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Column: Almost forgotten, Fred Claire played a crucial role in the Dodgers’ last World Series

Thirty years ago this week, the Dodgers were in chaos.

Their legendary general manager had been forced to resign for making racist statements on national television. Their iconic baseball team was beginning what would be its third losing season in four years.

Thirty years ago this week, a former sportswriter was summoned to save them.

You may barely remember him. His contributions have never been publicly honored. He has never thrown out a first pitch. His face has never been shown on a video board. He was ushered away from Chavez Ravine 20 years ago and has rarely returned since.

But the echoes of Chavez Ravine will always include him, because Dodgers history was forever changed by him. In a dramatic reversal unmatched in franchise lore, the former sportswriter weaved a classic comeback tale that stabilized a franchise, immortalized a manager, and helped turn lost souls into champions.

In two short seasons, he built the only Dodgers World Series championship team in the last 36 years, paved the way for Tommy Lasorda’s election to the Hall of Fame, and helped create the greatest singular baseball moment in Los Angeles Dodgers history.

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His name is Fred Claire, and today, at age 81, as he fights the ravages of jaw and neck cancer from the privacy of his Pasadena home, he is fine with the shadows.

He has all he needs, and he knows right where it is.

“There’s a championship banner down there at Dodger Stadium that says ‘1988’” he says, his eyes welling. “That is enough.”

::

With each passing year, with each ensuing October failure, the legend of the 1988 Dodgers grows deeper into the roots of the Southern California sports landscape.

So, too, should the indelible mark of the man who created them.

Kirk Gibson? Fred Claire signed him. Mickey Hatcher and Rick Dempsey? Claire also signed them.

John Shelby? Claire traded for him. Jay Howell, Alfredo Griffin, Tim Belcher and Jesse Orosco? Claire also traded for them.

Half of the 10 position players who appeared in the clinching 1988 World Series Game 5 triumph over the Oakland Athletics were acquired by Claire, which should make what happened next no surprise.

During the celebration in the Oakland clubhouse, catcher Dempsey still had the ball from Orel Hershiser’s game-ending strikeout in his back pocket. He hugged Claire, pulled out the souvenir, and handed it to him.

“Fred, this belongs to you,” he said.

Nearly two years earlier, in the first week of April 1987, the only thing that belonged to Claire was the pressure of the future of the organization.

Al Campanis, the Dodgers’ longtime baseball boss, had just been forced to resign after telling Ted Koppel on ABC’s “Nightline” that African Americans might lack the “necessities” to be a general manager or field manager.

Claire, who had left the sportswriting business 20 years earlier and eventually became a Dodgers executive vice president, was summoned into the office of owner Peter O’Malley and given a simple command.

“Fred, you need to take this job,” O’Malley told him.

The team was a mess. City leaders were furious. Chavez Ravine was on edge. And now the whole thing was being dumped into the lap of a guy who had once covered the Dodgers and Angels as a baseball beat writer for the Long Beach Press-Telegram?

”I knew some people might say, what does this guy know about baseball, he covered it from behind a typewriter?” O’Malley says today. “But I knew Fred could take it. I knew he could do it. And he did it. He deserves a lot of credit for stepping in quickly, without any advance notice, and doing a great job.”

Claire, who had spent years soaking up the game by essentially serving as Campanis’ assistant, immediately said yes. He had no contract, but he had no fear.

One day later — one day! — Claire dumped popular pitcher Jerry Reuss, ate his million-dollar contract, and signed the out-of-work Hatcher, thus laying down what would be the first piece of the 1988 championship puzzle

”I wanted some fire, and Mickey was guy who could give us that,” Claire recalls. “I don’t know if there were people who doubted me, but I never doubted myself. I knew I had the job for today, and I was going to make the most out of that day.”

Claire spent the next nine months making all sorts of moves like that, grabbing Shelby from the Baltimore Orioles’ minor league systems, picking up Belcher by trading away future Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, and signing Dempsey after being convinced of his passion during an offseason meeting in Claire’s office.

Claire changed the culture not only in the clubhouse, but also the front office, hiring an analytics expert, holding regular conference calls with everyone from minor league batting coaches to scouts, wandering the Dodger Stadium tunnels to talk to players about everything from their families to their fastballs.

“Fred gave us that first edge of being progressive, and aggressive,” says Hershiser, now a broadcaster on Dodgers telecasts.

All of which led to the move Claire knew would add the final piece of ferocity the clubhouse lacked — the free-agent signing of Gibson on Jan. 29, 1988.

“Kirk was a talented and powerful player who approached the game of baseball with a football mentality, and this came through in our scouting reports,” Claire says.

Nine months later, in a fitting footnote to Claire’s legacy, Gibson’s walk-off homer against Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 of the World Series occurred only after Mike Davis had drawn a two-out walk and stolen second. Yes, Claire also signed Davis.

“Fred Claire was amazing,” Hatcher says. “For a guy who was suddenly put into the limelight, he asked all the right questions, listened to everyone, and believed in all of us.’’

The rest of Claire’s career as Dodgers baseball boss was not always so amazing. For those who weren’t around to experience 1988, Claire will be forever known as the guy who in 1993 traded Pedro Martinez. Even though he was acting on scouting and medical advice and a desperate need for a second baseman (Delino DeShields), he offers no excuses.

“The facts have to be the facts, and those facts are, I traded Pedro,” Claire says.

But even those fans enraged by the Martinez deal had to soften when Claire’s Dodgers career ended because he protested the trading of another future Hall of Famer. In May 1998, the team’s new Fox owners dealt Mike Piazza to the Florida Marlins without Claire’s knowledge. Claire publicly announced that he did not make the trade, Fox executives were enraged, and, barely a month later, he was fired. In typical Claire fashion, he walked away with no harsh words, no public regrets.

“Honestly, in my heart and soul, it was a thrill and honor to have the opportunity to walk into Dodger Stadium every day and go to work,” Claire says now. “That is truly enough for me.”

Fred Claire is greeted by wife Sheryl following a news conference where he discussed being fired from the Dodgers.
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

This season the Dodgers have scheduled an old-timers game for June 10. It would be nice if they would invite Claire to throw out the first pitch surrounded by some of his 1988 players. He’s not asking for it, he’s far too modest to even dare mention it, but at this point, history would seem to demand it.

Besides, by then, he plans on having beaten a cancer that has attacked his body twice. It invaded again last month after he’d seemingly knocked it out late last year with chemotherapy and radiation. He is planning on celebrating this second victory at the inaugural Fred Claire Celebrity Golf Classic on Aug. 14 at Oakmont Country Club in Glendale to benefit City of Hope hospital, where he receives treatments with the constant support of Sheryl, his wife of 31 years.

“We’re going to war against this cancer,” he says.

The efforts in that war can be seen in the radiation and chemotherapy medals from City of Hope hanging from his office doorknob at his Pasadena home. Nearby, amid rows of photos and souvenirs, is a strangely empty shelf.

Remember that World Series ball? For several years, it sat on that shelf. But in typical Claire fashion, when he learned the National Baseball Hall of Fame had only two World Series final-out balls, he donated the valuable keepsake to Cooperstown so the entire Dodgers team could be nationally honored.

“I just played one role in all this,” Claire says. “In getting through our difficult times, I always believed in ‘we.’”

That role should never be forgotten. It says so right there on that banner.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Get more of Bill Plaschke’s work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke


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