The reason I started the Quaz last year was, simply, to be able to interview people like Fred Claire.
Now, let it be said, I’ve interviewed Major League officials, oh, hundreds upon hundreds of times. About free agents, about trades, about an underperforming ballclub in the midst of a July swoon. Yet thanks to this medium, I really get to dig in; to escape the expected and the cliche and learn how a fascinating human genuinely thinks.
That, again, is why the Quaz exists.
As most of you probably know, Claire is the former general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers; a person who took over running the team when Al Campanis made his infamous comments about the managerial capacities of blacks on national TV. Claire built the 1988 world champions piece by piece, then—when Fox bought the ballclub—was introduced to life in living hell. He may well be the only GM in history to have his star player (Mike Piazza) traded behind his back.
Here, Fred explains how a newspaper guy became the GM of one of baseball’s marquee franchises; how it felt to step in for Campanis and what it takes to build a champion. Fred loves Tommy Lasorda (he explains why), Mike Sharperson, Eric Dickerson and the idea of an *Nsync reunion tour.
Fred Claire, you’ve been called up to the Quaz. Get loose …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Fred, you are my absolute favorite genre of people, because you’re living proof that we journalists are smart and capable—dammit! To explain: You were a Dodgers beat writer in the early 1970s when you expressed an interest in working for the team. You eventually rose from VP of Public Relations to, ultimately, General Manager. Fred, this is admittedly self-indulgent, but did your background give you a greater appreciation and understanding of the media? Did it cause you to not be one of those executives who thinks, “What the hell do you know?” when a reported asks a particularly irksome question?
FRED CLAIRE: I believe I did have a good understanding of the role of the media as far as covering a Major League baseball team and I’m sure part of this understanding came from my background as a sports writer, sports editor and beat reporter. That being said, I covered Major League teams (the Angels and then the Dodgers) on a daily basis for a relatively short time—from May of 1968 to July of 1969 when I joined the Dodgers as publicity director.
I was a journalism major in college and enjoyed my time working for newspapers from 1957 through July of 1969. I particularly enjoyed the role of being the sports editor of the Pomona newspaper because I had the responsibility at a rather young age of running the department as well as writing a column and covering both local and national events.
During this time I developed relationships and friendships with other members of the media and I was proud of my profession and respected my fellow writers even though I always looked upon this as a competitive field (and part of the appeal). I approached my job in what I felt was a professional and dedicated way and I didn’t think that made me different but simply a part of the media. I think the respect I had for others in the media field as a writer is what helped with my understanding of the media’s role when I joined the Dodgers.
I knew the media had a job to do and when I became the publicity director of the Dodgers I wanted to see the team get all of the coverage and attention it could. I knew all of the attention wouldn’t be positive but I saw this as part of the landscape. I didn’t feel the media owed the team positive stories. The only thing I hoped for was objective coverage and felt the media was entitled to whatever views it developed. Lastly, I dealt with the media for all of my 30 years with the Dodgers and I don’t ever recall telling a writer or sports announcer that I felt they were unfair in their coverage. That last statement may seem strange to some in that I certainly took my share of criticism during my time as the general manager of the Dodgers.
J.P.: From a purely personnel/career basis, nobody benefited more from Al Campanis’ infamous “necessities” Nightline appearance than you did. Pre-April 6, 1987, he’s the GM and you’re not. Days later, you take over. I’m beyond fascinated by this—do you recall, literally, watching the show when Al made his statements? How did you feel? What did you think? And when did you realize, “Crap, this is a helluva lot bigger than a bad TV moment”?
F.C.: I didn’t watch the “Nightline” program when Al made his “necessities” comment because none of us in the Dodger organization knew Al was going to be on the show. The show tied in to the 40thanniversary of Jackie Robinson becoming the first African-American to play in the majors. Al didn’t tell anyone in the organization that he was going to be a part of the show.
I covered this subject in detail in my book, Fred Claire: My 30 years in Dodger Blue, because I thought it was important to know the background on Al’s appearance on the show and his statements. Bottom line, Al attempted to defend his beloved game of baseball in an area where there was no defense for a lack of progress when it came to minorities advancing to top level positions.
