Molly Knight

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I’m a fan of authors.

This is nothing new, and actually has little to do with my career as, eh, an author. Truth is, dating back to my childhood I’ve always been fascinated by books, and the process, and taking enormous loads of information and piecing it all together into 300-or-so pages. It struck me as really hard yet really rewarding; nightmarish but euphoric. I’ve often equated the process to receiving a really awesome back scratch from someone with sharp fingernails. It’s painful as hell, but the sensations leave you soaring.

Hence, today’s Quaz.

Molly Knight is a writer. A prolific and explosive one. Her work for ESPN on the whole Frank McCourt-Dodgers-divorce-weirdness thing routinely soared from the page/screen, and also led her to writing The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse. Her debut book hit the market last week, and it’s a detailed, riveting inside look at baseball’s most fascinating franchise.

Molly lives in LA, and you can follow her on Twitter here and Instagram here. She loves her dog, but has little interest in Arthur Fonzarelli.

Molly Knight, welcome to the sports author’s club. You’re Quaz No. 216 …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So Molly, I’m gonna be sorta lame and start with this: Why a book about the modern-day Dodgers? I guess what I mean is, they haven’t won anything, they’re somewhat disappointing, some of their best players don’t seem overly demonstrative (of course, others do). So … why? When did you come up with the idea? What was the thinking behind it?

MOLLY KNIGHT: I grew up a Dodger fan in Los Angeles and was living in New York when the McCourts (the Dodgers former owners) began their divorce. I had been working for ESPN for a few years and I told my editors that because the McCourts were insane, the situation had the chance to go nuclear and become front page news. My bosses knew I had grown up a Dodger fan and was always pitching Dodger stories about Matt Kemp, so at first they kind of waved their hand at me like, “Yeah, yeah, another Dodger pitch from Molly.” But as soon as word leaked that the McCourts had hired a Russian physicist to think blue, I convinced my bosses to let me write 800 words on it. And then as it kept spiraling out of control and it became clear how much they had looted the Dodgers piggy bank for their own personal use while they cut spending on player salary, it became like this War of The Roses story and took on this whole other life. and my word allotment for the ESPN The Magazine story got longer and longer. I think it finally ran at like 6,000 words or something—my longest story ever at that point. I was 26 or 27, and just thrilled to have a piece that long run in a national magazine. Then ESPN sent me out to LA to cover the trial for the website. Everyone thought the McCourts would settle their divorce and not actually go to trial, though.

I remember flying out and thinking that I would have to turn around and fly right back. But they hated each other at that point too much to be rational. So the trial started and I was off and running. It was totally exhilarating to file stories every day—sometimes two or three a day—because I was used to spending weeks or months on longer form magazine stories. I think I must have written 100 stories on those two people and done twice as many radio hits. Then when it became clear that McCourt was going to be forced to sell the team, I basically moved in with my sister in West Hollywood and continued reporting. I got tired of paying New York rent when I wasn’t there—and I needed a change of scenery for a variety of personal reasons. So in March, 2011 I basically sent for my stuff and continued covering all the craziness around McCourt. Then when he sold the team for $2 billion to this really interesting guy from Chicago, I became even more intrigued. But it wasn’t until the Dodgers signed Zack Greinke, honestly, that I thought about writing a book. And it was because a few Dodger players who knew me texted and said “Shit. We were bankrupt and now we have Greinke and Kershaw and we’re going to win a title. You should write a book.” That’s what happened.

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J.P.: The book opens with you in Clayton Kershaw’s home, and a very cool scene of him getting a huge contract. I kinda feel like access like that is rare nowadays; like very few reporters are being invited into the homes of stars. So how did that happen? How did you build that sort of trust with Clayton? And what’s he like as a guy to cover?

M.K.: Clayton is a wonderful person—the kind of man you would want your sister or your daughter to marry. Actually, a player joked with me the other day that he would let Clayton marry his wife. But he is also very guarded and closed off … especially to the media. It helped a little that I was around since when he got called up, so I was a familiar face. But honestly it took years to build his trust, and even then, I think he only really started to trust me after he saw guys he looked up to—guys like Nick Punto and Skip Schumaker and A.J. Ellis and Michael Young—were always chatting with me. Then I think he realized he could tell me things off the record that I would not report. He and I are very similar in a lot of ways—except for the whole best pitcher in the world thing—and I’m wondering if the reader picks up on that. We both had similar upbringings, and we both have dealt with anxiety and control issues. I know how he is wired because I am wired similarly, and sometimes it’s stressful for me to watch him pitch because I know how hard he is on himself.

When you’re writing a book about real people and thinking about them all day long it’s easy to develop emotional attachments to those you feel are kind and fundamentally enhance our planet. I almost threw up last year during Game 1 in the NLDS when he imploded. Partly because I wanted my book to have a championship ending, but also because I wanted so badly for him to put the previous year’s playoff debacle behind him. I felt awful for him; it was like watching someone else’s nightmare unfold in real time.

My being at his house when he signed his contract extension was one of the luckier things that has happened to me in this life, and a total fluke that I explain in the book. We just happened to have our interview set up for that day, and because he’s such a stand-up person he didn’t blow me off even though, literally, his agent called with the news roughly three minutes after I walked in the door. I guess I would call him a friend, in that I have grown to care about him as a person, but I don’t, like, go out for beers with him like I do with some of the other guys. He’s a new dad. I text him or e-mail him when I have a question about something I’m writing, and he is always gracious and tries to help. But it took a long time to build that relationship. He is a fantastic human and I’m honored to know him.

J.P.: Molly, I’m very big into career paths, but for the love of God I can’t really grasp yours. I see this (Molly Knight has written about baseball for ESPN The Magazine for the past eight seasons. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Glamour, and Variety. She lives in Los Angeles) everywhere, but I wanna know how this happened for you. Where are you from? When did you get the writing bug? Why baseball?

M.K.: I grew up in the suburbs of LA and went to college in the Bay area. I thought I wanted to be a doctor, so I earned a degree in biology, then changed my mind and moved to New York to write with no experience whatsoever, $300, and license from the National Bartenders School in Redwood City. To support myself while I sorted it out, I poured drinks and waited tables all over lower Manhattan for years while I wrote for free, sent clips everywhere, took any internship I could, before finally getting a shot to freelance at ESPN. I was very broke for a long time. I remember a month when I was 23 where I had no money in my checking account and my credit card was at its $2,000 limit and I could not really afford food so I just went to like, every PR-sponsored event there was just to eat. I’d get a press release for some violent video game that looked absolutely awful but I would go to the damn party because there would be food and beer. But I was 23 and having the time of my life so I didn’t care. I was fortunate enough to stop freelancing for places that never paid or paid five months after the fact, when ESPN started giving me more and more work. I supplemented that income with with bartending and waitressing, until they put me on contract in 2008. While I didn’t grow up dreaming of working for ESPN it turned out to be a dream job. I have always loved sports, and from the time I was 6 or 7 I would rattle off baseball players’ stats to anyone who would listen. I had a blast for the seven or so years I worked for them.

J.P.: You were with the Dodgers for the rise of Yasiel Puig. I was a Met fan when Dwight Gooden first came up, and it was just electric. And I always felt people outside of New York didn’t quite get the magnitude. Maybe it’s that way with Puig. So can you explain, as fully as possible, what it was like to behold his rise?

M.K.: It was, in a word, insane. He basically had the best rookie month of anyone since Joe DiMaggio, which was made even crazier by the fact that he had never heard of Joe DiMaggio. This is a guy who stood in front of a water cooler in spring training in total awe that Gatorade could be blue. He had only ever seen it in yellow. His month would have been bananas by any standard, but he was joining a team that was a) in last place and b) had just sold for $2 billion a year earlier and was supposed to be on the fast track to the World Series. The Dodgers not only had a bad record when he was called up, they were so wrecked by injuries that they were unwatchable. Five of the eight guys who started alongside Puig for his first game are no longer in the Majors. Don Mattingly was about to get fired. It was awful.

And then this kid comes up to the Big Leagues and not only does he hit the snot out of the ball but he plays the game like he’s got bumble bees in his pants. Baseball can be dull, but not with him. He made even routine plays seem exciting. And of course he came with a swagger that pissed everyone off because rookies are not supposed to have personalities. It took him a week to get hit in the face and incite a riot with the Diamondbacks.

