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May 14, 2008
Prospectus Hit and Run
The Life and Times of Buzzie Bavasi, Part Two
Part One, for those who missed it last week.
Through his first 12 years as the general manager of the Dodgers, Buzzie Bavasi had a solid track record of success, one that included five pennants and an unlikely World Championship in 1959. Until that latter squad, those teams had still owed a considerable debt to Branch Rickey, Bavasi's predecessor. But as the team turned over its Brooklyn nucleus to adapt first to their temporary, makeshift residence in the Los Angeles Coliseum and then to their spectacular new home in Chavez Ravine, Bavasi's skills as an architect of ballclubs became more apparent.
Champions in Chavez Ravine
Still adhering to a Rickey-instilled preference for the fruits of the Dodgers' system, Bavasi promoted from within frequently and traded sparingly, but when he went the latter route, he generally made a strong impact. He explained his philosophy in a Sports Illustrated article in 1967:
Well, let me put it simply: there are times when a general manager may earn his pay by making some brilliant solo move, but for every brilliant move you make by yourself you are the beneficiary of a dozen brilliant accidents and another dozen brilliant moves by others, like your scouts, and you wind up getting the credit yourself. There are also times when you could have made a brilliant move and you didn't, but nobody hears about the deals you didn't make, so they don't count against you in the summing up. Running a ball club is 10 percent skill, 40 percent having the right men working for you, and 50 percent dumb luck.
It didn't hurt that Bavasi had a top-notch scouting staff and player development system to work with, one which owed a debt to the work of Al Campanis and Fresco Thompson. Or that the bonus baby pitcher the team had nurtured for the better part of a decade--Sandy Koufax--began to control his high-90s heat, helping the Los Angeles Dodgers became a powerhouse to rival their Brooklyn predecessors. Playing in an environment which was to offense what the Dust Bowl was to crops, the Dodgers won on the strength of pitching, defense, and speed. In the five-year span from 1962 through 1966, they averaged 94 victories a year while taking home three pennants and two World Championships, coming up just short in a tiebreaker playoff in yet another year.
The 1962 Dodgers, that near-miss club, were the best of the lot as measured by run differential (+145) and by wins (102), but they lost a bitter three-game playoff that very nearly led to both Bavasi and manager Walter Alston packing their bags. As good as that club was, their late-season struggles were exacerbated by Koufax's two-month absence due to a crushed artery in his hand. Aided by the high mound and generous foul territory of the new stadium, the 26-year-old southpaw had come into his own that year; through his first 22 starts, he struck out 208 hitters while putting up a 2.08 ERA, but he threw just 8 2/3 ineffective innings upon his return.
Despite the setbacks, Bavasi did little to change the team over the winter of 1962-1963. His biggest move involved his rotation's fourth slot, where he traded away the erratic but intimidating Stan Williams--the goat of the season's final game--to the Yankees for an aging Moose Skowron, and replaced Williams in the rotation by shipping a pair of infielders who wouldn't be missed to the Mets for 24-year-old Bob Miller, who'd put up an ugly 1-12, 4.89 ERA season for the hapless expansion franchise. While Skowron was a bust, Miller fared well in his first season with the Dodgers (10-8, 2.89 ERA) before spending the three following years as a mainstay of the team's bullpens. A healthy Koufax made the real difference, as he delivered a 25-5 record with 306 strikeouts and a 1.88 ERA en route to winning the MVP award, the pitching triple crown, and, unanimously, the Cy Young award in 1963.
The '63 Dodgers took first place at the beginning of July and withstood a late bid by the Cardinals to win the pennant by six games. Along with Miller, another key Bavasi acquisition emerged as a standout: reliever Ron Perranoski, who went 16-3 with 21 saves and a 1.67 ERA. Acquired from the Cubs along with two other players and cash for Don Zimmer (suckers!) in early 1960, Perranoski had already proven to be a fine reliever; he would anchor a bullpen that finished first or second in Reliever Expected Wins Added four times in a five-year span. He pitched so well in 1963 that he placed fourth in the MVP balloting, and was the only reliever the Dodgers needed in that fall's World Series, where they swept the Yankees in four games, holding them to a scant four runs in one of the most stifling post-season performances ever.
