This topic is too large to dissect in one post, so hopefully I’ll have help with comments and subsequent posts, but the Fox piece of our history should be put out there. Why? Well, the hot stove has just begun to warm and how many times can I say “We need a solid pitcher or two” and “Our owner is a sham”? So, without further ado…
When I first heard Peter O’Malley was planning on selling the Dodgers, I couldn’t believe it. I hoped, once the idea sunk in and it was obviously going to happen, that some local businessman would step up. I had the same hope when I learned Fox then planned to sell the team. Anyway, Fox turned out to be O’Malley’s buyer, and I must confess I had some mixed feelings on the transfer.
Of course losing the family history dating well back into Brooklyn sucked, but of course times change and at some point it seemed inevitable something like this could happen. O’Malley handed the keys over to Fox and the good news was we suddenly had very deep pockets. While Peter O’Malley was not Frank McCourt, obviously we were starting to feel the same effect – that our large market team might not be able to compete financially with other large market teams. So, it intrigued me to see what Fox might be able to do.
Fox went to work right away, having suits handle baseball operations since they obviously didn’t have much respect for “baseball people”. I guess in some ways you can understand that. Anyone who fancies himself a baseball geek feels at one time or another they know more than the “experts” in charge. Playing Monday morning quarterback is easy sometimes, though I must confess, oftentimes I arrogantly do feel I know more than some of these geniuses. I’m sure anyone reading this has felt the same way.
If you watch GMs sign guys who obviously are coming off a career year, or just suck in general, or are injury risks, to big, bloated contracts you know they’ll never in a million years be able to live up to, it’s easy to feel you know more than they do. Of course they might know what we know, but they’re rolling the dice, making a move to save their butts, or any number of other reasons. So, when you get some smarmy entertainment execs together, why shouldn’t they feel they know more than guys like Fred Claire? He of the Aquanet hairspray, Dockers and closeted, effeminate voice.
I recall many memories of my life as a Dodger fan, one of the best, I think, was after a game seeing Fred Claire on the Club level of the stadium, come out of a door suddenly and make a bee line for the exit. People were filing out, talking about the game, and Fred, with some papers tucked under his arm, neatly pressed polo shirt and Dockers, zigzagged through the throng like Walter Payton in his heyday. A friend and I tried to keep up, but by golly, that white haired gentleman with hair Steve Garvey would be proud of, disappeared into the mob and was gone, without anyone but us noticing him. Anyhow, I digress…
Fox executives Peter Chernin and Chase Carey overstepped Fred Claire and traded Mike Piazza and poor Todd Zeile, who signed with the Dodgers at a hometown discount, to the Florida Marlins for disgruntled asswipe Gary Sheffield, bloated and disinterested Bobby Bonilla, Charles Johnson and Jim Eisenreich, a guy who suffered from Tourette syndrome and a notorious Dodger killer, but also past his prime. Fans’ jaws collectively dropped, sports talk show switchboards went nuts and the Dodgers were never really the same, reaching new points of darkness, with more and more foibles to come.
We all know about that, but let’s discuss a few points of the Fox era.
First, Fox could have been a good owner. They came in and immediately doubled payroll. That’s a great thing if you have a GM like Ned Colletti around, or Dan Evans, but the Fox group hired Kevin Malone, another effeminate speaking guy with scrubbed skin, a meticulously manicured mustache and not that many brain cells. Malone, who nicknamed himself “The Sheriff”, wanted to be a GM for so long that he told his bosses he could do the impossible – rebuild the floundering Dodger farm system, while fielding an immediate pennant contender – at the same time.
Generally rebuilding means, well, rebuilding. To assume you can rebuild and win is a stretch. It’s possible, I suppose, but if your cupboards are fairly bare, it’s ambitious, to say the least. The Dodgers farm, once the envy of every major league team, had gotten pretty barren, left to develop somewhat talented, but imperfect ballplayers. At some point along the line, the Dodger way to play baseball message had gotten watered down, and scouting seemed to beat the bushes to find some raw talents who weren’t that sharp, or not taught the skills they needed to develop properly. That’s my take anyway, I witnessed lots of guys who could do something well – hit for power, run, throw, etc., but very few, almost none, who could put it all together into any sort of cohesive package. Raul Mondesi, perhaps, was as close to a complete package as we had, and he was emotionally immature, impatient and never going to amount to the talent he could have.