The Dodgers went from being unwatchable to the most talked about team in baseball because of Puig. And the new owners whi were so desperate for stars to light up their new television network had a superstar. So they set about building their marketing campaign around a volatile kid who grew up in a country isolated from the rest of the world who overnight became a multimillionaire A-list athlete in Los Angeles who was worshiped and had access to everything. In a way it felt like what happens to Hollywood child stars. Too much, too soon. He wasn’t given rules or boundaries because he saved everyone’s job. And now no one can get him to listen to anything they say because they were bad parents in the beginning.

Molly Knight as a first grader

Molly Knight as a first grader

J.P.: I saw in one bio where you’re identified as a “lifelong Dodgers fan.” Do you still consider yourself a Dodgers fan? And do you feel like it’s OK for sports journalists to having rooting interests? Or a conflict? Or neither/both/all of the above?

M.K.: I grew up a diehard fan, and I don’t think I could have written this book without that context. Like if I went to go write a Yankee book I could read about their history but I wouldn’t have lived it. That being said, it’s not a if I can’t be critical of the team. When Frank McCourt ran the Dodgers into the ground and took the team into bankruptcy it felt like he was spitting on the graves of my ancestors.  He had to go, and as it became clear just how recklessly he was looting the franchise it only motivated me to report harder. It actually felt like important work; a group of us journalists covering him published the truth about his business dealings and kept hammering away until he was forced to sell.

I go back and forth. I want them to win but I don’t cheer in the press box. Sometimes, when they’re acting like jerks, I take a break from watching. That being said I’m a fifth generation Angeleno. I would like for my grandmother and my great aunts to see the Dodgers win another title in my lifetime, absolutely. I want some of the players I grew to really care about to win rings. They’re just human.

J.P.: I started covering baseball in the mid-1990s, when women were finally welcomed into the clubhouse, but there were still some dinosaur players who behaved like pigs. I’m wondering what it’s like now, in 2015, for you. Any incidents? Awkwardness? Or are all good?

M.K.: When I started out in locker rooms eight years ago it was very different than it is now. Some players were 10 to 15 years older than me, and it just seemed like there were a lot more red-asses, and guys who would try to embarrass me or put me in my place. When I started out I was just doing some menial, front-of-the-book stuff stuff for ESPN The Magazine, like getting answers for holiday gift guides or asking, “What’s in your wallet?” Most guys were and are respectful, but I would get the guys who would list their favorite sex toys when I asked what was on their holiday shopping list. And I’d write down the names of products I’d never heard of and they would all laugh.

The first baseball player I ever interviewed in a locker room was actually the worst. He wouldn’t even answer any of my questions; he just wanted to know what hotel I was staying in that night. I was worried that they were all going to be like that, but I just happened to run into the worst one.

But now it’s pretty much awesome. My first year in the locker room was the first year of a huge crop of Dodger rookies—Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, James Loney, Russell Martin. And while I’m not friends with all of those guys—and we haven’t always gotten along—none of them have ever been disrespectful, or dismissed me for being a woman, ever. So that was huge.

I don’t date professional athletes. I’m typically attracted to nerdy intellectuals, artists, writers, etc. From my perspective, if you are a female sports reporter who is serious about her career and reputation then you better be damn sure you are going to marry or enter into longterm domestic partnership with an athlete you date, because if you sleep with a guy on a team, literally everyone in the league will know about it within a week. I have seen it happen. Doesn’t matter if it’s the 25th guy on the worst team in the league. Everyone—from players to coaches to clubbies—will know. Baseball players are so bored and they have nothing but time on their hands to gossip about anything and everyone they can.

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J.P.: I’ve written a bunch of books, but never one where I’ve embedded myself with a team. So, soup to nuts, what was your process? Like, how’d you handle notes? Interviews? Did you write as you went along or at the end? Did you find it awful, wonderful?

M.K.: Oh gosh. Well, it was awful and wonderful and terrifying and exciting and nerve-wracking all at once. I went to most games, so I took notes in my notebook every day. And then whenever I would freak out that my book was going to suck I would literally write down a list of all the things that I had learned so far that were funny/interesting/sad/ridiculous to reassure myself that even if my writing was awful that i had stuff that Dodger fans would find interesting. I taped a most of my interviews on an app on my iPhone, and there was a hellish moment during one of those iPhone updates where my phone restored itself to factory settings and I thought I had lost everything and I like, crawled to the Apple store and was sitting on the floor in there with no appointment waiting for someone to help me. I don’t really remember much about it except that I was very calm and sort of out-of-body and I explained to the boy genius helping me that if he couldn’t bring my phone back to life it was not his fault but my life would basically be over. The poor guy looked like he also wanted to throw up. But he fixed it and saved the day! After that I bought a back-up drive, and every single day I would save my work to my back-up drive and also e-mail whatever I had just written to myself to be safe.

I’d never written a book before, so I just started with 500 words a day. Then I bumped up to 1,000. The editing process was insane, because I only had eleven months to write and edit the thing. Originally the book was going to come out on Opening Day 2015 but then after the 2014 season ended the Dodgers fired their general manager and traded and ditched a bunch of my main characters. So I had to keep writing. Ultimately I decided to end the book on Opening Day with Matt Kemp facing Clayton Kershaw as a member of the Padres because it felt like everything had come full circle. Also, I was always so struck by how much Kemp and Kershaw had in common—as far as background—but they couldn’t be more different had no real relationship in all the years they were teammates. I had no idea how I would end this book but then when that happened it was like, that’s it. We sort of end on a new beginning. And it’s strange and sad and unknown but also hopeful, I think.

Um ... with Harry Styles

Um … with Harry Styles

J.P.: I’m fascinated by the little things with the book process. You named your book, “The Best Team Money Can Buy”—which is also the title of a 1978 bio of the New York Yankees. There also, “The Worst Team Money Can Buy,” about the mid-90s Mets. I’m not criticizing you. Hell, my Showtime Laker book is called, eh, “Showtime.” But how did you decide on the title? Do you have any say? Do you like it?

M.K.: That’s a great question. When I pitched this book, the working title was “The Best Team Money Could Buy,” with the idea that it was a placeholder until I would come up with something better. But the problem with coming up with the title of a baseball book is everything is so overdone and cliched. Try it. Anything dramatic with the word “Field” or “Game” or “Ball” is done in headlines every day. As time went on, I never did figure out anything better—and I actually started to like the title because it’s hopeful and also sort of smart-ass’y, which is maybe how I would describe myself. The real bitch was the subtitle, let me tell you. I think naming my children will be easier. I wanted a verb that described up-and-down seasons, but I did not want to use the word “rollercoaster” because it’s cliche. It had like eight different subtitles. For a while it was “the strange saga of the LA Dodgers” which I hated because it was vague and also sounded too negative—which I don’t think the book is, even though there are parts that are dramatic. My editor and I debated verbs for months, before deciding on “wild” at the last minute. I like that word and use it a lot in my everyday life, and it was important for the title to use language I use. “Struggle” balanced it out. I have a lot of friends in the Bay Area who thought that my title was literal, and were like “Well why are you calling the Dodgers the best team? Didn’t the Giants just win?” So “Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse” helps them realize it’s sort of tongue-in-cheek.

J.P.: What’s the greatest moment of your career? Lowest?

M.K.: Greatest: the day I got my finished book in the mail. Lowest: working for a men’s magazine and having to cull through the photos women would send in of themselves in various states of undress hoping to be selected for a “hot date” front of the book section. I was to call these women, many of them who were clearly damaged, and ask them to tell me things like, say, their wildest sex stories. I would literally go into a storage closet where there was a phone and act like I was calling them but put my hand on the dial tone lever. I was not good at that job and I did not last long. But being good at that job would have made me a person with no conscience so it evens out.

Authorship means perks like meeting Freddie Prinze, Jr.

Authorship means perks like meeting Freddie Prinze, Jr.

J.P.: We both wrote books involving Magic Johnson. Big difference—he never talked to me for mine. What’s your take on Magic Johnson, baseball team owner? Because I don’t 100 percent buy it. I think he’s smart, charismatic, popular. But do I believe he has much say in running the franchise? No. Am I off?