The 1962 and 1963 teams had overachieved; the former (102-63) had outdone their Pythagorean record by five games, the latter (99-63) by seven games. Their luck finally reversed in 1964. Despite outscoring opponents by 42 runs with virtually the same cast, the Dodgers slumped to sixth at 80-82, six games below their projected record. Losing Koufax for the final six weeks of the season didn't help, but the Dodgers were just 58-57 and mired in seventh place when he went down with traumatic arthritis, the result of a jammed shoulder sustained while diving to avoid a pickoff throw.
Koufax and Don Drysdale had combined for 68 starts of 2.01 ERA ball, amazing even given that the park-adjusted league average for Dodger Stadium was 3.25. The rest of the 1964 rotation, most notably Phil Ortega and Joe Moeller (25 and 24 starts, respectively), had combined for a 3.96 ERA, nearly double that of the dynamic duo. Thus Bavasi's big focus over the winter of 1964-1965 was bolstering the rotation, and to do so he made perhaps the boldest move of his tenure, trading the team's top power threat, Frank Howard, to the Washington Senators in a seven-player deal. A 28-year-old, 6-foot-7 behemoth, Howard had hit 24 homers in 1964, but those only partially redeemed a .226/.303/.432 performance coupled with defense that was well below average (-13 runs according to the Davenport Translations, and worth only 2.8 WARP in all). Howard would go on to some monster years in Washington, but Claude Osteen, the 25-year-old lefty who was the prize of the return package, would become a mainstay in LA. In 1965, his 15-15 record belied the impact of giving the Dodgers 40 starts of 2.79 ERA ball in an environment where 3.26 was average.
To offset the loss of Howard, first baseman Ron Fairly moved to right field, and Wes Parker, who'd spent 1964 as a reserve, moved in at first. Though hardly a power threat, Parker was a legitimate plus defender who would go on to win six Gold Gloves. Also new to the lineup was second baseman Jim Lefebvre, who won Rookie of the Year honors while upgrading a position where Nate Oliver, Dick Tracewski, and Jim Gilliam had combined to hit an anemic .235/.308/.283 the year before. Along with Maury Wills and Gilliam--who had retired to become the team's third-base coach, only to rejoin the lineup as the third baseman in late May--the infield was entirely composed of switch hitters, a first.
Bavasi needed to make one more major move once the season began. On May 1, two-time All-Star Tommy Davis, the team's left fielder, broke his ankle sliding into second base; though Davis was coming off of a down year (.275/.311/.397, 5.9 WARP), the loss looked potentially devastating to the lineup. Luckily, Bavasi had stashed Lou Johnson at Triple-A Spokane; Johnson was a 30-year-old journeyman who had been kicking around the minor leagues for a dozen years while getting just 185 big league at-bats; he'd been acquired from the Tigers for pitcher Larry Sherry the year before. Johnson filled in seamlessly for Davis, hitting .259/.315/.391 and tying with Lefebvre for the team high in homers with 12 (no, those Dodgers didn't have much offense, but remember, it was a low-offense era). All in all, his performance was worth 5.0 WARP, right in line with a conservative estimate of what Davis might have provided.
The Dodgers led the NL for most of the year before a 13-16 stretch starting in mid-August dropped them as far down as third behind the Giants and Reds. They stormed back and won 13 straight, with the pitching staff allowing just 14 runs in that span, six of them in one game. They retook first with a week to play, nipped the Giants by two games to win the pennant, and went on to win a thrilling seven-game World Series over the Minnesota Twins, with Koufax pitching a three-hit shutout on two days' rest in the clincher. Johnson homered to provide the finale's first run; it was his second homer of the series as he hit .296/.321/.593. For the second time in three years, the Dodgers were World Champs.
The inevitable byproduct of such success meant higher salaries for the Dodger players, Koufax and Drysdale in particular. Free agency was more than a decade away, the Reserve Clause was in its full flower, and the Major League Baseball Players Association was just getting to know its new executive director, Marvin Miller. Against this backdrop, the Dodger aces conspired to demand three-year deals totaling a combined $1 million (Koufax had made $85,000 in 1965, Drysdale $80,000). When Bavasi refused to meet that demand or even to negotiate with their agent, Bill Hayes, the pitchers began a dual holdout as spring training opened in late February, threatening to retire to Hollywood stardom. Four weeks and countless phone calls and newspaper articles later, Koufax signed a one-year contract for $125,000, Drysdale $110,000. A year later, Bavasi would concede defeat to the dynamic duo but threaten retribution on future holdouts, while remaining proud of his refusal to negotiate with Hayes.
