After starting his baseball career as a beat writer, Fred Claire moved on to public relations with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He’d go on to spend 30 years in the Dodger organization, capped by his stint from 1987 to 1998 as general manager. Following 11 years as GM, including a 1988 World Series victory, newly-minted Fox ownership fired Claire soon after the landmark Mike Piazza trade of ’98. Claire now works as a consultant for Performance Health Technologies of Boulder, Col., marketing a shoulder rehab device called SportsRac to pro athletes and weekend warriors. BP recently spoke to Claire about his career in Dodger Blue, the death of family ownership in the game, the Pedro Martinez trade, and the Dodger Way.
You can catch Fred Claire, along with BP’s Joe Sheehan and Jonah Keri, and other guests, at the Barnes & Noble bookstore, 245 N. Glendale Ave. in Glendale, Calif., Thursday, April 1 at 7:30 p.m. We’ll be talking baseball, Dodgers, Baseball Prospectus 2004 and Claire’s new book, Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue, over pizza.
Baseball Prospectus: For years the Dodgers were considered one of the top teams at producing talent through the farm system, through the so-called Dodger Way. How would you describe what the Dodger Way was and why it was successful?
Fred Claire: If there is a word I could use to describe it, it was used by someone I respected a great deal, Bill Schweppe, the long-time vice president in charge of the Dodger farm system. The word Bill used is continuity. If you really look at the Dodger organization, minor league and player development, even extended to the major leagues, everything was all linked–there was a continual passing of the baton. The things that had been taught really from the days of Branch Rickey were passed on through the knowledge and experience of Buzzie Bavasi, Fresco Thompson, Al Campanis… If you look at the positions of general manager or farm director, over a period of 30, 40-plus years, you had only three or four people people in each of those areas. There was a structured path of development.
Tommy Lasorda was a great example of this: a person who played in the organization, became a scout, a minor league manager starting in rookie ball, working his way up to become major league manager–that was the same path Walter Alston had followed. You can break it down to pitching coaches–Red Adams, then Ron Perranoski, Dave Wallace, Goose Gregson–in almost every area you saw this. Instead of an organization where there’s a new GM every few years, which means a new farm director, new philosophy, ours was steeped not just in tradition, but continuity–learning and seeing what had worked.
In my 30 years in the organization, we never reached outside the organization to hire a pitching or hitting coach. Or a third base coach. We never went outside to hire a trainer. You could make the point that well, maybe the Dodgers should have looked at other options. But I don’t subscribe to that, because I think there’s a record there that speaks for itself. And unfortunately, for better or for worse, when changes were made as far as going outside the organization, starting with ownership going to Fox, things changed dramatically.
BP: Can’t continuity just be a byproduct of winning, though, where you don’t fix what you feel isn’t broken? Isn’t there a danger of complacency?
Claire: You have to be producing results, definitely. You can talk about continuity on the scouting front too, from Al Campanis to Ben Wade and others. Whether it was scouts or other long-time people, I never saw a case where somebody had a job for a long time and complacency set in. There was a real passion that existed, and a real pride that existed. Look at players not only in number but also quality who were Rookies of the Year, all the way back to Jackie. That’s not to say that there weren’t droughts for periods of time, but there weren’t many.
BP: Different organizations emphasize different skills in building a scouting and player development program, whether it’s power, speed, plate discipline, or other elements. What would you say was the cornerstone of the Dodgers’ system?
Claire: It has to be pitching. That really starts at the scouting level and identifying talent, then onto instruction within the organization. You didn’t have players being told one thing at the A-ball level, then something different at Double-A, Triple-A, and then in the majors. The very structure of Dodgertown (the Dodgers’ spring training and minor league facility in Vero Beach, Fla.) lent itself to that, where you had a togetherness, an emphasis on instruction.
You’d like to say there was a major breakthrough, a major secret, when in reality it’s kind of the turning of the flywheel, just the day after day after day dedication. We were hedgehogs, and we would grind. If I could borrow from the words of Walter O’Malley: We may not necessarily be any smarter than anyone else, but the work ethic and coordination were incredible.
BP: You mentioned Dodgertown, and that complex was unique when it was first built, an all-in-one, first-class spring training facility. But now of course every team has better facilities. Does Dodgertown give the Dodgers any kind of edge today?