Malone went shopping and decided to rebuild the team on the fly, using Fox money and the available free-agent pool. It was a debacle fraught with gambles, poor choices, and just an overall poor assemblage of players. No thought went into character, as players with checkered pasts, questionable attitudes and most of whom were fairly unlikeable, were tossed together and called Dodgers. Dodgers? These weren’t Dodgers. These were guys. Guys who cursed out reporters, demanded extra money to come play here, who beat up water coolers, choked flight attendants, drank too much, seemed completely disinterested, wanting more to fish than play baseball. Oh, for the days of The Infield, geeky Orel Hershiser, Scioscia sitting on home plate in a manner I was convinced was perfectly legal as an opposing baserunner rounded third, and so on.
Kevin Malone whined, perpetually looked like he was about to cry, yet with the power of Jesus in his hip pocket, was decidedly arrogant, and even challenged taunting fans in San Diego to fist fights. The team was a mess, and with the disappointment on the field, Fox ultimately lost interest in the Dodgers. They had gotten what they wanted, a West Coast cable sports network established, and since they were proven right that “baseball people” – like Kevin Malone – knew very little about baseball, and there was NO guarantee that throwing good money after bad would change the situation any, they shut their wallet and let the Dodgers drift.
Eventually Malone was gone and Dan Evans came in – a guy often maligned, but to me was someone who should get much more credit than he has. Evans managed to somehow turn Malone’s mess into a fairly competitive team, reestablished Dodger pitching, made defense a priority, chemistry, and put Logan White, Kim Ng, Bill Bavasi, John Boles and others in place to fix the farm system. Under Evans watch, most of the players we hold near and dear today were drafted and cultivated. Scouting returned to its former glory, and the big league team was very close to contending. Of course, without any help from ownership, Evans’ Dodgers were reduced to scouring the waiver wire and picking up guys who were well past their prime, in hopes of finding lightning in the least likely places.
The worst crime of all was committed during the 2003 season as Fox scrambled to sell and Evans’ Dodgers had the best pitching staff in baseball, led by a resurgent Kevin Brown, lights-out Hideo Nomo, and Cy Young winner (and then unknown steroid user) Eric Gagne. Not only was the pitching staff collectively the best in baseball that year, it was the best pitching staff PERIOD in almost 30 years. Also, the team was one of the slickest fielding units assembled – all they needed was another bat. Evans pleaded, but was not allowed to spend a penny (shades of this past season with Ned left to answer our ace needs with Ranger dump Vicente Padilla).
Without money, Evans had to add offense with the likes of 100 year old Rickey Henderson, a game but aging Robin Ventura, and of course Jeromy Burnitz. The Dodgers just missed the wild card – that record pitching and defense wasted as Fox prepared to help Boston phony Frank McCourt “buy” the Dodgers and leave us in the hands of someone who cared just as little as they did.
For the record, if you look back at 2002 and 2003, here are some of the players Dan Evans, Logan White, Kim Ng and Bill Bavasi managed to draft and get into our system:
- James Loney
- Jonathan Broxton
- James McDonald
- Russell Martin
- Delwyn Young
- Eric Stults
- Chad Billingsley
- Xavier Paul
- Matt Kemp
- Andy LaRoche
Not bad, eh? This is pretty amazing, especially when you consider how much crap Dan Evans had thrown at him by nouveau Sabermetricians. When called on this, these data crunchers inevitably give all the praise to Logan White, but neglect Evans who brought White aboard, as well as Kim Ng and the rest of the team that turned a failed farm system into one of the best in baseball. The farm literally went from bottom 5 to top 5 during the Evans years.
Anyway, that’s a trip down Fox memory lane, so much to talk about, so much left out.
I’d like to delve deeper into the flight attendant strangulation – pretty outstanding stuff, considering this occurred on a 75-minute flight. What in god’s good name could a flight attendant do to bring upon that sort of reaction? Like the age old question of how many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop, the world may never know.
(This entry dedicated to Peter Chernin and Chase Carey, Kevin “The Sheriff” Malone, Todd Hundley, Gary Sheffield, Devon White, Kevin Elster, Carlos Perez, Davey Johnson, and all the other wonderful people who made this era of Dodger baseball so entertaining for all of us)