Along with promoting 21-year-old rookie Don Sutton into the rotation, Bavasi's big move to bolster the 1966 Dodgers was an afterthought, a deal where he traded utilityman Tracewski to Detroit for reliever Phil Regan, who'd gone 1-5 with a 5.05 ERA the year before. Like Perranoski a few years earlier, Regan became the go-to guy in the Dodger bullpen; he went 14-1 with a 1.62 ERA and 21 saves while leading the league in WXRL. The 1966 team got off to an uncharacteristically slow start, and while they soon rose well above .500, they were only in third place behind the Pirates and Giants as September opened, having spent just eight days with a share of first place up to that point. Trailing by two games, they won 12 of their next 14 to seize the lead, and reached the World Series for the third time in four years. Alas, they were swept by the upstart Baltimore Orioles, who held them to two runs in four games, the last three of which were shutouts. Shortly after the season, Koufax, who'd gone 27-9 with a 1.73 ERA and 317 strikeouts en route to his third Cy Young in four years, retired due to the persistent pain in his arthritic elbow. Two weeks later, Bavasi traded Wills--who'd gone AWOL during the team's post-season barnstorming trip in Japan--to the Pirates for Gene Michael and Bob Bailey. The speedy shortstop and team captain was coming off a down year (.273/.314/.308), but the Dodgers couldn't offset his loss, to say nothing of Koufax's, even with Sutton and fellow youngster Bill Singer coming along. The 1967 Dodgers finished 73-89, in eighth place.
Laying His Cards on the Table
Prior to the 1967 season, Bavasi penned a four-part series (with the help of writer Jack Olsen) for Sports Illustrated offering a revealing window into the tactics of a Reserve Clause-era executive so smug about holding the best cards in the negotiation game that he could afford to lay them on the table for the world to see. Full of more candor and more than a little bravado, the articles--now available via the SI Vault--make for fascinating reading:
By this point, Dodger owner Walter O'Malley was looking to create front-office space for his son Peter, and Bavasi could see the handwriting on the wall. With an expansion of the both leagues in the offing, the powerful owner pulled some strings to get a franchise placed in San Diego. After a dalliance with California Angels owner Gene Autry, Bavasi was lured to the new Padres by owner C. Arnholt Smith, the president of the United States National Bank and the operator of San Diego's minor league franchis. Bavasi came on board as club president in exchange for a 32 percent share of the team.
Unfortunately for Bavasi, it's no small hyperbole to say that Smith was as crooked as any owner in baseball history. Even his fashion tastes were criminally awful; his penchant for brown suits provided the Padres with their initial garish color scheme. Smith overpaid for the expansion franchise, then ran it on a budget that made shoestrings seem like a luxury; the team payroll was less than $1 million. The Padres couldn't even afford waiver-price pickups, and often sold players to meet their minimal payroll obligations. Smith funneled money into and out of his various ventures while trying to remain one step ahead of the IRS, the FBI, and the Securities and Exchange Commission. In 1973, the the United States National Bank collapsed; at $400 million it was the largest bank failure in US history. Smith was eventually convicted of income tax fraud, grand theft, and the embezzlement of $8.9 million, but he only served seven months in an honor camp when he was able to find a doctor who said that the 84-year-old Smith had less than five years to live. He cheated death too, living to the ripe old age of 97.
Amid all of his assorted legal woes, Smith agreed to sell the Padres to a Washington, D.C.-area businessman who had designs on moving the franchise to the nation's capital. Alas, he failed to realize that he needed the approval of his fellow owners, not to mention an escape from his stadium lease. The sale fell through when the city of San Diego filed suit, and McDonalds magnate Ray Kroc swooped in and purchased the club to keep it in San Diego. Bavasi's ownership share evaporated entirely when the IRS seized the proceeds to help pay off some $26 million in back taxes owed by Smith, but he stuck around into the 1977 season before departing, ostensibly to retire.