Claire: I’m not so sure the advantage can be regained because of all the great complexes that have been built. One thing we’ve used there, though, from an organizational standpoint with young players, is to give them an understanding of the great players that have come before them, that trained on those very grounds. It’s like if you’re going to play basketball at UCLA: You’ve gone through some tough years, but you haven’t lost your history, and that’s something that can be used by the coaches to help players understand what it takes to win. Of course you have to have the methods and dedication to have it mean more than just words. Pete Carroll did that successfully at USC. There was a great history there, but it had been a long time since they’d won a national championship. When he came in, he tried to link his tenure to USC’s great history.
When changes were made in the Dodger structure, Kevin Malone–and I always liked Kevin–but he and the administration made some major mistakes by almost wanting to disconnect from Dodger history. The attitude was that this was a different administration, they should approach things differently, and forget what you knew about the Dodger way of the past. I’m not objecting to the idea, but I think they misstepped when they said that. Part of the effect came in the loss of the very thing I’m talking about, continuity. Mike Scioscia leaves the organization when he never should have left, and we’ve seen the success that he’s had. Same with Mickey Hatcher, Ron Roenicke, Gary Sutherland. When you disconnect links, you disconnect continuity, disconnect the flow, and the result is you end up letting go of some incredibly important people. And you know what? You’re only as good as your people.
BP: What’s the best way to build a winning team in an extreme pitcher’s environment like Dodger Stadium?
Claire: We realized Dodger Stadium was and always would be a pitcher’s park. But we always emphasized pitching first anyway. There was never a great emphasis because of Dodger Stadium on the need to do this or that to adjust. Each and every season, we looked at having a chance to compete, to get to postseason play. That was done, we felt, through pitching. I look back over the 30 years that I was with the Dodgers, even after that or last year–how many times did the Dodgers lead the league in ERA, have quality starting pitching, good relief pitching…the park was a part of that certainly, but the quality was still there. There were some really well balanced teams as well. Of course the very famous infield of Garvey, Lopes, Russell and Cey, with a combination of speed and power. Players like Reggie Smith and Dusty Baker in that mix. Even in a pitcher’s park, you had four guys hitting 30 or more home runs. We simply looked for the best talent.
BP: What kind of impact did Frank Jobe have on your decision making, in terms of the close relationship he’s had with the Dodgers and his medical expertise?
Claire: Whenever we would look at a player, we would always turn to the medical staff, which included Dr. Jobe, Dr. (Michael) Mellman, and the trainers. They’d tell us what we needed to know on the medical front first, before we made any move. You can’t evaluate players and player performance until you know the full injury situation.
BP: The Dodgers have a long history of drafting high school pitchers, who are some of the biggest injury risks out there. When I spoke to Dr. Jobe he mentioned how he’d consult with the team from time to time when a player’s injury history need to reviewed. Was it to the point where he’d be in the draft war room, or was the relationship less involved than that?
Claire: With the draft, all medical input had already been factored in in advance, so no, he wasn’t there on draft day. He has been such an important part of the organization for a long time, though. Whether it was a trade, or whatever it may have been, Frank Jobe was always our guy to go to.
While we’re on that point, SportsCentury is putting together a show on Pedro Martinez, and a guy from that show called me the other day. He said he had a chance to talk to Jobe at Dodgertown. He said when he asked Jobe for his report at the time on Pedro, Frank replied: ‘I was wrong.’ When the trade was made–and I say this now, now that Frank has spoken–he asked me: ‘Fred, why don’t you ever mention my report to you on Pedro?’ I said not only have I not done that, I will never do that. Because the job of a GM is to make a decision based on the information he has. Your job is to give me the information you have, and no one is better than you at doing it. You’re not always going to be right, just like anyone. But I firmly believe that’s the best approach, whether it was input from scouts, major league staff, or anyone else; ultimately only one person can make the decision. It’s important to have that structure, not as much to protect as to respect everyone involved.
BP: What was in Pedro’s medical report that was so negative?
Claire: From what Frank had seen related to Pedro, he had concerns with the body build and structure, what he had seen in his shoulder, what his endurance factor was going to be. Fortunately for Pedro, he has obviously handled all of that with a performance that speaks for itself.