My first knowledge of Al’s statements on the show came the following morning when I picked up the Los Angeles Times and saw the story. I can still recall the placement of the story on the front page of the sports section, running down the right hand column. My first thought was a sense of shock and sadness. I felt bad for Al and I recognized that this was a story that was only going to grow in controversy and public reaction.
Al’s appearance had come after the Dodgers’ opening game of the 1987 season at the Houston Astrodome. Dodger owner Peter O’Malley was in Houston for the series. Two days later Peter called me before boarding a flight with Al to return to Los Angeles. “Fred, “ he said, “you have to take this job. I have asked Al to resign and I need you to take this job.” Another call came in almost immediately. It was Al. “I wish you could have been with me the other night before I went on the show,” Al said.
I told Al that I only wished that I knew he was going to be on the show because I would have helped him with guidance in any way that I could. Al’s life and my life had changed but our friendship continued.
J.P.: The Dodgers stunk in 1987, and then you made some absolutely dazzling acquisitions—Alfredo Griffin to play short, Jay Howell and Jesse Orosco for the bullpen and, of course, Kirk Gibson. In the media (and among many players) Gibson always had a sorta gruff, irksome, irritable reputation. What made you decide to sign him? What was it about him you liked? And, when he came up to hit against Dennis Eckersley, dragging a leg, were you at all thinking, “Uh, this doesn’t end well for us?”
F.C.: We not only finished 16 games under .500 (73-89) in 1987; we had the same mark in 1986. I was new in my role as general manager but certainly not new to the game as I had spent nearly 20 years working and learning alongside Walter and Peter O’Malley; Al Campanis; Bill Schweppe; Walt Alston; Tommy Lasorda and some of the finest coaches, scouts and player development people in the history of the Dodgers.
I had made a couple of moves in my first weeks as the Dodger GM in 1987, signing Mickey Hatcher and trading for John Shelby; and I traded for Tim Belcher at the trading deadline but I knew there was much more to be done. I went to the winter meetings knowing we had three key positions we needed to fill—a dependable shortstop; a closer for our bullpen; and a left-handed relief specialist.
We were able to fill all three positions in a three-way deal as we obtained shortstop Alfredo Griffin and closer Jay Howell from Oakland; and lefty Jesse Orosco from the New York Mets. I had several meetings during the Winter Meetings with Detroit GM Bill Lajoie in hopes of working out a trade for Kirk Gibson. I felt Kirk could give us both power and speed and I knew he had the ability to be a leader.
One of the great scouts of Dodger history—the late Dale McReynolds—had followed Kirk since college days and every time I spoke to Dale I became more determined to add Gibson to the Dodger team. Dale liked everything about Kirk, especially his make-up.
I offered Pedro Guerrero in exchange for Gibson even though both Lajoie and I knew that there was the potential for Gibson to be declared a free agent in view of the Player Association’s collusion suit against the owners. As it turned out, Lajoie didn’t want to make a deal in view of the confusion caused by the collusion suit and Gibson was a declared a free agent in January.
As soon as Gibson became a free agent I went full speed to sign him. I spent so much time talking to Kirk’s agent, Doug Baldwin, that we became good friends and are friends today. As for Kirk, he delivered everything we could have possibly expected and from spring training through his one famous at-bat in the World Series he earned his place in Dodger history.
J.P.: I’m gonna ask an awkward question, and you probably won’t like it. To be blunt, I’ve never heard many good things about Tommy Lasorda. Huge ego, treats people like crap, phony. I’ve watched him many times, and, well, my observations sorta went along with that. Just struck me as a phony bully in love with his own celebrity. Please tell me why I’m wrong. Or, perhaps, right.
F.C.: Jeff, this sounds more like a statement than a question and I will tell you that you are wrong in your summary of Tommy. I’ve known Tommy for 40-plus years and I consider him a friend. That being said, our relationship hasn’t been close since my Dodger days. I’ve reached out to Tommy a few times but he clearly isn’t happy with me and I accept that for whatever his reasons may be.
Tommy and I were very close during my early years with the Dodgers and it was at this time that I saw the man who treated people with respect and who truly loved his family, friends and the Dodger organization. There was nothing “phony” about any of that.
Does Tommy have an ego, sure. Tell me someone of that celebrity status who doesn’t have an ego. I choose to think of Tommy for the good times we shared and the good things he has done for the Dodgers; the game of baseball; and his many contributions to good causes.