In light of this, it's probably unfair to judge Bavasi's performance in San Diego too harshly, but the track record isn't pretty. The Padres lost 598 games in their first six years, never escaping the NL West basement, with a high-water mark of 73 wins and fourth place out of six teams in 1976. Though their inability to pay substantial bonuses certainly didn't help, the team drafted poorly. Three times they had the first pick of the entire draft, and they came home with Mike Ivie (1970, 15.6 career WARP), Dave Roberts (1972, 6.3 WARP) and Bill Almon (1974, 22.9 WARP)--a trio of draft history's least impressive top picks. As if that weren't bad enough, a pair of pitchers chosen as second overall picks, Jay Franklin (1971) and Mike Lentz (1975), managed just 5 2/3 innings in the majors combined (all of them Franklin's). The team did hit the jackpot with future Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, chosen fourth in 1973, but it wasn't nearly enough to alter the Padres' fortunes. Not helping matters much were the efforts of Bavasi's son Peter, who served as director of minor league operations from 1969-1972 and then as GM from 1973 to 1976. He traded useful youngsters like Mike Caldwell and Jerry Morales for over-the-hill veterans Willie McCovey and Glenn Beckert in a misguided attempt to add some star power to the ailing franchise.
Aging with the Angels
Several months after leaving the Padres, Bavasi did what he probably should have done instead of venturing to San Diego, joining Autry's Angels as the team's executive vice president in the fall of 1977. Autry was desperate for a winner. In their first 17 years of existence, the Angels had never made the postseason, had finished with a winning record just four times (most recently in 1970), and had placed no higher than fourth in the six-team AL West during the era of divisional play. Autry had already begun spending heavily in pursuit of changing the team's fortunes; in the winter of 1976-1977, GM Harry Dalton had made a bold foray into the new free agent market, signing Bobby Grich, Joe Rudi, and Don Baylor, all of whom had experience playing for winners in Baltimore and Oakland. Alas, Grich and Rudi wound up missing more than half of the 1977 season due to injuries, and the Angels went just 74-88, two games worse than their previous showing.
Bavasi had initially planned to serve just a year in Anaheim as a figurehead, but when the Brewers lured Dalton away, he took over operational duties, and brought a sense of urgency to the task of turning the team's fortunes around. Shortly after signing outfielder Lyman Bostock as a free agent, he traded Bobby Bonds, Thad Bosley, and Rich Dotson (the team's first-round pick from the 1977 draft) to the White Sox for catcher Brian Downing and pitchers Chris Knapp and Dave Frost. The deal wound up helping both teams on some level--Dotson would win 22 games while helping the White Sox win the 1983 AL West--but Downing's development from a pudgy 26-year-old part-time catcher to a muscular outfielder who would spend 13 years as lineup mainstay made it a long-term win for the Angels. Forty-five games into the season, Bavasi fired manager Dave Garcia, who'd taken over less than a year before, and replaced him with former Angels star Jim Fregosi. The 1978 team improved by 13 games, going 87-75 and finishing second in the division, although Bostock's tragic shooting death in late September put a bit of a damper on things.
The following winter, Bavasi largely steered clear of the free agent market, except to add some staff filler in the form of Jim Barr. His big moves were two trades with the Twins, first acquiring outfielder Dan Ford for cornerman Ron Jackson and DH Danny Goodwin (a two-time #1 pick, most recently by the Angels in 1975), and then netting 33-year-old, seven-time batting champion Rod Carew for four players, including 1976 first-round pick Ken Landreaux. The moves paid off, as the two ex-Twins helped powered the Angels' offense to the league's lead in scoring en route to the team's first division crown. Baylor won MVP honors via a .296/.371/.530 season with 36 homers and 139 RBI. Grich added 30 homers, Ford and rookie DH Willie Aikens 21 apiece, and third baseman Carney Landsford another 19. Frost tied with Nolan Ryan for the staff lead in wins with 16, helping the team offset the loss of Frank Tanana due to a shoulder injury.
Tanana would return in 1980 as the de facto staff ace, because Ryan had departed for the Houston Astros as a free agent. At 33, Ryan was coming off of a 16-14 season with a 3.60 ERA and 223 strikeouts, that last his lowest mark in four years. Bavasi viewed Ryan as little more than a .500 pitcher, and simply refused to make him the game's first $1 million a year player, stating that all the Angels needed to replace him was two 8-7 pitchers. He later regretted the move, wishing Autry had overruled him.