BP: At the time the Pedro trade for Delino Deshields was viewed by many people as good for the Dodgers, given Deshields was a young, talented player with a good track record and potential to improve even more. Your book discusses some of the events that led to the trade, but take me through some of your thought process here.
Claire: When the trade was made, I can recall how upset the other Montreal players and media were, because Delino was seen as not only an outstanding young player, but also as a leader of a good, young Montreal team. At that time we were looking for a second baseman. History will recall very well that we went above and beyond the call of duty to sign Jody Reed then. His refusal to sign the deal we offered proved to be a big mistake on his part, considering it was for three years, $7 million. It amazed me the process I had to go through with Jody and his agent–the agent didn’t have a lot of experience in the game–it was almost like trying to negotiate both sides of the deal, to get him to recognize what a tremendous offer we had made. I kept stressing that this is just not a deal they should turn down. Ultimately of course they did. We also explored talks with Robby Thompson of the Giants. The Giants got a little concerned about that, signed Robby, and then Will Clark got away.
In all honesty the last thing I wanted to do was trade Pedro away. The thing about Pedro is that he is and always has been a very special player. A lot of it has to do with his heart and with his spirit. We were familiar with the family too, because his brother Ramon had become our best pitcher. Ultimately the trade was done, and despite the promise of Delino and other factors, proved to be a poor trade for the Dodgers.
BP: In your book you talk about the relationship you had with Craig Wright over the years. What kind of statistical research did he do for you and how did you implement his work?
Claire: I hired him as a consultant, and he worked for us–for me directly–throughout most of the 90s, six or seven years. I had met Craig, and I was very impressed by his approach, his evaluation process. This really kind of pre-dated a lot of what’s happening in the game today (in statistical analysis). Using Craig’s services went with the philosophy that I had as a GM: Gain as much information as you possibly can and make your decisions based on that information. What you will find in the game is that it’s seldom going to be the case that everyone is in agreement on an issue, but Craig added some valuable input to the process. I respected Craig’s evaluation process, and I felt he was very good as it related to players in not only their major league careers, but also in their minor league careers. You had your scouting looking at certain other organizations–there always a large emphasis on pro scouting. But Craig was able to add a different dimension with his own analysis–much of it statistically based. There was a lot of looking at prospects, but also him helping on the major league level. I can recall when we signed Tom Candiotti, we were looking at free agent pitchers, and Craig felt he could be a guy who could give a lot of innings and pitch successfully.
But again, just as you’re listening to medical people as you should be but don’t call attention to them, it was the same thing, where I wouldn’t mention individual scouts, Craig, or how a trade came about. It doesn’t matter: there’s only only one guy responsible for it, one guy who should be responsible. When people talk about a group decision, my answer is that there are no group decisions.
BP: You talked about some of the names that went through the Dodger organization before you. Did you pattern your style as a GM after anyone?
Claire: It was more about being fortunate to be involved with wonderful baseball people. Bill Schweppe, Al Campanis, Walter Alston, two of Walter’s coaches at that time who I had maintained relationships with, Red Adams and Monte Basgall. Those were the people that I really looked to and valued their thoughts, their leadership. And Peter O’Malley of course, from the time he became president of the organization in 1970. When I could see the dedication that these people had to the organization, the work ethic and passion they had, it really just fit in to my feelings about what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it. That was my foundation.
BP: In your book you talk about the O’Malley family’s ownership and its importance to the Dodgers. What does family-type ownership or individual ownership bring to the table compared to corporate ownership? What can the McCourts and Arte Moreno do to make their mark?
Claire: What an individual can bring is a statement of the philosophy that person is going to bring as it relates to ownership. The problem I saw with Fox for example was that there was no one from Fox that was in a visible position who was willing to take responsibility. I think, as much as anything, it’s the internal communication, so that people in your organization can understand how you’re going to manage the organization. What needs to be established is credibility, what you say to the public, your consumers, your fans, that it’s all tracking. It may be things that the fans don’t care to hear. It may be ‘our payroll is going to be at such and such a level, we’re going to rely on young players and get players into our development system.’ I think consistency, a willingness to be present, accept responsibility, and answer questions that are there–particularly when things aren’t going well, are most important. I don’t think fans are given enough credit for their understanding. The fan is looking for credibility. The process is one of communication, internally and externally, to the media and the fans.
