Claire Loses Job, Not Dignity

The lush and elegant garden of a fashionable hotel near his Pasadena home provided the appropriate setting for Fred Claire to go out with class.

No anger or bitterness. No criticism of Peter O'Malley or the organization that fired him as executive vice president Sunday night after three decades of loyalty--a tenure marked by the same integrity and dignity Claire displayed at a news conference he arranged Wednesday to discuss his dismissal.

"I cared too much for 30 years to stop caring now," he said of the Dodgers, refraining from any rips or recriminations. In fact, he even apologized to his mother for "dragging the family name through the mud."

This is the way it was as Claire humanized his cold--and corporate?--firing in tandem with manager Bill Russell.

He thanked O'Malley and the Dodgers for 30 years of great memories and friendships, strongly defended his record and said he is not ready to retire.

"You can help me run a classified," the smiling Claire, 62, said to the assembled reporters.

The sort of thing, he said, that might advertise his availability and include "30 years of executive experience."

In the meantime, he has 2 1/2 years left on the three-year, personal-services contract that O'Malley gave all of his top management people before consummation of the club's sale, and Claire said he has even left word for President Bob Graziano and new General Manager Tom Lasorda that they can call on him for any insights or backgrounds whenever necessary--"until, that is, I go to work for another club."

Claire said he was notified by Dodger publicist Derrick Hall in the seventh inning of Sunday's game at Colorado that Graziano and O'Malley wanted to see him at Dodger Stadium when the team returned that night.

It was an unusual request given the day and time, Claire said, and his first thought was that it had to do with Russell's status.

He was still thinking that when Graziano ushered him into O'Malley's office and was informed the organization would be moving forward without him.

"I'm 62," Claire said. "I began working at 15 for the Pasadena Daily Gazette. I had never been fired. I had to hear it for myself.

"I asked, 'Are you saying I've been fired?' And they said, 'Yes.'

"Was I surprised? Yes. Disappointed? Of course. General managers are fired all the time. I recognize ownership's prerogative, know it's part of the job, but I just never thought it would happen to me."

It wasn't until the next day, Claire said, that he called Graziano to ask specifically why he had been fired.

"I was told it was a combination of this year's performance [by the Dodgers] and last year's," said Claire, a shockingly terse conclusion to 30 years but no reason, he would claim Wednesday, to feel he had been betrayed by O'Malley.

Of course, the two days Claire took "to work through my emotions" before talking publicly about it may have factored in, but he said:

"I feel very fortunate to have had a 30-year run and the chance to become a general manager, the job I always wanted and loved. I'll always be grateful for the support Peter [and his sister] Terry gave me and my family.

"I could easily have been fired after the 1992 season and should have been fired. I made a lot of bad decisions that contributed to a very bad year [of 99 losses]."

Claire added, however, he had no reason to apologize for his 10-year record as general manager, and that the Dodgers consistently met a basic objective: providing a competitive team at reasonable prices.

"I don't expect applause, but in 10 years only two teams won more games," he said. "Well, how do you evaluate general managers? Some people say all I did was sign Kirk Gibson. I don't think that's fair. I'm proud of the players I acquired. Proud of the job I did.

"Since 1994, only four teams have won more games than the Dodgers and all had significantly higher payrolls. The strike interrupted the 1994 season, but we won the division in 1995, reached the playoffs as the wild card in '96 and went down to the next-to-last series of the year last year.

"In those four seasons we didn't play one single game at Dodger Stadium in which the pennant wasn't on the line. I don't see any reason to be embarrassed by that."

Nor did Claire see any reason to comment in depth on a reportedly tenuous relationship with Lasorda or reports that Lasorda had been politicking Fox to get Claire's job.

"Did he want my job? I wanted my job," Claire said, adding that any questions about that would have to be directed to Lasorda. He also said he had always consulted the former manager on any player move and valued his opinion.

"I always gave him respect and support and felt that worked both ways," Claire said.

The ownership change and ensuing upheaval have left the Dodgers beset with backdoor intrigue and rumors.

Claire was asked if he thought that Graziano, indeed, had made the decision to fire him or had it come from the wily Fox.

"Who fired me?" he said. "I don't care. The only thing that bothers me is that I'm not going to Dodger Stadium after 30 years. The thing I'll miss most is sitting down to watch the game."

The first real indication that the game had turned for Claire came when Fox executive Chase Carey negotiated the final elements in the seven-player trade that sent Mike Piazza to the Florida Marlins. Claire went through a long chronology of the trade, how he had negotiated the early stages of it with Marlin General Manager Dave Dombrowski but didn't learn that the deal had been expanded and consummated until Graziano, in the Dominican Republic, called him at Dodger Stadium--the first time in Claire's tenure as general manager he had been notified by someone else that the club had made a trade.

The shocked Claire told Graziano there would be two announcements the next day, the first to reveal the trade, and the second to announce his resignation, but then Gary Sheffield's no-trade clause came into play, and Claire decided he couldn't walk away without helping resolve that and wasn't the type to walk away, period. The no-trade clause was resolved, and Claire received assurances from Fox and Graziano that it had been a one-time thing, that he still had authority and responsibility for personnel decisions.

"I never felt my days were numbered," he said Wednesday.

That they turned out to be, Claire added, didn't leave him feeling that he had been a scapegoat. Nor, he said, was he feeling relief to be thinking of golf and trout fishing instead of wondering what would happen next in this season of turmoil and distraction. He had lived the job 24 hours a day, loved it, thrived on it, he said.

And still believed, he went on, that Roger Cedeno can be a big-time big leaguer, that Antonio Osuna can be an effective closer, that he had no choice but to designate for assignment and then trade Hideo Nomo because he didn't want anyone in the clubhouse that didn't want to be a Dodger, that this remains a talented team that just needs time to settle in, and that the ousted Russell will get another managerial chance and succeed.

"He's a strong person, he'll be fine," Claire said.

So will Claire, who began his career writing headlines instead of making them. A former sportswriter never shakes that tag, he said with a laugh, but his true legacy may be best reflected by the myriad messages he has received from other general managers since his firing, congratulating him on a job well done.

Claire looked into a camera in a corner of the garden after the news conference and said he was optimistic of landing an executive position on the personnel side with another team and that the Dodgers will know they have competition.

"That's my boy," said his mother, listening nearby and aware that her son had learned a valuable lesson as Dodger general manager that he won't repeat if general manager of another certain team.

"I won't trade Pedro Martinez," he said.

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