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"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.
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.