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Thomas Schieffer brings boyhood devotion to baseball to his job as Dodgers overseer

With a stiff grin, wavy hair and old-fangled steel-rimmed glasses, a brass image of Tom Schieffer greets fans as they stream through the front gate of Rangers Ballpark, the Texas-size cathedral to major league baseball.

The wall plaque proclaims the stadium, built in the mid-1990s with ample taxpayer support, as the "lasting legacy" of the former Texas Rangers president and co-owner. A more modest monument to the solace Schieffer has always found in baseball lies a few miles west.

LaGrave Field on the banks of the Trinity River is where Schieffer's dad took him as a boy to see the hometown Fort Worth Cats, a Brooklyn Dodgers farm club where Dodgers greats Duke Snider, Carl Erskine and Maury Wills once hung their spikes. It's the same field where his older brother, CBS newsman Bob Schieffer, would take young Tom a few years later as respite from the grief over their father's death.

"My brother stepped into the role of father, and one of the things we did was, we went to a lot of baseball games together," Tom Schieffer said. "It was something we shared the love of, and something that meant the world to me."

Schieffer, 63, promises to bring that same boyhood devotion to the game to his care of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig last week appointed Schieffer to oversee the team's business operations as embattled owner Frank McCourt deals with Selig's investigation into the Dodgers' tangled finances.

"You have to protect the institution, and that's the thing you always have to keep in mind," said Schieffer, who has the power to approve all team expenses over $5,000. "The Los Angeles Dodgers are one of the great sports franchises in the world… I think everybody recognizes that the Dodgers need to be a healthy franchise for baseball as a whole to be a healthy sport."

Schieffer's folksy demeanor can be disarming. But make no mistake, his friends and adversaries say, the Dodgers will be getting a tough oil-and-gas lawyer who won't shy from a fight.

A glance at his resume shows why Selig picked him for the job. In addition to his law background, Schieffer combines the wiliness of a country politician — the Democrat won three terms to the Texas statehouse while still in his 20s — with the diplomatic skills honed by eight years as ambassador to Australia and Japan under former President George W. Bush, his onetime Texas Rangers partner.

"It's a big job, and he knows it," said his brother Bob, who is 10 years older. "He's done a little crisis work, though. When you're dealing with the notion that the North Koreans have nuclear weapons, and being asked what are you going to do about it, I don't think he'll have any trouble dealing with the Dodgers."

Schieffer, describing his own management style, offered what could be a subtle warning to McCourt.

"If people think you're being honest with them, they'll cut you a lot of slack. If they think you're going to try to pull one over on them, they don't like that. And guess what, I don't like that either," he said. "I think integrity is the foundation of everything."

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As president of the Texas Rangers through most of the 1990s, Schieffer cut a reputation as a get-it-done executive with meticulous attention to detail. He sat in the stands, just behind home plate, at almost every home game. Fans could often see him walking around the ballpark before the first pitch, looking for burned-out light bulbs and checking to make sure the place was clean.

Former Rangers general manager Tom Grieve said Schieffer kept his hands off the day-to-day decisions on the field — who would play, bat cleanup or be the closer — but was intensely involved in contract decisions and other big-money aspects of the game.

First baseman Rafael Palmeiro learned that firsthand in 1993. Palmeiro, a free agent, was asking for a $40-million, six-year contract. Schieffer offered him $26.5 million over five years.

"Tom said to him, 'You're a good player and there may be a team that will pay you more than that. But we can't and we won't. So if you want to play here for us, this is what we can do,' " Grieve said. "I guess Raffy thought it was part of the negotiation. But it wasn't … the next day we signed Will Clark."

Furious, Palmeiro the next day ripped Schieffer as a "backstabbing liar," saying the move was retribution for winning salary arbitration against the club the year before.

"They never gave me the option of getting back with them," Palmeiro said at the time. "It was unprofessional. But that's the way Schieffer operates … there was no loyalty involved."

Schieffer fired Grieve a year later, but at least he saw it coming. Schieffer told him to expect it if the team didn't start winning.

"This is baseball, after all," said Grieve, whom Schieffer then hired as the club's television analyst. "Tom Schieffer is very honest, straightforward and no-nonsense. You know exactly where you stand and if you don't understand it, it's your fault."

John Thomas Schieffer was born in Fort Worth in 1947, the year the Dodgers' Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier. His father ran a small construction company, and his death left Tom's mother to raise her two youngest children.