A few days later, Bavasi signed 35-year-old Freddie Patek as a free agent, and the next day he traded Aikens--who would bop four homers in the next year's World Series--and infielder Rance Mulliniks to the Royals for outfielder Al Cowens and two other players. The team Bavasi was assembling an older team than the one he'd started out with; the average age of the lineup had advanced from 26.5 years old in 1977 to 27.7 in 1978 and 28.3 in 1979. The trend continued to the 1980 Angels (the lineup reached an average of 29.0 years old by this point) but the winning did not; the team slumped to 65-95, ahead of the only the Mariners in the AL West. Baylor was limited to 90 games and a .250/.316/.341 performance due to injuries, while Ford and Downing missed even more substantial portions of the year. The rotation sorely missed Ryan, finishing with a 5.13 ERA; only Tanana (4.10) came close to the American League's average ERA of 4.03.
Bavasi made two deals with the Red Sox that winter that aged the team even further, packaging 24-year-old Lansford, 24-year-old reliever Mark Clear, and outfielder Rick Miller for 29-year-old Butch Hobson and 30-year-old Rick Burleson. Six weeks later he sent Joe Rudi, pitcher Jim Dorsey, and Tanana--who at 27 had already spent parts of eight season in the majors--to Boston for 28-year-old Fred Lynn and 36-year-old hurler Steve Renko. Burleson was healthy for the final time in his career and had a good season, while Hobson was a disappointment and Lynn (.219/.322/.316 in 76 games) a disaster; meanwhile in Boston, Lansford won the batting title, though Tanana and Clear struggled.
In the strike-torn 1981 season, the Angels started off slowly, costing Fregosi his job 47 games into the year. Bavasi hired veteran skipper Gene Mauch and the team initially responded well; they were 31-29 when the strike hit. They went just 20-30 in the second half, finishing with just the fifth-best combined record in the division. The season wasn't a total loss, as Bavasi's complete overhaul of the rotation--signing free agent Geoff Zahn, trading for Renko and the Astros' Ken Forsch (who had cost them shortstop Dickie Thon), and promoting 20-year-old rookie Mike Witt--had lowered their staff's collective ERA to 3.91.
That quartet of starting pitchers would help the team finish second in ERA the following year, with Zahn winning 18 games, but the pitching wouldn't be the star attraction. That honor would belong to former Yankee slugger Reggie Jackson, signed as a free agent with a four-year deal that guaranteed Reggie over $1 million a year plus 50 cents for every gate admission over 2.4 million. Elsewhere in the lineup, Bavasi purchased Bob Boone from the Phillies, acquired Doug DeCinces from the Orioles for Ford, and added Tim Foli from the Pirates for Brian Harper. The lineup now had a player over 30 at every position, and advanced from an average of 30.4 years in 1981 to 32.2 in 1982.
Chockfull of veterans, they won the division again with a 93-69 record. Jackson hit 39 homers and earned an extra $200,000 on his incentive-laden deal. DeCinces hit 30 homers, Downing bounced back with 28 of his own, and Fred Lynn rebounded with a strong, healthy year. The lineup finishing second in the league in scoring at 5.02 runs per game; only the team's failure to get by the Brewers in the ALCS, blowing a two games to none lead in the best-of-five, put a damper on the season.
That was to be Bavasi's last hurrah; he never would get the Cowboy into the World Series. The Angels would fall back to 70-92 the following year, and while they would finish second in the AL West 1984 at 81-81, he stepped down that September. His legacy in Anaheim is a mixed one. The fruits of the Angels' farm system that he relentlessly harvested and traded away would play prominent roles for winning teams throughout the game during the 1980s, and their absence would play no small part in the 1984 team's failure to seize control in the AL West (see Steven Goldman's chapter on that race in It Ain't Over). But Bavasi had turned the Angels into a gate attraction; they were sixth in the league in attendance when he took over, but they'd risen to the top of the league, and ran first or second in attendance every year from 1979 to 1987. He had definitely raised the bar for the franchise.
Though he'd spent considerably on free agents, Bavasi never entirely adapted to the post-Reserve Clause mindset. His breezy 1987 biography, Off the Record, is full of resentment for the entry of agents into the negotiating picture, shock at the big dollars being thrown around, and remorse at the loss of the paternalistic bond he felt with the Dodger players who were bound to his ballclub like so many serfs. Though time had passed him by, there's no denying that he'd left a major imprint on the game. His accomplishments almost certainly merit a plaque in the Cooperstown, but the Veterans Committee has bypassed him in each of the past two years; after polling just 37 percent (30 votes) in 2007, he slipped to "fewer than three votes" in 2008. That's a ridiculous oversight of his credentials and his impact; he's a Hall of Fame-worthy executive if there ever was one.