M.K.: He is smart and charismatic but he knows nothing about baseball. The good thing about Magic, though, is he seems smart enough to know there’s a lot he doesn’t know. He leaves the baseball stuff to the baseball people. He’s not one of those guys who will weigh in on everything regardless of his grasp on the subject, which I really respect. I didn’t get a sit-down interview with him for my book, but I also didn’t ask for one because he really isn’t that involved in the day-to-day running of the franchise. That being said he’s a freakishly competitive person who really wants to win everything he puts his name on. Some people don’t think he has much skin in the game here, but he put in, like $50 million of his own money into the team. By comparison, I think I read that Jay-Z only put $1 million into the Brooklyn Nets. So, yes, he wants the Dodgers to do well.

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• Rank in order (favorite to least): Roxette, Justin Wayne, Mark Ellis, Babyface, Einstein Bros Bagels, Josh Beckett, Los Angeles Times, Roger Angell, Marla Maples, Halle Berry, The Fonz, “Say Anything”: This is really hard–but here goes: Mark Ellis, Los Angeles Times, Roger Angell, Roxette, Halle Berry, Babyface, Einstein Bros Bagels, Josh Beckett, Say Anything— not my jam, The Fonz—Travolta was the hotter version of this in Grease, I don’t know who Marla Maples or Justin Wayne are.

• What’s the worst sentence you’ve ever written?: Oh, God. So many. Um. My editor would probably say the sentence I wrote where I compared Puig to a peacock and said that the dandruff from his feathers seemed to be rubbing off on the rest of the team. My editor is a very understated, even-keeled guy but I think he actually shrieked when he read it and he definitely crossed it out with exclamation points. It did not make the book. We never spoke of it again.

• We both live in California. I’m despondent about the drought. What the hell are we gonna do?: I don’t know. I see all these jerks in my neighborhood who run their sprinklers all day and I want to scream. The grass in front of our apartment building is dead and it looks so sad and depressing and I was going to bitch to my landlord about it because it’s the only dead grass on our block but given the drought we’re in I’m sort of going to treat it as a badge of honor. But more practically? The only way we are going to get people to start making better decisions to help save our planet is to hit them in their wallets. It would be great if those parking enforcement people who patrol the streets of West Hollywood every day also ticketed people who let their sprinklers run in to the gutter. We need to fine households that use the most water. We should also say that like, cities that start with the letters A-L can only water on Monday/Wednesday/Friday and M-Z can only water on Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday. No one can water Sunday (or whatever day makes sense). And then we ticket the hell out of everyone who breaks these rules.

• How’d you land the name Molly?: I think my parents just liked it. But they thought I was a boy until I was born and were going to name me Michael.

• Three memories from your senior prom?: 1. We had our senior prom at the Disneyland hotel and 50 of us stayed in this suite that was the entire top floor of the hotel. It had a sauna and a gazebo and was so fun and we had a blast. My date was fantastic and there was no drama whatsoever; 2. Being on prom court with a bunch of other dorks, and being really glad my friend Kristi won prom queen because doing one of those wedding spotlight dances would have caused me to have a panic attack. I was not exactly the most confident teenager; 3. Not getting in trouble. After my junior prom I did not come home until 11 am the next day and got grounded for, like, six months. But it was totally not my fault.

• Five reasons one should attend Stanford over Harvard: 1. Weather; 2. Weather; 3. Weather; 4. Football; 5. Weather

• Would you rather drink a cup of Don Mattingly’s nasal hairs every week for a year or spend the next decade working as Kate Gosselin’s personal assistant?: Mattingly’s nasal hair.

• Five greatest sports journalists of your lifetime?: Could never pick five.

• Five nicest athletes you’ve covered? One biggest jerk?: I’m gonna go non-Dodger here. Nicest: Andre Iguodala, Derek Fisher, Raul Ibanez, Michael Cuddyer, Mike Sweeney. Biggest Jerk: Marion Barber.

• Can I borrow $5.65?: Sure.

Jasha Balcom

Screen Shot 2014-08-06 at 10.25.28 AMAlthough there’s, oh, a 96.5 percent chance you’ve never heard of Jasha Balcom, there’s a 95 percent chance you’ve seen him—either in the film, 42, or in a commercial for the film, 42.

That’s because Balcom, a 32-year-old Georgia native, is Jackie Robinson.

OK … OK—Jasha didn’t play the legendary Brooklyn Dodger. But he was the stunt double for actor Chadwick Boseman. Which means whenever you saw a hard slide into second, a charge up the first base line, a mighty swing, a dive into the gap—well, that was almost always Balcom. Which makes perfect sense, considering Jasha’s background as a minor league ballplayer who reached Class A with the Chicago Cubs before spending a fascinating year with Wally Backman and the independent South Georgia Peanuts.

Here, Jasha explains how he went from 42 (the round he was selected in the 2000 June amateur draft) to 42. He talks baseball dreams and baseball nightmares, the art of hitting and why he probably won’t emerge again as Celine Dion’s cinematic understudy.

Jasha Balcom, step up to the plate. You’ve been Quazed …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Jasha, so your modern-day claim to fame comes in having played the stunt double as Jackie Robinson in the film “42.” I’ll ask two things: 1. How did this come to be? 2. Why did Chadwick Boseman need a stunt double? What were the complexities and difficulties that came with being the physical reincarnation of Jackie Robinson?

JASHA BALCOM: It came about from a phone call one day from a buddy from the Cubs I played with. He was tasked with assisting the second unit director in finding local baseball talent. So he called me originally asking if I would be interested in appearing in the Negro Leagues scenes from the first part the movie. I said, “Of course! Man, are you kidding me? Absolutely.” I sent him my information, baseball pictures etc. … and I ended up getting called immediately by Alan Graf, the stunt director. He said that I resembled and had a similar build as Chad and asked if I could come and try out for the part. I went to the training camp, and performed the athletic plays for the audition and won the spot.

Chad had the mannerisms of Jackie down. But for some of real action athletic baseball scenes—fielding, diving and catching—I had to help him out. He did well, though. He worked with a baseball coach for several months before filming. But I can tell you it was hard enough for me with those 1942 two-and-three finger pancake gloves those guys used in that time period. Baseball is a tough sport with regular equipment. Also you can’t have your star getting too many strawberry burns on his ass from sliding take after take.

Some of the challenges were really trying to bring out the power and quickness of Jackie. His running style was very unique. I watched lots of footage of him before we started shooting. That helped me out a ton.

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J.P.: You were selected by the Cubs out of the University of Georgia in the 33rd round of the 2003 Draft, reached Class A Peoria but left in 2005. I’m sure it all began with Major League dreams—so what happened? Why did you stop? And what was the difference—physically, mentally, whatever—between you and a Major Leaguer? What did you lack?

J.B.: Yes, I started my career after Georgia with the Cubs and after putting up great numbers with them I was released and quickly picked up by the Cardinals. In 2005 I walked away to cope with a personal tragedy. I lost my father Charles Balcom to cancer. At that time I simply asked for my release and I wanted to worry about baseball later.

There wasn’t much difference, talent-wise, I played in Big League spring training games. I was young but needed the at-bats. Now, being older and more mature, I know there definitely is a mental difference between the Major Leagues and the minors. Major Leaguers don’t make a lot of mistakes fundamentally. They’re very consistent. Mentally, those guys know what their job is and how to get it done every day. Since I have been teaching hitting for so long I know what adjustments have to be made.

I lacked a little bit of size, I guess. Teams are more interested if you have projectable numbers and a body type that gets you a little bit more time on the farm.

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J.P.: You played briefly for the South Georgia Peanuts of the South Coast League. I saw a fascinating documentary about the team (managed by Wally Backman) and the league. What was that experience like? How unstable were things? What sort of crowds came?

J.B.: That experience was a fun time in my life. After being out of baseball for two years, working in a corporate 9-to-5 desk job, putting on the uniform again was truly a freeing and happy time in my life. It was good to be back in the clubhouse again. Wally Backman is one of the best managers I have every played for. It was wild. Every day brought something different.

Things were normal according to pro baseball life, clubhouse pranks and not-safe-for-work locker-room conversations. Wally’s personality and his eruptions on the umps made it fun coming to the park every day. You had no idea what was going to happen.

As a Peanut.

As a Peanut in 2007.

J.P.: What’s it like when you play baseball your whole life, and you realize, “This isn’t going to happen?” When was that moment for you? How did you handle it? Accept it?