He grew up in a small three-bedroom house in a blue-collar neighborhood in River Oaks. Schieffer now lives just a few miles away in a gated community, within a chip shot of Shady Oaks Country Club.

Schieffer's close friends say he inherited the no-nonsense manner of his mother, Gladys, a daughter of the Great Depression who was quick to pore over report cards and grill her children when their grades slipped.

"His mother was a strong force, keeping him on the straight and narrow," said former Texas Judge Frank Sullivan, who has known Schieffer since junior high.

A die-hard Democrat and a member of "Ladies for Lyndon [Johnson]," Schieffer's mother also steeped her youngest son in politics. She took him to hear President Kennedy speak at the Texas Hotel in their hometown on the morning of Nov. 22, 1963. Tom shook the president's hand on his way out — just moments before Kennedy left on his fateful trip to Dallas.

After graduating from the University of Texas and working in the mailroom for Gov. John Connally, Schieffer was elected to the Texas Legislature in 1972 at the age of 25. "I've been around politics all my life, and I love politics," said Schieffer, who first caught the bug when elected class president in junior high. "I thought I wanted to be a politician."

His comeuppance came quickly. Texas Monthly magazine ripped the conservative Democrat as one of the 10 worst legislators: "Arrogant and — what is worse — ambitious."

Schieffer was soundly defeated after three terms, cursed by a redrawn district that favored Republicans. He was devastated. But, he now says, it may have been the best thing that happened to him.

"You just know that sometimes, no matter what you do, things just don't come out right," Schieffer said. "But, as it turned out, my life has come out right so much more often than it's come out wrong."

After earning a law degree, and scratching out a living as a young lawyer, Schieffer eventually became an expert in the Texas commodities that have enriched him and so many others: oil and gas.

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When his golfing buddy Roger Williams, a Fort Worth car dealer, put together a group of investors to buy the Texas Rangers in 1988, Schieffer called and said he wanted in. But it turned out that a rival group from Dallas led by Bush — whose father was president at the time — had the edge with Major League Baseball and got the team.

A mutual friend suggested to Bush that he bring Schieffer aboard. Schieffer called himself the "token Democrat" in the ownership group, but his invitation may have been influenced more by proximity.

"One of the problems they had was that none of the Bush folks were from Dallas," Bob Schieffer said. "And one thing you've got to know, people from Dallas don't go to Fort Worth and people from Fort Worth don't go to Dallas."

The Rangers played in Arlington, conveniently located between the two cities.

Bush, a managing partner, became fast friends with Schieffer as they sat, like wide-eyed schoolboys, behind home plate chatting with the likes of Nolan Ryan and Juan Gonzalez.

A year after taking over the team, Bush asked Schieffer to head up plans for a new ballpark. Schieffer balked at the idea.

"When I told my wife, she said, 'Well, you might only get to build one ballpark in your life. Maybe you ought to think about being able to do that,'" Schieffer said. "She was right. I called them back the next morning."

Within three months, Schieffer cut a deal with then-Arlington Mayor Richard Greene and the City Council to build a $165-million stadium. A few months later, Arlington voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for $135 million in publically financed stadium bonds.

"It wasn't an easy sell," Greene said.

But the success and popularity of Rangers Ballpark, he said, paved the way for the gargantuan new Cowboys Stadium, built nearby at a cost of $1.2 billion — including $325 million in local taxpayer money. In the past year, the two stadiums have played host to both the World Series and the Super Bowl.

Arlington tax attorney James Runzheimer, who led an opposition campaign to public financing of the baseball park, said Schieffer took advantage of Arlington's fears that the Rangers might flee to Dallas. In the end, he said, Bush, Schieffer and their partners cashed in when they sold the team in 1998 — leaving taxpayers with the tab.

What's more, Runzheimer said, Schieffer negotiated a sweetheart deal for the team when the city's stadium authority was sued over condemning land for the ballpark. According to the contract, the Rangers were obligated to pay the judgment, Runzheimer said, but swung a deal with the city to pay back the $22.2 million over 26 years.

"It was corporate welfare at its worst," Runzheimer said. "As far as Tom Schieffer, he's a man without principles. He made a lot money off of it, obviously. He's a masterful politician who knows how to play this game with consummate skill."

Schieffer dismisses the criticism, pointing out that the bond measure won with 65% of the vote and the stadium has since become a prized asset.

"Not many people will tell you I have a thick skin. I generally don't," Schieffer said. "But you have to accept that not everybody is going to agree with you on the same day."

phil.willon@latimes.com

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