J.P.: In 1990 you signed Darryl Strawberry to a five-year, $20 million deal (which is sorta funny now, because it’s Daniel Murphy money). I was in New York at the time, and rumors about Straw were pretty strong—late nights, drugs, alcohol. I mean, I’m not saying there were verifiable facts, but buzz … talk. At the time, did you consider Straw to be, at all, a risk? Did you ultimately regret the signing? Or did he do enough—gate-and-buzz-wise—to ultimately justify it?
F.C.: I put too much of an emphasis on the talent of Darryl and not enough on the make-up. His talent was off the charts and when we signed Darryl he was at an age and stage where he could have gone onto one of the great careers in the game.
I should have focused more on what you term the “buzz.” At one time we seemed to think that if we got someone into the Dodger uniform and the organization’s structure we could help change that person. When I write that I’m reminded of an old statement—“If you think it’s easy to change someone, think about how difficult it is to change yourself.” Perhaps I wasn’t as aware of that statement at the time of Darryl’s signing. I don’t like to point to the character of Darryl because I like him a great deal. I consider Darryl to be a good person who was very vulnerable and made many poor choices in life. I thought bringing Darryl back to his hometown of Los Angeles could be a positive for him but I believe there were too many distractions and temptations.
We didn’t sign Darryl for the reasons of drawing more people; other than if he helped us win we knew we would do well at the gate. He did help with sales at the time we announced the signing and if my memory is correct he added excitement and benefit to a new television deal. I don’t look back at the signing with regret but I knew there were risks and I knew there was great upside.
I thought bringing both Darryl and Eric Davis to the Dodgers (two players from South Central Los Angeles) in what should have been the prime part of their careers could produce a great part of Los Angeles baseball history.
It didn’t happen.
J.P.: When FOX purchased the Dodgers in 1998, they famously traded Mike Piazza without your knowledge—in my opinion, one of the great asshole moves in modern baseball history. A. Because you’ve always been a very respected man; B. Because Piazza was en route to becoming an icon. How did you learn of the trade? What was your reaction? And how, do you think, Dodger history changes if Mike Piazza plays his whole career with the team?
F.C.: The trade of Mike Piazza changed the history of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
It changed the history because it was the first time the Dodgers had made a trade without the general manager—the man in charge of baseball operations—being involved in a trade. It was a trade made by a Fox television executive for television reasons. Let that one soak in. The Dodgers make a major trade for reasons other than baseball reasons.
The date was May 15, 1998, when I was in my box at Dodger Stadium watching our game and received a telephone call from then Dodger president Bob Graziano. Bob was calling from the Dominican Republic to tell me, or rather relay the news given to him by the Fox people, that Piazza and Todd Zeile had been traded to Miami as part of a seven-player deal and the deal needed to be announced that night.
I told Bob if that was the case there would be two announcements—I would announce my resignation just after the trade was announced. My message to Bob was clear—“If someone else is making the player personnel decisions you don’t need me.” As it turned out, the trade couldn’t be announced that night in that Gary Sheffield (one of the players Miami wanted to unload due to his salary) had a “no trade” clause that needed to be resolved.
When Sheffield’s contract issue was resolved a couple of days later the trade was announced and I made it clear as to how the trade had come about. That approach apparently didn’t play well with Fox. In many ways, the trade of Mike was more than the loss of a great player. It resulted in the loss of a culture that had served the Dodgers well for so many decades.
Later in the season, three long-time Dodger coaches were fired after a game at Dodger Stadium. After the season, there was a general manager and a manager from outside the organization. Soon there would be departures in the player development and scouting departments; including such people as later-to-be Major League managers Mike Scioscia and Ron Roenicke.
J.P.: You were part of a group that recently tried buying the Dodgers. I’m curious—why did you want back in? And, even though it didn’t work out, are you satisfied with the team’s direction under the Magic Johnson ownership group?
F.C.: My involvement with a group attempting to buy the Dodgers was an interesting journey. The story of our group didn’t get much attention because (1) we didn’t want public attention and (2) we, of course, weren’t successful. Our group was headed by—now, you won’t believe this—a former Dodger batboy named Ben Hwang.
Ben went from a batboy role with the Dodgers to USC to a doctorate in biology from Johns Hopkins University to a successful business career. When Ben called me in June of 2011 he asked if I was interested in helping him with his interest in putting a group of investors together to buy the Dodgers. I told Ben I was interested in seeing the Dodgers be what they need to be and thus I would help try to restore the Dodgers to a proper level.