J.B.: Jeff, man, to be honest man It really sucked. My entire self identity was as a professional player. I had no clue what I was supposed to do or what I was good at. I felt I belonged on the diamond.

I still haven’t accepted it yet Jeff. I’m going to be in the Majors one day. I’m still living the dream, possibly as Big League hitting coach. Mark my words! I’m not done yet.

J.P.: I know you’re from Dublin, Georgia, I know you played at the University of Georgia. But what was your path from womb to baseball? Like, who got you into the game? Where did the love come from? Was there a moment when you realized, “I’m pretty special at this?”

J.B.: My path started in the Dublin County Rec Department at Springdale Park. My father worked maintenance for the park, so thanks to some fees being cut I got to start organized baseball when I was 4. That’s very early.

Growing up in a small town, sports were all there was to do. That was my outlet. I didn’t really want to be like “Mike”—I wanted to be like Ken Griffey, Jr. So much so that, when I was 7, I taught myself to hit left handed just like he did. I actually forgot how to hit righty later on in my career.

That love was always there, from hitting rocks with my bat outside, learning how to throw by drilling our mailbox with rocks. I got pretty consistent with the ol’ rocks. My mom could tell you that. There were no training facilities, no coaches to help me. All I had was visualization and a dream.

J.P.: I hope this isn’t awkward, but I didn’t love-love-love 42. I thought it was good, but a little too Disney, if that makes sense. What’s your take on the film? And could you tell, while working on it, how it would turn out?

J.B.: No, definitely. I think 42 could have shed some more light on his life. I think many of the true historians and people who grew up watching him play probably came away wanting more. There were a lot of scenes cut out that did show some more of Jackie’s personality and more of the tension in his life.

As we were shooting I was unsure at first until I saw how Chad nailed the emotional broken bat dugout scene. When I watched that I I felt, “OK, this is going to be something. It’s going to have an impact.”

J.P.: You started and run HittersBox, a player development and baseball training service. This fascinates me on two levels: A. How frustrating is it dealing with the parents who think their kids are the next Griffeys. B. It seems like the best baseball teachers aren’t the Tony Gwynns and Wade Boggs, but guys who struggled, chipped away, fought to survive. Agree? Disagree? And why?

J.B.: I consider myself as a professional swing coach and part-time baseball family counselor. Haha. Parents just want the best for their kids and want to give them the best opportunities.

One of challenges is how much do you push a kid. It can be a problem when parents go overboard projecting images of their own personal desire for what “they” want their kid to be like or perform and sometimes the kid doesn’t view himself in the same manner. Maybe he doesn’t even like baseball. I have to work with the parents to understand sometimes how their behaviors can be negative toward development. You don’t want that ride in the car home to mean death.

I think being a professional player alone doesn’t make you a great hitting coach. It’s taking your experiences from playing, other approaches that you’ve learned and developing a proper method to teaching. Really, it’s the the ability to transfer knowledge. Dealing with professionals all the way down to kids you first have develop a rapport, get them the trust and understand the art of the swing and how to process information. Fundamentals are the same, but you have to adapt.

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J.P.: You played Jackie Robinson, you played professional baseball. We recently had Michael Sam come out of the closet in football. How ready do you think baseball would be for an openly gay player? How would you, personally, feel about/deal with it?

J.B.: I personally would have no issue with it. Being in the Big Leagues is a dream! Everybody should go for his/her dream and have an opportunity. I think Major League Baseball could have an openly gay player without issue. Baseball is a mental game, and you have to make it through the minors first by proving yourself. So if you are good and you have paid your dues on the buses, put up numbers and you earn a 25-man roster spot, you belong. Nobody cares what you do in your private life. Everybody cares how you perform over 162 games. That’s what matters.

J.P.: Greatest moment of your life? Lowest?

J.B.: The greatest was witnessing the birth of my beautiful daughter. The lowest was when my father passed.

J.P.: When you quit baseball, you worked for a spell as a stockbroker. This sounds absolutely awful. Was it? What’s your best story from the experience?

J.B.: It was fun, and stressful. I Loved learning about the markets and placing trades for clients.

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• Rank in order (favorite to least): Budweiser Clydesdales, the smell of rosin, Captain Kirk, John Steinbeck, Ichiro, Big Daddy Kane, rye bread, “Silence of the Lambs,” Howie Mandel, Fleetwood Mac: Ichiro, Budweiser Clydesdales, Howie Mandel, Fleetwood Mac, “Silence of the Lambs,” rye bread, the smell of rosin, Captain Kirk, Big Daddy Kane, John Steinbeck.

• The world needs to know: What was it like playing for manager Tom Beyers on the 2004 Boise Hawks?: Tom Beyers was an  easy-going player’s manager. We all respected Tom. We won the championship that year. He was one of the coaches who knew how to pull you over to the side and tell what you did wrong, and how to fix. I really enjoyed playing for Tommy

• Five reasons to make Dublin, Georgia one’s next vacation destination?: Great hunting and fishing; Great Saint Patrick’s Day festivals.

• Celine Dion calls—she offers you $5 million to play her stunt double in the made-for-TV movie, “Celine: I’m Amazing and You Smell Like Festering Oysters.” You have to work every day for a year, change your first name to Celino and eat six worms per day. You in?: Totally out!

• We give you 500 Major League at-bats right now. What’s your statistical line?: What did Andrew McCutchen hit?

• I’m pretty fearful that climate change is going to destroy earth and give my kids no future. Do you think I’m exaggerating this? Do I need to chill?: Common sense says, man, something is going here. You put stuff that is not supposed to be in the air.

• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall? Nope.

• Four best baseball-related films of all time?: Major League, 42, Field of Dreams, Bull Durham

• Why is Batman a superhero? Has no superior powers, not immortal. What the hell?: He is rich and good looking! Closet thing we have to superpowers.

Michael Eisenstein


I love guitarists.

I love Eddie Van Halen and I love Ace Frehley and I love Jeff Beck and I love Jimmy Page and I love Slash and I love Tommy Shaw. My all-time favorite group (well, duo) is Hall and Oates—and I’m the one guy who thinks Oates is the heart and soul of the outfit.

Again, I love guitarists.

They’re just … cool. And, generally, understated. They’re not the lead singer (bright spotlight), but they’re not the drummer (darkness). Without them, the show doesn’t go on. And yet … one might think the show could go on.

I’m babbling. Today’s Quaz features the exceptional Michael Eisenstein, best known as the former Letters to Cleo guitarist, now working as both Melissa Etheridge’s lead guitarist and as one of two men leading the Reigning Monarchs, a group that performs, in his words, “surf-ska punkabilly to gothic modern loungecore.” Here, Michael talks licks and musical survival; the impact drug addiction has on a family and the impact great music has made on his life.

One can follow Michael on Twitter here, and find the Reigning Monarchs’ website here.

Michael Eisenstein, welcome to The Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So Mike, I was going through some old clips, and I found an article about Letters to Cleo in the July 9, 1995 Boston Globe. In it was a sentence that read, “Aurora Gory Alice,” the band’s 1993 album, has sold more than 116,000 copies, fueled by the peppy single “Here and Now,” which got invaluable exposure on the soundtrack of TV’s “Melrose Place.” And I thought to myself—Jesus Christ, that’s such nonsense. Meaning, you had this great song on this great album, and it took a stupid, inane, dumb-ass, disposable TV show to give you the boost you needed. I guess I’m wondering: How have you put up with this crap for so many years? Working in a business (music) that’s so fickle and awkward and often rewarding of surface nonsense over genuine substance? Or, ahem, am I just way off on this one? 

MICHAEL EISENSTEIN: It’s not a job for the faint of heart. You pay a ton of dues and hopefully are good enough to end up in the position to end up on a soundtrack like that. Our song wasn’t randomly picked to the the single, it was good. The question becomes, “Can you parlay that break into a career?” Some bands go on to have multiple hits, a few have a series of huge records. In our case, we released a few more singles that didn’t do as well as the one before and we eventually got dropped and broke up. But we spent a lot of time touring and recording at a fairly high level from 1992 to 1999, and everyone came out of that band knowing what they were doing. As a result, four out of the five members of what I consider the “classic lineup” have cool, multifaceted careers in the music business today.

