, and there's no evidence of any link."

The TV talk between Carey and Smiley quickly turned into a trade
discussion, with the Dodgers insisting that the 26-year-old
Johnson, a career .241 hitter but unquestionably the best
defensive catcher in the National League, be part of the deal.
Smiley insisted the Dodgers take Bonilla if they wanted
Sheffield and Johnson. "We couldn't split the package," says
Graziano, who joined the discussions from the Dominican
Republic. The talks were so protracted that at one point his
long-distance company disconnected him on the assumption that a
jabbering thief had pilfered his phone card.

"We had to move fast," Graziano said, adding that the Dodgers
solicited no other offers for Piazza. "If you shop a player like
that, how long does it take for word to get out? Thirty seconds?
That would not have been fair to our team."

By early Thursday afternoon the deal was set. Claire did not
find out about it until Graziano called him in the seventh
inning of Los Angeles's game that night. Russell didn't know
until after the game--a game in which Piazza played--while in
Cincinnati, where the Marlins were playing the Reds, Leyland
held Bonilla, Johnson and Sheffield out of the starting lineup.
"There's a trade to send you to the Dodgers," Leyland told
Sheffield.

"Great," Sheffield replied. "I get to play with Piazza."

"No, he's part of the deal," Leyland said.

"Then I'm not going," said Sheffield.

At 6:15 on Friday morning, Dombrowski called Sheffield's agent,
Jim Neader, in St. Petersburg, Fla., and said, "You've got an
8:20 flight to St. Louis [where the Marlins had traveled to play
the Cardinals]. Pick up Gary and go to L.A. The Dodgers want to
talk to both of you."

When Neader and Sheffield arrived in California a car whisked
them to the Fox studios for a meeting with Carey and Chernin.
Then Neader and Sheffield were driven to Dodger Stadium, where
at 3:30 they sat down in Claire's office with Claire, Graziano
and Dodgers general counsel Sam Fernandez to negotiate a waiver
of the no-trade provision. "This was a highly unusual
situation," Graziano said. "I report to Chase and Peter, but not
on every bit of Dodgers business. For instance, I didn't call
them when we signed [outfielder Raul] Mondesi."

Claire gave a recruiting speech about how much the Dodgers
wanted Sheffield. Sheffield wanted the Dodgers to make up the
money he was going to lose in taxes he would have to pay because
of the move to California from Florida, which has no state
income tax. At 7 p.m., he also wanted something to eat. Somebody
delivered turkey sandwiches. Neader and Sheffield, still a bit
dazed by the speed of events, prayed aloud over the food that
everything would work out.

Meanwhile, the Marlins' game was on the television in Claire's
office. At 9 p.m. someone switched the set to the Dodgers' game.
Thirty minutes later the deal was official.

Bonilla, Eisenreich and Johnson arrived the next day with the
kind of enormous smiles normally seen by shipwreck survivors
just fished out of the water by the Coast Guard. A huge floral
display and balloons that said CONGRATULATIONS filled a table in
the center of the clubhouse. It was for Johnson, from his wife.
It might as well have been from the Dodgers pitchers, who
privately had seethed about Piazza's defensive shortcomings.

"You're not going to see teams running on us so easily any
more," righthander Ramon Martinez says. "And we can be more
confident now about throwing breaking balls in the dirt with men
on base. Charles will block them. It's very good news for the
pitchers."

At 6:45 p.m., Johnson walked down the leftfield line toward the
bullpen to warm up starting pitcher Darren Dreifort. Each
section of stands roared with applause as Johnson passed by, a
wave of noise rolling through the big stadium. Piazza had been a
homegrown star, the glamorous "godson" of Tommy Lasorda who
blossomed from a 62nd-round pick into one of the five best
players in the game. Yet he was forgotten quicker than last
night's dinner.

"Everyone's replaceable," Karros said. "That's kind of sad. But
that's reality too."

Sheffield had two hits and a walk. Bonilla broke a tie with a
home run, setting off the groovy strobes. Johnson drove in a run
with a single off the rightfield wall. Eisenreich threatened a
team record for most pregame autographs. The old palace filled
with 51,698 happy people--in May for the Expos--including a
walkup sale of 6,000, twice the normal number. "It felt like
Opening Day," Russell said.

During one of the early innings Karros gazed up from the dugout
in wonder at all those occupied seats. He turned to backup
catcher Tom Prince and said, "What the hell are they giving away
tonight?"

The answer was nothing. Well, nothing except the start of a
whole new era of Dodgers baseball.

COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN DEALMAKER After Sheffield got a tax break, he waived his no-trade clause. [Gary Sheffield batting] COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO HERE TODAY, WHERE TOMORROW? One of the best-hitting catchers ever, Piazza is a Marlin until he's dealt to the highest bidder. [Mike Pizza in game] B/W PHOTO: BROWN BROS. [Rogers Hornsby] COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN PRIZE CATCH Johnson (left) brings a defensive presence behind the plate that Martinez says the Dodgers lacked. [Charles Johnson and Ramon Martinez]

FIVE ALLTIME BLOCKBUSTERS

The top trades in baseball history in terms of the marquee value
of the players on both sides of the deal:

1. May 15, 1998: Dodgers trade C Mike Piazza and 3B Todd Zeile
to Marlins for OF Gary Sheffield, C Charles Johnson, 3B Bobby
Bonilla, OF Jim Eisenreich and P Manuel Barrios.

Comment: Four 30-home run men, a three-time Gold Glove catcher,
15 All-Star appearances and $108.1 million worth of contracts.

2. Dec. 5, 1990: Blue Jays trade SS Tony Fernandez and 1B Fred
McGriff to Padres for OF Joe Carter and 2B Roberto Alomar.

Comment: Four present and future All-Stars in their primes are
moved without contract problems as the impetus. Toronto goes on
to win World Series in 1992 and '93.

3. April 17, 1960: Indians trade OF Rocky Colavito to Tigers for
OF Harvey Kuenn.

Comment: The reigning American League home run champ is swapped
for the league's reigning batting champ.

4. Dec. 20, 1926: Cardinals trade 2B Rogers Hornsby (above) to
Giants for 2B Frankie Frisch and P Jimmy Ring.

Comment: Hornsby's contract squabble prompts a trade of future
Hall of Famers.

5. April 2, 1976: Athletics trade OF Reggie Jackson, P Ken
Holtzman and a minor leaguer to Orioles for OF Don Baylor, P
Mike Torrez and P Paul Mitchell.

Comment: With Jackson in his walk year, this is the beginning of
the end of the Oakland dynasty.

"The long tentacles of media conglomerates are something that we
have to watch very carefully."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)