I became involved for that reason—to try to be a part of the Dodgers returning to what I see as their proper status and not simply return to Dodger Stadium. I didn’t want back in, as you say, I wanted to see the Dodgers be back to what I feel they need to be in Major League Baseball. I’m satisfied with what I’ve seen from the Magic Johnson ownership group because it has matched its opening words with the appropriate actions.
I want to see the Dodgers be a major factor and I believe they will be. When the new television deal is signed, the Dodgers will have the resources to return to the top. Fox bought the Dodgers for television reasons; McCourt bought the Dodgers because he is smart and it was a tremendous business deal.
Magic and Co. understand the game; the fans; and the wonderful treasure they now hold. If you have that treasure you should never let it go.
J.P.: Does winning live up to the hype? What I mean is, it seems as if sports are all about winning, winning, winning, winning. Then you win, the mound if converged upon, the bubbly is popped, the parade takes place—and, pfft, it’s on to next year. It just strikes me as a painfully fleeting high for such hard work.
F.C.: Jeff, in a way you have just described the beauty of the business. It’s the challenge; the day-to-day grind. The very things Jim Collins wrote about in “Good to Great.”
There’s nothing better than the competition and the working relationships you have within an organization. There’s nothing better than the daily grind. The moment of holding a World Series trophy isn’t supposed to last. You do it just once and the memory and relationships will last a lifetime. There’s absolutely nothing better than to be a part of an organization pulling together to achieve a common goal. And that goal is winning the last game that is played in a season. Anything else is falling short.
Sure, success can quickly be followed by failure. You get knocked down. You get criticized. You simply use it all as fuel because you know that holding that trophy even for seconds makes it all worthwhile.
J.P.: In 1950, when you were 14, your parents moved the family from Jamestown, Ohio to Torrance, California. What happens to Fred Claire’s life if Marston and Mary Francis Claire stay put? Who are you today?
F.C.: I’m Fred Claire. Because that’s who I am. Fred Claire from Jamestown, Ohio. My family left Jamestown, my heart didn’t. I was blessed with wonderful parents and a brother and sister. I had the wonderful experience of growing up in a small town in Ohio where my father owned the corner drugstore.
I had the opportunity to go to Crosley Field in Cincinnati as a youngster because my Dad enabled that to happen. The experience made an impact. I can’t say for sure where I would be without the move to California but I feel I would have had an involvement with sports because that was my love. It may have been as a high school basketball coach in a small town in Ohio. That would have been fine. My dream was to play basketball and baseball for Silvercreek High.
J.P.: What’s been the highest of high moments of your career? The lowest of lows?
F.C.: The highest moment was in winning the 1988 World Series because it helped to bring an organization back to the forefront after a couple of terrible seasons. It was the highlight for me because I was able to thank our Major League staff and our scouting and player development departments for making this possible. When they hang out the World Championship banners at Dodger Stadium, the 1988 title will be represented. That’s good enough for a high point in a career.
The lowest of lows has to be the night I was watching the game at Dodger Stadium and received the call that Mike Piazza had been traded without my knowledge. I went back to my office; sat at my desk; and felt empty.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH FRED CLAIRE:
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: I did a lot of flying during Dodger days but never had a close call and never thought about dying in a crash. I worry more about being a passenger in a car than in a plane.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Eric Dickerson, Golden Girls, cranberry sauce, Malik Yoba, Bill O’Reilly, Eminem, Breakfast at Tiffanys, Mike Smrek, 18 holes of golf on a sunny day, your cell phone: I don’t care to rank anyone as least favorite when there are a couple of people I know little about (although I’m sure Malik and Mike are both good people). It’s not hard to rank the top favorite on this list—18 holes of golf on a sunny day. If you had 18 holes of golf on a rainy day that would rank No. 2.
As far as favorites, I don’t know what I would do without my cell phone. I just know when I leave the house I have to have my cell phone, wallet and car keys and I assume the second and third on this list won’t be needed in the near future.
I don’t know but really like Eric Dickerson and Golden Girls and can’t think of a Thanksgiving dinner without cranberry sauce. As far as O’Reilly and Eminem, I think both are accomplished rappers.