Screen Shot 2013-12-02 at 5.56.33 PMJ.P.: I know you’re from Wayne, N.J. I know you were in Cleo. I know you’re a killer guitarist. But what was your life path from there to here? What led you to music? When did you realize this was what you wanted to do?

M.E.: My mother was a classical pianist as a child and teen (whose career ended with a hand injury) and as a result I grew up with a Steinway in the house. I loved playing that thing until I started taking lessons at age 9. My older brother was a drummer and I used to mess around on his drums a little and liked that but then I started playing the electric guitars his bandmates were leaving in our basement and I got hooked. I was 13 and got my own guitar for my 14th birthday. My next-door neighbor happened to be one of the best guitarists in town and I started taking lessons from him and got serious right away. Within two years, I was dedicated and working toward a career in music.

J.P.: I loved Letters to Cleo. I truly did. But, while your band was certainly big compared to most, it never supersonic blew up, in the way of a No Doubt or Pearl Jam or Nirvana or … whoever. I often ask good-but-not-legendary baseball players to explain the differences between themselves and, say, Ken Griffey, Jr. But I’ve never asked a musician. So, Mike, what’s the difference between Letters to Cleo and—for the sake of comparison—a No Doubt? Why did they explode, and you guys merely popped?

M.E.: There were some business mistakes and turnover at the label, which are typical problems. The main thing was we had a lead singer who not only didn’t want to be a star, but more or less viewed commercial success as selling out. The band has to want it.

J.P.: As you know, Quaz No. 121 featured Kay Hanley, your Cleo bandmate and ex-wife. I absolutely loved Kay’s honesty, especially about addiction and family/career/friend loss. However, I do think too often the focus is solely on the addict, and not on those impacted. Mike, you were/are with Kay for more than two decades. You have two children. What is it like watching someone you love fall prey to addiction? How did it impact you?

M.E.: It’s the worst. It’s not so much about “watching the person you love fall prey”—it’s about how you get dragged into their addiction and its behaviors and become part of it. You might not be an alcoholic/addict, but that’s the world you find yourself living in. Their downward spiral doesn’t exist in a vacuum, they’re grabbing onto anything close and dragging it down with them, at least in my case. The biggest impact was that I very suddenly found myself a single parent of two and having to come to grips with the fact that that might be the scenario for a very long time. Losing your best friend sucks, too.

J.P.: You tour with Melissa Etheridge. Which is amazing and cool and sweet and impressive. I’m wondering what it’s like to be part of “the band.” Meaning, you get introduced once per night, but generally fade into the background—an essential musician, but not the guy the audience came to see. Was that ever something you had to adjust to? Is it ideal? Neither? Both?

M.E.: Well, this isn’t a new role for me. From 1998-2001, as Cleo was petering out, I recorded and toured with Nina Gordon from Veruca Salt. Even though she was also from a rock band background, I got comfortable with being a “hired gun” pretty quickly. And most of my gigs since, whether touring or local, have been sideman jobs. Learn the parts that someone else played, match the guitar sounds to the record, show up and play. It’s rewarding in a different way and a lot less pressure.

Screen Shot 2013-12-02 at 5.56.08 PMJ.P.: So you and Greg Behrendt are the front guys of the Reigning Monarchs, a group that performs, in your words, “surf-ska punkabilly to gothic modern loungecore.” I listened to a bunch of your songs, and really dug it. Kinda reminded me of a mix between 1960s beach movies and Cake. Question is—why? You’re 40-something years old. You have a sweet gig. Is the goal to make lots of money? To be played on pop radio? To tour and become famous? Just for funky kicks? What’s the motivation?

M.E.: It began as a production job, then became a fun but infrequent local gig with friends but evolved into my primary creative outlet. I love to play the guitar, I love arranging songs and producing records. I’m in the fortunate position that my career and hobby overlap a lot. The band breaks even now and hopefully with this record we’ll see some profits but it’s not meant to be a career for either of us. If the goal was to make money or get on the radio, instrumental rock would not be my vehicle.  Of course, in the unlikely event that it became a moneymaker I would be thrilled and happy to focus on that as my job.

J.P.: Like you, I have two kids. I travel for work every so often—perhaps one week away every three months. As a touring musician, you must be away all the time. How do you manage? Do you ever feel guilty, like your kids might be missing out, or you might be missing out? What are the complications that accompany being a dad guitar player?

M.E.: When the kids were little, it was really hard. Especially right after Henry (my younger) was born. He got very sick as an infant and at one point I had to leave town to go on the road while he was still in the hospital. It was shortly thereafter that we moved to L.A. with the goal of getting off the road and doing more writing and producing. Now that they’re older, it’s been nice to get back out there. We miss each other but we have a lot of technology that makes it easier.

J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Absolute lowest?

M.E.: I’d have to say the greatest moment was when I walked out of my day job and started an unlikely run as a professional musician. The lowest is hard to say. There have been a few periods where things dried up for a while and I wasn’t playing or writing and I tend to get depressed when that happens. If you’re looking for an anecdote, a couple years ago I played with Katharine McPhee at the Greek Theatre here in L.A. I had to pack up my gear and leave right away to get to a poorly booked Reigning Monarchs show at this little dump on the Sunset Strip. There was a lot of bad information and I arrived to find out that we were only getting a 10-minute set. It almost broke Reigning Monarchsup the band. That stands out for going from the high to the low within a couple of hours.

Screen Shot 2013-12-02 at 5.56.24 PMJ.P.: You recently Tweeted, “Every now and then I dislike a song so much i Shazam it just to know who is responsible. Congratulations, 30 Seconds to Mars.” This might sound dumb, but I’m always reluctant to slam the abilities of other authors, because I know how friggin’ hard and torturous this can be. Do you not feel that way with music? What, specifically, makes you hear a song and think/say, “Jesus Christ, that fucking blows?”

M.E.: The negative tweet is something that I rarely do and am not big on. I even contemplated deleting that tweet but it got quite a lot of likes, favorites and re-tweets so I left it up. I would never do it to an up and coming artist but I think you get a little leeway with millionaire celebrities.

J.P.: What’s the difference between a good guitarist and a great friggin’ guitarist? What are the attributes that make exceptional? And, along those lines, how would you rank yourself?

M.E.: A good guitarist can be someone who writes and plays great parts within a band, has mastered one specific genre but maybe doesn’t have a particularly unique sound or voice, or a solid ‘jack of all trades’ guy who can play just about anything pretty well. And just to clarify, by “good” I’m talking about very, very good professionals. Guys whom most people would call amazing. The greats are the guys you can recognize instantly. Stylists who bring their own thing to the instrument. Sometimes it’s an innovator like Hendrix, a virtuoso like Pat Metheny or just a unique combination of influences and approach like Joey Santiago or Andy Summers. I rank myself as good.

Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 12.08.02 AMQUAZ EXPRESS WITH MICHAEL EISENSTEIN:

A couple of years ago Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley allowed guys not named Ace Frehley and Peter Criss to wear Ace Frehley and Peter Criss makeup. Good business decision, or disloyal greedy bullshit?: I don’t like Kiss, at all. If someone cares which guy is wearing which makeup, I’m not the guy to complain to.

• Five greatest guitarists of your lifetime?: I’ll just list my favorites: John Scofield, Mike Campbell, Eddie Van Halen, Bill Frisell, George Harrison.

• Best joke you know?: Q: What’s the difference between a drummer and a pepperoni pizza? A: A pepperoni pizza can feed a family of four.

• One question you’d ask Ed Jurak were he here right now?: Did you ever beat up Mike Watt in High School?

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Chico Walker, placemats, pottery making, Dodger Stadium, UB40, Boston Phoenix, Matt Dillon, Orange is the New Black, Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn, Craigslist, Vin Diesel, Tanya Tucker: Dodger Stadium, Orange is the New Black, Boston Phoenix, Craigslist, UB40, Pottery, Wrath of Kahn, Matt Dillon, Chico Walker, Placemats, Tanya Tucker (does anyone else remember a band called Canya Fucker?) Vin Diesel.

• How many times a year do you listen to a Letters to Cleo song?: Some years zero, sometime a bunch if we’re going to play. I might revisit something, usually for reference once or twice in a year. I like it, though.

