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Fox is in the Hunt
Tom Verducci
May 25, 1998
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.
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May 25, 1998

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.

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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."

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