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This Trade Is History: Piazza Goes to Marlins

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a shocking move that slams the door on the O’Malley era of Dodger baseball, the new regime running the franchise completed one of the biggest trades in baseball history Friday night by sending all-star catcher Mike Piazza to the Florida Marlins in a seven-player deal.

Piazza and third baseman Todd Zeile go to Florida for all-stars Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla and Charles Johnson, along with Jim Eisenreich and rookie right-handed pitcher Manuel Barrios.

The salaries of the players involved make it the most expensive trade in baseball history at $109.3 million.

Word of the deal emerged early Friday, but a formal announcement was delayed until after the Dodgers’ 4-2 loss to the Montreal Expos because the teams were waiting for Sheffield, who had a no-trade clause in his Marlins contract, to approve the blockbuster deal.

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Sheffield arrived Friday afternoon in Los Angeles with his agent, Jim Neader, and met with officials from the Fox Group, which owns the Dodgers, for several hours at Dodger Stadium. He waived the no-trade clause late Friday.

News of the deal stunned players and fans. Piazza has been among the most popular players in franchise history and had become a Southland sports icon as well as one of the game’s most marketable players.

“What can you really say about this?” Dodger outfielder Todd Hollandsworth said. “It’s not something that anyone expected, that’s for sure.”

The trade was brokered by team President Bob Graziano, who had been a longtime aide to former Dodger owner Peter O’Malley. Cut out of the transaction, sources said, were veteran Dodger policymakers Fred Claire, Tom Lasorda and O’Malley. Chase Carey, chairman and chief executive of Fox Television, also played an active role in the early stages of the deal and made Graziano his point man to close the transaction.

O’Malley’s sale of the franchise to the Fox Group became official on March 19, and there have been rumblings within the organization for months that Claire’s power had diminished under Graziano, who was given the job that many thought should have gone to Claire.

“Fox certainly wasted no time changing the O’Malley image,” said Baltimore Oriole General Manager Pat Gillick

“The trade came about because of a broader discussion between the people at Fox and the Florida Marlins,” Graziano said. “But specifically, it was based on my recommendation.”

From a salary standpoint, it’s the biggest baseball trade ever. The combination of salaries of the players involved is the highest in baseball history at $109.3 million. The Dodgers assume $83 million in payroll from the Marlins, including the remaining $17.7 million owed to Bonilla, Johnson’s $3.3-million contract and Eisenreich’s $1.4 million.

The departure from Los Angeles of one of the most recognizable names in baseball also caused a scramble among the Dodgers’ broadcast outlets: KTLA (Channel 5) and Fox Sports West 2. Both moved quickly to yank ads featuring Piazza and replace them with new ones.

Because the Marlins are trying to reduce their payroll, Piazza and Zeile are expected to be traded to teams contending for the playoffs before Major League Baseball’s July 31 trading deadline.

“I’m not going to worry about what may happen down the road, because that’s out of my control,” Piazza said. “Your first reaction in something like this is to lash out, because of the way you feel after everything you’ve tried to give of yourself to help an organization be successful.

“But I didn’t think that would be very wise or very mature on my part. The Marlins want me, so I’m just going to feel good about that for now.”

The deal was completed late during Friday’s game when the Dodgers addressed some of Sheffield’s concerns about taxes, since there is no state income tax in Florida. The Dodgers did not pick up Sheffield’s option year in 2004.

Sheffield said late Friday he is happy to be a Dodger.

“It wasn’t a matter of getting away from Florida,” he said. “I just wanted to be in a traditional organization, an organization that made me feel good. The Dodgers overwhelmed me, and that played a big role in me wanting to come here.

“It was a tough situation for me to be deciding the futures of those other guys. I’m just really happy the way this worked out.”

Piazza said Friday he plans to be in the Marlins’ lineup today when they play the Cardinals at St. Louis.

The Dodgers “told me it was pretty much done, so the way I look at it, I’m a member of the Florida Marlins right now,” he said Friday afternoon. “I’m just trying to get ready to be a part of the Marlins, so I really can’t concern myself with all the other stuff.

“The Dodgers have made a business decision, and I accept and understand that; I now just want to concentrate on giving 150% to the Marlins.”

The trade moved to the fast track this week when Carey, chairman and chief executive of Fox Television and Rupert Murdoch’s top deal-maker, had a phone conversation with Marlins president Don Smiley, who is also a prospective buyer for the team. They talked about the fate of SportsChannel Florida, which is controlled by Marlin owner Wayne Huzeinga and is also up for sale. Fox, which owns a majority of the nation’s regional sports networks, is interested in buying SportsChannel.

Carey inquired about the progress of the deal and banged out the outline for its finalized form with Smiley then and there after learning that talks between the teams had bogged down.

But the deal was spurred by Piazza’s refusal to accept the team’s multiyear contract extension offer. Piazza, who is making $8 million this season in the final year of a two-year, $15-million deal, was seeking a seven-year contract extension worth at least $100 million.

He set a Feb. 15 deadline for the Dodgers to agree on a deal or he would file for free agency, he said. His deadline came and went, and his contract negotiations became contentious when Sam Fernandez, team counsel, said it was hard to assess Piazza’s worth, angering the five-time all-star and career .334 hitter.

Despite reports to the contrary, the Dodgers and Piazza weren’t close on a deal. Piazza rejected the team’s final offer of six years at $79 million on April 8. He then instructed his agent, Dan Lozano, to end negotiations with the team.

Left out in the cold were Claire, Lasorda and O’Malley.

Claire, the Dodgers’ longtime executive vice president, has been in charge of player-personnel decisions since 1987. But Claire was told the trade was almost completed Thursday during the game against the Philadelphia Phillies, sources said, and he was instructed by Graziano to inform Piazza and Zeile, which he did after the Dodgers’ 4-0 loss.

And Lasorda, the former Dodger manager and a key figure in the organization’s success through the 1970s and ‘80s, wasn’t consulted about the move. He is a friend of Piazza’s father, Vince, and it was Lasorda who convinced the Dodgers to finally select Piazza in the 62nd round of the 1988 free-agent draft.

Times staff writers Greg Sandoval, Ross Newhan, Bill Shaikin and Sallie Hofmeister contributed to this story.

* FOX TAKES OVER: This isn’t Fred Claire’s deal; it came from new ownership. S1

* IT HAD TO BE DONE: Bill Plaschke says bold move is right one for Dodgers. S1

* RELATED STORIES: S1-6


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