• Best and worst musical venues in America?: My favorite is The Fillmore in San Francisco and least favorite was this place in Baltimore called Fletcher’s that is no longer around. Any musician who ever loaded into that place can tell you why.

• Why does a singer screaming, “Hello [Fill in a town name]!” make such an impact on people?: Because people like acknowledgement and most people like where they live.

• Would you rather tour with Ashley Simpson for five-straight years or slice off one of your nipples?: I’ll take Ashley “best nosejob in the history of plastic surgery” Simpson.

This is my all-time favorite song. Give me your breakdown, please: Vocals are so loud I can’t hear the guitars very well. It all seems kind of noodle-y, I’m over a minute in and I haven’t latched on to a theme in the music or lyrics. And here comes the radical dynamic shift, full band entry. Good drummer. Not sure I’ll remember much about that later today.

Ellis Valentine

When Ellis Valentine retired from baseball in 1985, he wasn’t the greatest hitter of all time. He wasn’t the greatest fielder of all time and—despite being blessed with a cannon of an arm—probably wasn’t the greatest thrower of all time.

What he seemed to be—to an ugly, gangly 13-year-old kid named Jeff Pearlman, at least—was the absolute coolest man of all time.

Really, he was. First, there was the swagger. Second, the violent swing. Third, the way he wore his baseball cap, casually resting atop his miniature ‘fro. Lastly (and most important) there was the name—Ellis Valentine. Maaaaan, that was cool. Just sounded like a guy who knew where he was going; who could walk into a bar, get his gin and tonic for free and pick up the hottest chick, too.

What I didn’t know, however, was that Valentine was, well, tortured. Throughout parts of a four-team, 10-year career that featured an All-Star Game selection, a Golden Glove and 123 home runs, Valentine battled substance abuse issues that, he says, nearly ruined him. Now clean for more than 25 years, he lives in Texas and works as a counselor for Harmony CDC a non-profit community development corporation. He is the father of three children, and a grandfather. One can follow Ellis on Twitter here, and visit his website here.

Ellis Valentine, let it loose. You’ve been Quazed …

JEFF PEARLMAN: I have lots of questions, but one thing stands out to me from your career—your arm. When did you know you had a great arm?

ELLIS VALENTINE: It had been there from early childhood, actually. My first experience with organized baseball was at the age of 7, when my mom and the neighbors got together and decided to see if there was a place where I could play baseball or do something because I was continuously breaking their windows and harming their houses and things … throwing rocks in the neighborhood. This is in Los Angeles. Back then organized baseball started at age 9, and I was 7. However, I was as big as every 9-year old, and I was able to … they were able to maneuver some things and get me on a team. I got a chance to play with the Southpark Braves, and that’s how I started to realize I had a good arm. Because he started me out pitching. I was a pitcher all the way up through high school, and when I was drafted by Montreal it was actually as a pitcher and a first baseman. That’s a whole other story.

J.P.: How fast were you clocked on the radar?

E.V.: I don’t think they clocked back then. That’s something that’s seemed to come along in the last 20 or so years. Putting guys on the radar. I don’t really know. All I know is that, at the end of my career, the Texas Rangers and California Angels tried to put me in the bullpen because I had a good arm still. My arm was still wonderful, but I just couldn’t keep my legs under me. Because they were so bad from playing in Montreal, and my injuries continued to plague my career. They tried to put me in the bullpen before everything was all said and done.

J.P.: And you were open to the idea?

E.V.: Absolutely. I loved pitching. I would have probably pitched with Montreal if I hadn’t broken my leg in high school. The summer between my junior and senior year I broke my leg and Dr. Robert Kerlan had to put a rod in my leg from my knee to my ankle. That stopped me from pitching my senior year in high school. I didn’t play my senior year in high school football because of the injury. But I did play baseball—they moved me to first base, and when the season was over the Expos drafted me in the second round. They moved me to the outfield because they didn’t want any contact on their second-round draft choice’s leg, because I had this pin in my leg and I went to right field.

J.P.: I know it’s been a long time—you’re this kid at Crenshaw High School, and you hear the Montreal Expos have drafted you. Are you like, “Uh … I’m moving to Canada?”

E.V.: I didn’t have the awe factor, because I was always good. I was tremendously blessed all my life as an athlete. I wasn’t like some of these guys who really have to work hard to get a position on the team. That’s part of the reason I was kind of lackadaisical with my career and I wasn’t really able to manage my career from a personal standpoint. Because baseball and athleticism came so easy to me. That when you got to pro sports and you’re playing against other guys who are very good, and you’re having contract negotiations, and live on your own and travel and meet people—I wasn’t very good at that. I didn’t know what to do. I was still really a very young man. A kid, to be real honest. I never had those types of responsibilities. I didn’t grow up hungry. I didn’t grow up needing anything. My family did well. I mean, we weren’t rich. My father, Ellis Valentine, Jr., actually worked for the city of Los Angeles. He worked on the trash trucks like most black men did back in the day. My mom was Bertine, and she was a beautician—she had her own beauty salon right in the corner of our home.

J.P.: So you weren’t the cliché narrative of the inner-city Los Angeles kid who came from nothing?

E.V.: Exactly. I had a car in high school. We had clothes on our backs and food on the table and a roof over our heads. My parents went to work and I didn’t realize how much I’d taken for granted until my career was over. That’s why I do what I do today—because I want to be able to help people if I can.

I didn’t jump for joy when I was drafted. I felt I should have been drafted No. 1, to be honest. I broke my leg, and people were nervous to take a risk and draft a kid with a pin in his leg. So the Expos waited until the second round and snatched me up.

J.P.: This is random and out of order. When you came up in the 1970s, did you feel that African-American ballplayers still had to overcome a certain perception that if they were’t playing well, or if they weren’t giddy over being drafted, that there was a perception of arrogance or laziness?

E.V.: Uh, I don’t know if that was a perception. At that time I think people were very highly influenced by the Jackie Robinson era. And they kind of—there might have been that perception; it might have been rather covert. But during that era they had to draft African-American ballplayers. And they did. That soon dissipated over the years after that era played out its course. And you have to look at the era—we struggled as African-American players back in the day because we had very little support. There were no black coaches. We had very few mentors back then. So after the game it was really tough. I can really take my hat off to Larry Doby. Larry was my batting instructor in Triple A. And also briefly in Montreal. And for the first time in my career I had an African-American I could relate to after the game, other than a player.

And I would sit, and Doby would school me on some things. However, he wasn’t around long enough with me to mentor me through a lot of my own personal things. And first of all, I didn’t realize I had personal things going on. I was totally oblivious to that. I was kind of out of touch with my emotions, with my person, with my reality. Because I was so gifted, and I used to live on a statement my mother told me all along—she used to always say to me, “Son, if you play baseball everything is going to be fine.” So that’s what I did. I listened to my parents, and Mom told me, “Just play baseball and everything is going to work out.” And so, I trusted her in so many ways. In everything. And my first agent embezzled $60,000 from me in less than four months. My mom became my financial manager. A lot of stuff happened, and a new dynamic formed. That’s a whole other story. But going back to Doby—Larry Doby, he was one of the best things that ever happened to me in my baseball career.

The first best thing that ever happened to me in my baseball career, from a professional standpoint, was my relationship with Karl Kuehl. Karl Kuehl was our Triple A manager, and this guy [Jeff’s note: Here, Ellis gets very emotional, and needs some time to regroup] … in Memphis in Triple A this guy told me, “I’m going to get you to the Big Leagues next year.” And he took me from a singles/line-drive hitter who occasionally hit a home run to a long-ball threat. Along with everything else I had going.

J.P.: How did he do it?

E.V.: We went to the ballpark every day in Memphis. It’d be 90-plus degrees, humidity over the top, sweating, grinding it out. And he stood about three feet in front of the mound on the grass, behind a pitching screen, and he pitched to me. And he worked my hands, and I became the hitter that you saw in the Big Leagues. And I don’t care if he was sick, he had family problems, he had organization problems with the team. Whatever was going down, he showed up every day for me prior to our team batting practice and pre-game workout. And we hit for an hour. And he said, “No matter what happens, when you get to the Big Leagues you’re not gonna miss this pitch.” And he was right.

Ellis with the Quebec Carnavals in 1974.