Arte Moreno has done an outstanding job. He’s found the good side to be on, where he’s really exceeded anything that he’s talked about. As much as anything, he has surprised everyone, including his team, by really going far beyond what he said he was willing to do. That’s something that every owner should take to heart.
BP: Another topic discussed at length in the book is the Piazza deal. How was it was handled, and hypothetically, if you weren’t put in the situation you were and had complete control at the time, how would you have handled it differently?
Claire: My desire was to sign Mike. I think that would have been possible, because we were willing to make a commitment that should have been able to accomplish that. He had been offered a contract that would have made him the highest-paid player in the game. I believe–and Mike’s the only one who could speak to this for sure–that he would have wanted to stay in Los Angeles. He was caught totally off guard by the timing of the trade. There wasn’t anything about the trade that made sense from a baseball standpoint. First, Fox and Chase Carey took on two contracts where the Marlins would have handled significant part of both contracts if they’d been patient, given how anxious they were to move them.
When I say Mike could have been signed, I don’t know that for sure. If the O’Malleys were there, I think we’d have been able to sign him, but if we couldn’t, the fans would have recognized that we gave it our best effort. He wasn’t the first star Dodger to get away, if you think about Garvey signing with the Padres, for instance. But I wanted to feel comfortable knowing, did we do everything possible to sign this player? There’s no way to know if we could have done it, but I would have been comfortable with our ultimate position if I’d been given the chance to handle things the way I wanted. And that’s really the only place you can be. You can’t say ‘we must sign this player.’ It doesn’t work, and you can’t make a sensible decision with that approach.
BP: You say there were no elements of the deal that made sense for the Dodgers baseball-wise, but just in Gary Sheffield alone, you were getting a very good player. What made the deal so undesirable to you?
Claire: Well first of all, Bobby Bonilla was at a stage of his career where I would have had zero interest in him. Zero interest. Gary Sheffield in my view–and I know it to be true, because when I got the first call from Dave Dombrowski, he was very anxious to get rid of Sheffield’s contract–they would have taken quite a bit of his contract if we’d negotiated with them. Even if you don’t sign Mike at the end of the season, you have freedom of choices, money, and also knowledge–you know what your needs are. Whether we had signed Mike or not, I think it would have worked out much better for the Dodgers if there would have been more freedom–to sign Mike, or to have dollars to help build your team in view of Mike’s absence.
BP: What does Paul DePodesta need to do to get the Dodgers back to the playoffs, back on track?
Claire: My long-distance view is that he’s going to approach the job with a willingness to accept responsibility, but also as someone that’s going to rely heavily on the expertise that exists within the organization. Within the organization there are, I believe, nine former major league managers–a lot of good baseball people. Paul’s approach, as far as I can see, is going to be to rely on that expertise, on his scouts, player development people, his major league staff. I imagine he’ll be aggressive once he’s done his homework, and try to make the moves that are going to produce the best results. This does not look like a person who’s going to come in and say ‘I’m going to show you guys how to do it, stand back.’
BP: One of the trends we’ve seen in the talent market is fewer players going to arbitration, and the shrinking of baseball’s middle class. Is this good for the game? What can teams do to take advantage of these trends?
Claire: There’s no question we went through a period of time where players were signed to contracts where the dollar far exceeded the talent. It almost got to where because of the escalation of major contracts, teams were pulling other people up, even if the money didn’t make sense. Those signings were often made by mid-market-type teams. Teams going into new stadiums are examples of this. They’ll say ‘we can’t sign this premium free agent. so let’s sign one, two, or three of these other guys with some name value for $5, $6 million a year over three years. The problem is, for every player you sign to a significant contract, for every one that doesn’t work out, you’ve now impacted your organization on a long-term basis. You can’t get rid of that in a year. If you release the guy after the first year, he’s no longer there, but you’re still paying him $5 million a year. And it kills you, just kills you when you look at the bottom line. Even a team like the Dodgers, when I was fired in ’98, our payroll was $48 million–we were projected to just get over the middle line, and just get to a small profit.
That’s why ultimately good judgment and talent evaluation are so critical to the success of a team. The lack of good judgment in many cases and failures in talent evaluation is clearly one of the major problems baseball has today. With more players being set free because they’ve been non-tendered, it does present opportunities for clubs that use that good judgment and can make the signings that ultimately make sense.