Smiles are freezing in Dodgerdom as the team's deficit in the National League West hovers near double figures. Worse, attendance lags almost 100,000 behind last season, despite the team's slick, expensive 100th-birthday marketing campaign.
Who's to blame?
The spotlight inevitably focuses on Fred Claire, de facto general manager and once the team's publicist. Now heading the baseball side of the business, he is called upon to answer for any declines, whether they are strictly of his making or not.
And this particular decline is not.
Claire has had his hits and misses, but the heart of the problem is the failure of the formerly crack player-development system.
The entire "Baby Blue" generation of prospects went bust, or elsewhere, or both. This season's lineup has one home-grown everyday player--Mike Scioscia--and none developed in the 1980s. The high minors remain barren of prospects. Scouting director Ben Wade, an old Dodger hand who served in the glory days, is under the gun.
Claire is the first Peter O'Malley person to head the organization Walter O'Malley brought west. Claire isn't from Brooklyn, didn't work under Branch Rickey, nor is he an old baseball type. He is a former sportswriter, his dapper appearance notwithstanding. Thrust into his new job after Al Campanis' "Nightline" gaffe, Claire drew uncharacteristic fire from colleagues at his first winter meetings for being indecisive. Since general managers usually protect their own, they were probably offended that a former publicist had joined their ranks.
However, by the end of his first full season, Claire had traded for a shortstop, Alfredo Griffin; a pitcher, Tim Belcher; a short reliever, Jay Howell, and a center fielder, John Shelby. He had also signed outfielders Kirk Gibson and Mike Davis, thus furnishing six front-line players for the team that won the 1988 World Series. He became the Sporting News' executive of the year.
He hasn't done as well since. Still, with his veterans aging and injuries derailing franchise pitchers Orel Hershiser and Fernando Valenzuela, Claire hasn't been dealing from strength. By this season's Willie Randolph-for-Stan Javier non-blockbuster, it looked as though Claire--and O'Malley?--were really engaged in sleight of hand, trying to avoid a fourth consecutive sub-3-million attendance season.
Here is a look at how it has gone for his major transactions:
Traded Tom Niedenfuer and Brad Havens to Baltimore for John Shelby. Niedenfuer was in decline, and Havens was nobody. Shelby, a failed Oriole phenom, had a terrific '87 season, with 21 home runs and 69 runs batted in, and a decent '88, with 10 and 64, before failing all over again. He was recently waived. Grade: B-
Signed Mickey Hatcher as a free agent. This was a cheap pickup, probably set up by Campanis in his last days. Hatcher has been a fine utility player. A cost-effective coup. Grade: B
Traded Juan Guzman to Toronto for Mike Sharperson. Sharperson is a promising utility man, Guzman a nobody. Grade: B
Traded Rick Honeycutt to Oakland for Tim Belcher. No one but Claire wanted "Hurricane Belcher," so named for destroying a minor league clubhouse in Huntsville, Ala. However useful the journeyman Honeycutt has been to the A's, and whatever Belcher's struggles, he is 28 with a good future.
Traded Bob Welch, Matt Young and three minor leaguers to Oakland for Alfredo Griffin, Jay Howell and Jesse Orosco. Orosco was a bust, but Griffin is an everyday shortstop, and Howell was a top closer until injuries got him this season. Welch remains a front-line starter, now off to his best start. One of the minor leaguers, Kevin Tapani, has become a promising pitcher for the Minnesota Twins. Young isn't wowing anyone in Seattle.
Signed Kirk Gibson as a free agent. Any big-money free agent is probably as much O'Malley's decision. (Remember the cold shoulder to Tim Raines?) Gibson has been hurt for most of his three seasons--but he helped deliver a World Series championship. His contract is up this season, amid speculation he will be somewhere else next season.
Signed Mike Davis as a free agent. Davis had some big moments in the '88 World Series but few others, and was waived. With free agents, however, you can't fault a team for coming up with the money, no matter how stiff the price. At least the Dodgers were up there swinging. Grade: D
Traded Pedro Guerrero to St. Louis for John Tudor. Looks worse since Guerrero is happy and productive in St. Louis . . . and so is Tudor. However, without Tudor's four victories after his Aug. 31 arrival, the Dodgers might not have won the division title. The risk in acquiring the injury-prone Tudor was increased by not using him late last season--as he requested--to determine whether or not to bring him back. Grade: D
Allowed Steve Sax to sign with the New York Yankees as a free agent. This was classic Dodger principle or arrogance, choose your own word. Sax was one of the few everyday stars. Within months of the '88 World Series, the Dodgers gave him one of their artificial deadlines. Sax, put off by what he called Claire's coldness, chose free agency. The team then hastened to sign Mike Marshall, whose situation was the same as Sax's. Wherever the mistake was, in Claire's demeanor or O'Malley's policy, it was a big one. Grade: F
Signed Willie Randolph as a free agent. This was a good recovery, under the circumstances. Randolph was a decent hitter and a steadier fielder than Sax, but older and slower, too. He was called the team's unofficial captain last season, but he's gone now. Grade: B-
Traded Brian Holton, Ken Howell and Juan Bell to Baltimore for Eddie Murray. This looked like a great deal for a team coming off a World Series title, but it's a mixed blessing. The dour Murray, 34, drove in 88 runs in 1989 and is off to a better start this time, but he's no sunbeam in the locker room. Holton is a good setup man. Howell is a Philadelphia starter and eventually might do the things the Dodgers thought he would. Grade: B-
Signed Rick Dempsey as a free agent. Dempsey is a good backup catcher and knowledgeable veteran. Grade: B
Traded Mike Devereaux to Baltimore for Mike Morgan. This may be a tribute to coach Ron Perranoski's ability to develop pitchers. Morgan has developed into the team's most consistent starter. Devereaux is a journeyman. Grade: A
Traded Tim Leary and Mariano Duncan to Cincinnati for Kal Daniels and Lenny Harris. It was a strong move. Daniels' thorny personality notwithstanding--where do they find these guys?--he's a legitimate No. 3 hitter. Harris may turn into a frontline player. Leary is a journeyman. Duncan got off to a burning start this season but has to prove he can maintain the pace. Grade: A-
Traded Mike Marshall and Alejandro Pena to the New York Mets for Juan Samuel. Claire gave up a lot. Pena is a good setup man with the potential to be a closer, and the Dodgers could use him now. Marshall can still be a big hitter, though he is off to another slow start. The Dodgers have already decided that Samuel wasn't the answer to their post-Willie Davis center field problem and hope he is the answer to their post-Sax second base problem. Grade: C-
Signed Hubie Brooks as a free agent. He is a professional hitter, but they had to pay a lot for 70 RBIs or so. Grade: C+
Traded Willie Randolph to Oakland for Stan Javier. In a desperation move, the Dodgers hoped that Gibson could return to center field and stay sound--he couldn't--and Samuel could make them forget about Randolph at second base--he didn't. Hot or not, Javier lacks power and isn't a great base stealer, so we're talking utility player. Teammates missed Randolph and decried the trade. Aside from unloading a big salary, how can you argue? Grade: D
Claire's overall grade is a B.