J.P.: It is amazing how one person can make a difference in a life …

E.V.: Like I said, I took a lot of things for granted, growing up. And a lot of it didn’t come to a head until it all came crashing down after my career was over. And my life changed at that point.

J.P.: I always jump around in these Quaz interviews … I’m the son of a substance abuse specialist, and my whole life I’ve heard about drugs, drugs, drugs. I was surprised, reading up on you, that your troubles started later in life, no?

E.V.: I had troubles during the time I was playing as well. But mostly the later part of my years in Montreal, that’s when it was really becoming a problem. I’d always dabbled around with a few things in high school, like most other kids. That was the era—we’d smoke a little pot, drink a little wine, play a little rock and roll. But when I got to Montreal things grew. They escalated. I made more money, and you do more things, blah, blah. It got a little out of control. The year my injury happened in 1980—that was the season I really started to intervene on that behavior. And I made some changes. It was self-discipline, and God had a presence there. I didn’t know at the time, but he did. Then I had the injury [Jeff’s note: On May 30, 1980, Ellis he was hit in the face with a pitch by Roy Thomas of the Cardinals and was out 40 days with a fractured cheekbone. He famously returned with half of a football facemask across his batting helmet]  and I wasn’t the same hitter any longer. I wasn’t the same athlete any longer. I’d become a different person because of it. I prayed over it, and I realized getting hit in the jaw wasn’t fun. From a guy who throws the ball over 90-plus miles per hour. I just couldn’t move. I couldn’t get out of the way. There have been other players that have been hit—Ron Cey, Dave Parker, Dickie Thon, Art Howe, Andre Dawson. My life had just started to change, and I prayed about it and I asked the Lord, “God, give me five more years to get my finances straight, take care of my parents, take care of the things I have—and I’m out of here.” Because standing at the plate as a righthanded hitter, facing righthanded pitchers, just changed.

When I got out of the game, five years later—a year after I got out I went back into using and I spiraled out of control because for the first time Major League Baseball went to spring training without me. That was my choice, because the Rangers invited me to camp. But I went for some help, and I got the help I needed after three different treatment programs within a nine-month period of time. Three different programs. And I turned my life around.

A year after cleaning up and being sober, a friend of mine asked me to volunteer—to come in and sit with him and talk to his kids at a youth program at St. Luke’s Hospital in Phoenix. And I did it. A couple of weeks later he offered me a job. I said, “Wait a minute—what are you talking about?” I decided not to take the job, but a light came on. And I thought, “Hmm, somebody’s offering me a job.” I’d never held a job other than baseball my entire life. I had some money, I was still doing OK.

So I was working at Avis, driving rental cars from the airport to the parking lot, parking lot to the airport. This was in Phoenix. I went to work out of humility. I needed to know what it was like to have a real job. I didn’t need the money. I had a Mercedes outside. I was the only guy working there like that—even my boss had a Mercedes. People knew who I was. And so I’m driving this big blue 450SEL to a job where I was making $4.25 an hour. And the year before I made almost $400,000 playing Major League Baseball. You following me?

J.P.: Yup.

E.V.: I needed the humility, I didn’t need the money. I didn’t know what it was like to go to work every day. So that’s what I did. Soon, when you’re working at the airport in Phoenix, there are lots of different jobs. You can do baggage claim, you can do food services, you can fuel jets, you can do all these different things. There’s a whole world at the airport. And this guy I met through a young lady I was in school with. I was going to a construction school to learn construction at the same time I was working at Avis. See, I had to become a person; I had to become a human being after my career was over. Because the pro athlete is not. You’re so sheltered from reality within this pro world, you’re just so out of touch. And I was. I had to learn how to use an electric saw. I had to learn how to swing a hammer. I had to learn all these things because that just wasn’t my world growing up. So I learned this stuff. And this young lady I was in school with … her brother ran the fueling operation at Sky Harbor Airport. He offered me a job there. I went from $4.25 to $5.50. Oh my God! I was moving right on up. I’m excited now. I was growing. I did the fueling thing, and I loved that job. I’d get there at 5 in the morning, I was done by 1 … it was wonderful. I had my route—I’d fuel seven or eight jets in the morning. And I went home. And it was great. Bottom line—I wasn’t in it for the money. I was in it for the life skills.

But during the time I was there, I was planning on moving back to California, which was my home. I stayed in Phoenix for to years to get my recovery together, because that’s where I went through recovery—at the Meadows. After my treatment I went home, packed up my stuff, went back to Phoenix, bought a house and stayed with my aftercare group for two years because I wanted to get better. OK, I wanted to change my life. Or I wanted to have a life–put it that way.

I finally moved back to California, and I got an apartment. And I started attending 12-step meetings and started running meetings, and in less than a month’s time a guy named Joe Treadway, who ran a sober-living house, came up beside me after a meeting and said, “Let’s go have some coffee.” So we did. And he offered me a job as his program manager. That was 1988—two years after I’d gotten clean. I’ve been in the field of 12-step and behavioral intervention … substance abuse counseling, for the last 25 years.

J.P.: I have to assume, based on the era, cocaine was a big part of it. It was a drug that doomed so many from your era. How do you explain the pull of cocaine? Why don’t people use it twice and walk away?

E.V.: Well, it works—that’s why. The only reason people do drugs is because it makes them feel different. Anything that makes you feel different, you can become physically and emotionally addicted to. If you take the drug out of cocaine; if you take high out of the marijuana, they won’t smoke it. I mean, you take the active alcohol ingredient out of Jack Daniel’s, people won’t drink it. It’s nasty stuff. But there’s a reward. That’s why you see people who smoke weed—they’ll take a hit off of it, cough for 30 seconds and then they’ll say, “Good stuff.” The only reason they put up with the pain of the coughing is the reward of the feeling. So we become addicted to the feeling. The feeling from where you were prior to using it to the feeling it takes you to after you use it. And the more you want to get away from who that person was sober, and become that person under the influence, that’s where the devastation comes in. Because some people want to avoid who they are. They want to run away from who they are so desperately.

J.P.: And that was you?

E.V.: Absolutely, that was me.

J.P.: You were a famous, rich baseball player. Why run away from yourself?

E.V.: I didn’t know myself. That’s the whole thing. That’s why people talk about suicide—most people who want to kill themselves have never truly learned who they are. So I always tell people, “You’re gonna kill the wrong person.” People have called me and asked me to go on suicide calls. “Ellis, you’re a counselor—go help them!” No. I’m not going. If he don’t give a damn about himself, you know damn well he doesn’t care about me. You know what I mean? Man, you must be out of your mind.

We are so predisposed to avoid our feelings. Most of us grow up not being taught about our feelings. They teach you about math, they teach you about English, about cars, about sports, about all these things. But not feelings. When you ask someone how he feels about something, most of the time he’ll tell you what he thinks, not feels. Because most people aren’t in touch enough with their feelings in order to eloquently offer an answer. They’ll tell you what their thoughts are, they’ll tell you who’s the problem, they’ll blame other people—no, no, no. I asked you how you feel about that.

J.P.: Could you have played a lot longer had you not used drugs?

E.V.: I don’t know. That’s a difficult question. Possible? Yes. But I don’t know. God gives us all what he gives us. From a spiritual standpoint. Not religious. From a spiritual standpoint—if you don’t believe, that’s OK. But I believe God gives us what we need in our lives, and it’s up to us what we do with it. This is what I’ve chosen. I’ve had two real jobs in my life. I’ve been a baseball player and I’ve been a counselor. I love this. I have more joy from this, because when you’re involved with another person and you help another person change his life, it’s just something to it. I could hit home runs. That was fine. That was for me, and for the team, and that whole stuff. But I really didn’t even know how to be a teammate at the time. I was just a kid.

J.P.: So you enjoy this more than baseball?

E.V.: They’re so different. I will say I wasn’t in touch with my baseball career as much as I’m in touch with my recovery career. In other words, my baseball career was just something I could do, but I wasn’t in touch with it. I didn’t even know how to manage it. I didn’t know how to manage my athleticism; I didn’t know how to manage my life at that time. I had no clue. I’ve been very, very successful doing this. This is the third home my wife and I have purchased since we’ve been together. And we’re doing well. We’ve raised three kids, we have a grandson. I can go home every night. I don’t have any of the emotions I had when I was playing—shame, guilt, anger, sadness, loneliness. I don’t allow those types of emotions to control me any longer, because I’ve worked on them, worked through them, worked with them. I love this. I truly do. Because people know when I open my mouth and I’m sharing with them, it’s coming from my heart and I truly care. And they know what I’ve gone through to get to this point. I’ve very transparent, and that makes people feel safer.