• Along with acquiring Kirk Gibson in 1988, you added Mike Davis. I remember, at the time, thinking, “Mike Davis! Awesome!” How come he didn’t quite work out?: Mike Davis is a great person and we stay in contact to this day. I think one of the reasons things didn’t work out as well for Mike as both he and we anticipated is that he suffered a serious ankle injury in a Spring game in Puerto Rico before the start of the 1988 season. He also didn’t have the opportunity to play on a regular basis. And just maybe Mike Davis did work out as a Dodger. It was his walk that ultimately led to Gibson’s home run. And Mike also hit a home run in the World Series.
• Mike Sharperson, a Dodger outfielder during your reign, died in a car accident in 1996. He was 34. What can you tell me about Mike?: I can tell you that Mike was one of the nicest people ever to put on a Dodger uniform. I traded for Mike in my first year as GM in 1987 and based the deal on the reports from our scout who had the Toronto Blue Jays organization. The scout, as I recall, rated Mike as one of the top prospects in the Blue Jay system.
Mike was a good Major League player but not really someone who was going to be a consistent regular, even though he made the National League All-Star team in 1992. When I think about Mike there are a couple of thoughts that come to mind—one happy and one very sad. The happy moment is when I see Mike running to home plate to greet Gibson after Kirk’s historic home run in the 1988 World Series.
The sad part is recalling the news that Mike was killed in a car accident in 1996 as he was driving from Las Vegas to San Diego to join the Padres’ after being recalled from the minors. The accident made me think of a story that Terry Collins told me when he was managing our Albuquerque team and Sharpie was on the team. Terry said he was in the middle of one of his famed pep talks when he looked at Sharperson and saw his with his head down and looking rather depressed. “Mike, what’s wrong,” demanded Terry. “I don’t like being in the minors,” said Mike. “Then work hard and get back to the Majors,” offered Terry.
I can’t help but think about how happy Mike must have been when he was headed from Las Vegas back to the Padres and Major League Baseball.
• Should suspected PED usage impact a player’s Hall of Fame status?: A timely question and no easy answer. My solution: Judge players on their records, just as other players have been judged. For those who have been known to be PED users, make that point on the plaque at Cooperston.
• The world needs to know: What was it like working with Rafael Bournigal?: You are going to get the feeling that every player you ask about during my time with the Dodgers was a great guy (see Sharperson and Davis) but it was not only great working with Rafael Bournigal but we have stayed in close contact through the years. If you ask anyone who ever played with Bournigal, you will find that he was one of the smartest players and best teammates they have ever known.
Raffy spent eight years in the Major Leagues and he did this because of his intelligence and his ability to contribute to a team. When Raffy left the game as a player he reached out to me because of his interest in staying in the game. He was in a very strong executive position with the New York Mets when he decided to leave baseball and enter the business world. There is no doubt in my mind but that if Bourngial had stayed in the game he would be a general manager today. At least, he would have been deserving of such a position.
• I’m not asking for names, dates, specifics. But did you ever know you had a gay member of one of your teams? And do you think, in 2012, an openly gay player could survive and thrive in the league?: I never knew we had a gay member on the Dodgers during my time with the team but the late Glenn Burke and Billy Bean later made their homosexuality known. If a Major League player came out today and said he was gay I believe he would be able to continue with his career. As far as “thrive,” I think that would be a matter of performance on the field.
• I’m thinking the world is ready for Justin Timberlake to get back together with his *Nsync band members and do a big world tour. What are your thoughts?: From what I know, I think Justin and his band would do just fine. I should leave this one to my son Jeff, who does concert production work and currently is on tour with Aerosmith and has been with most of the top performers and groups on the world concert tour.
• Most of my fellow New Yorkers view Los Angeles very negatively—surface, over-crowded, smog. Tell me why they’re wrong: Tell them to check out sunset with a view of the Pacific ocean.
• Five greatest ballplayers of your lifetime: I wouldn’t know where to start and where to stop. I would include Ted Williams because I was a Red Sox fan as a youngster (in addition to pulling for the Reds in the National League) and Stan Musial (because he was my brother Doug’s favorite player). And I definitely would include Jackie Robinson. What the heck, I’ll add Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale because they not only were great pitchers but great people. If there are five who can match this group you’ll have to name them.