J.P.: I’m not a Biblical guy, but it seems like with addiction, the truth sets you free. When you can talk of your past openly, it’s a mighty tool …

E.V.: What I try and do is help people get rid of all of their secrets. All of their shortcomings about themselves. Because one of the things they want to do is they want to protect that from you because everybody that they’ve allowed in in their past has used that against them. So what I’ve had to learn how to do is, in this business you learn the importance of changing your playmates and your playgrounds. I’ve heard to learn to choose healthier people in my life. I had to learn to choose people I could trust. Back in the day I used to hang around with people and let people in my house who, if they asked to use the bathroom, I’d have to stand there and watch them down the hall, and hopefully they didn’t steal the closet. I don’t let people like that in any longer. I choose people differently. The application for a relationship has to include more than do you have a name and do you have a pulse. There’s more questions now. I’ve had to learn this stuff, and it’s made my life better.

J.P.: By comparison to substance abuse, this might all be sort of insignificant. But I want to ask you about baseball and, specifically, the pre-1977 All-Star Game throwing contest with you, Dave Winfield, Dave Parker and Reggie Smith. Do you even remember it?

E.V.: It was pretty big. It was epic, to be real honest. The guys you had out there doing that. We were some of the top players, and to see that display—it was awesome. I remember that to this day. Along with the ball I hit in that game that should have been a home run, but wasn’t. Back in the day the fence was 430. Now the fence at Yankee Stadium is 399. I hit a ball 420 feet and it didn’t go out. I remember that All-Star Game. I always do. And that outing in right field was simply marvelous, for all of us. And a lot of people give me applause on it.

J.P.: So which of you guys had the best arm?

E.V.: I always try and toot my own horn when I get a chance. I thought I did pretty good.

J.P.: Well, who had the second best arm?

E.V.: We all had great arms. Accuracy was the thing that was the most important. All of us had cannons. But who could put the ball where they wanted to, when they wanted to … that’s the key. And that seemed to be the thing that was my blessing over the years. God blessed me with that ability to be deadly accurate.

J.P.: Does it hurt you that Montreal is no longer a baseball city?

E.V.: Oh, it hurts me tremendously. I mean, I think it’s one of baseball’s biggest blemishes. That is a beautiful, wonderful town. That’s the only place I ever lived where I never had to lock the front door. That’s how wonderful that town was. I know there’s still discussion about getting a team back there. There are a lot of pluses—you get the advertise in two different languages. That’s a plus for an investor. The dollar is pretty much even with the U.S. dollar. Safe place to be, wonderful, wonderful fans, great people. I would love to see baseball return to Montreal.

J.P.: Do you think it will?

E.V.: I’m hoping so. You’re talking big money and you’re also talking politics. I don’t know why it left in the first place, except people didn’t so what they were supposed to do. I’m not on any committee, and don’t have any inside information. When it comes to those dollars, that’s way out of my league. I do believe a team will be supported there, especially because they lost a team. You don’t know what you had until it’s gone. So I believe if they get another shot, it would work out pretty good.

J.P.: Is it possible to get hit in the face the way you did and just return to the batter’s box again when you’re healthy and never think of it?

E.V.: No. I’ll give you an analogy—a child is a year old, and he’s walking in the kitchen, and he touches a hot stove. Think he’ll ever go to a hot stove again, or even near a stove if it’s not on? And not think about it? Ain’t gonna happen. Next time he walks past that stove, even if it’s off, he’s gonna flinch. It’s embedded in your psyche, and your mind—regardless of how much you try mind over matter—your brain knows an object is coming toward you. Somebody just flails their arm to you and you turn around and happen to see it, you’re going to flinch, because your brain works this way. See, all these things I know now after going through countless classes of continuing education and working with doctors, mental health professionals … I know this stuff now. I did not know this back then. So my world is at a tremendously different place right now. But think about the hot stove—ain’t gonna happen.

J.P.: I wrote a book about the 1986 Mets, and one of the guys was obviously Gary Carter. It seemed Gary felt he was picked on by others in Montreal; “Camera Carter” and “Lights.” Do you recall him that way? What do you remember about him?

E.V.: That was Gary. I mean, he had a very unique way of doing things. Some of us at certain times just didn’t feel he was very genuine. But that was just Gary. I remember he and I almost getting into it in rookie ball when we first signed. He was mad because I was a second-round draft choice and he was the third. We both came out of Southern California that same year. He literally was mad at me, and he said he should have been No. 1, and if not No. 1 than No. 2. And he wanted to fight! He really did! He was really upset about it. It was kind of a running thing in Montreal. I just found out the other day they named a street for Gary in Montreal—which is really cool. Don’t get me wrong, I believe he deserves it. He played there longer than me, he was a great ballplayer there, he was an awesome guy. But I truly believe … I hit the first home run ever in Olympic Stadium. And I always felt if Gary Carter had hit that home run they would have built a statue outside the stadium for him. Just my feeling. Because he was given so much by the team that a lot of other guys weren’t getting. Some of us were a little jealous of that.

J.P.: Did you come to like him as a person?

E.V.: I never hated him. Don’t get me wrong. I never hated him. We weren’t those types of friends. We were teammates. But I never hated him.


• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash?: No.

Tim Raines—Hall of Fame or not?: I’d say yes. Timmy was very good at his craft and what he brought to the game. I don’t know what the writers are looking for, but he could make it.

• Right now I give you 100 at-bats in Division III college baseball, what do you hit?: I probably have 20 home runs at least. I can still hit. I can’t run—don’t ask me to run to first. I can still hit. I do lessons, go to the batting cage. I can still hit.

• Were steroids at all an issue during your era?: PEDS? No, no, no, no. They weren’t.

• Would you support guys like Bonds and McGwire in the Hall?: Yes. Bonds would have made it anyway—he was already there. When his world started to change … he changed. But he deserves to be in as a baseball player. You have to hit the baseball. There are guys who can take steroids right now and they won’t hit 500 home runs.

• Who was the pitcher you owned?: Odell Jones. He gave away his pitches. Whenever Odell Jones threw a breaking ball, he did something different with his mouth. He’d either stick his tongue out the side of his mouth or kind of bite his lip. He did something funky with his mouth.

• Who was a tougher pitcher to face, J.R. Richard or Nolan Ryan?: Charlie Hough. He threw a rising knuckleball—a knuckleball that doesn’t go down. A knuckleball that goes down mimics a curveball, and most hitters are looking in that area. But Hough’s rose up on you into your hands or away from you if you were a lefthanded batter. I didn’t mind hitting off of Nolan or J.R., because they were one-pitch pitchers. You could sit on the fastball if their curves weren’t working.

• How many baseball games now do you watch in a year?: Games … I’ll only watch a game all the way through in the playoffs. During the season I’ll watch SportsCenter, or if there’s a guy I like to watch hit, I’ll tune in just to see him. But I’m not really a fan of the game the way it is today, because I’m an old-school guy. But I’m a fan of certain athletes.

• How many Ellis Valentine bobblehead dolls do you sell a year?: Hahaha. Well, we’re looking at a few. Not selling a whole lot of them. It’s an interesting little website we have; we’re trying to help guys move things out of their closet. I have an attic full of stuff, but my son surprisingly said to me the other day he wants all my old stuff. It was really flattering. He was born after my career was over. He said, “Dad, don’t sell all your stuff. Your old shoes, spikes, gloves, underwear—I want to keep that.”

• I’ll pass on the underwear: Ha. I would, too.

Fred Claire

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.

With the late Roy Campanella, legendary Dodger catcher.

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.

Fred Claire at the 1988 press conference to introduce (from left) Mike Davis, Alfredo Griffin and Jay Howell.

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.

With Tommy Lasorda and Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times, circa 1985.

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.

On the day after he was fired by the Dodgers in 1988, Fred was joined by his wife Sheryl to help clean out his office.

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.

Claire and Tommy Lasorda welcome Hideo Nomo in 1995.

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.

Fred Claire with his mother a couple of days after being fired by the Dodgers.

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.


• 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.