Okay DFNY. I’ve been staring at that absurd picture of Kevin Malone for days, just trying to get my mind around your last post. There is so much more to be said about the Fox era, I wasn’t sure exactly where to go next. But that face kept taunting me. Ultimately there was no denying it – the Sheriff demanded to be accounted for.
So. Kevin Malone then…
Is there a figure as easy to mock in Dodgers lore? Talk among fans of the team, both casual and fanatical, and you’ll find someone willing to defend even the most unlikeable and ineffective member of the organization – past or present. But who defends Kevin Malone? Certainly not me.
No. I won’t defend him. But I will take him seriously, if only to reconcile his impressive pre-Dodger career with the debacle that followed. His was a fairly unprecendented swan dive into ignominy. How did it all go so badly? The cheap, easy answer is to write him off as a fool. While he may have had some foolish moments, I don’t completely buy that explanation.
I blame the 1997 Marlins.
Though perhaps a forgotten perception now, anyone who was a baseball fan back in 1997 can remember the grousing. The Florida Marlins had bought a World Series victory. Owner Wayne Huizenga had committed to $89 million in contracts (much of which we would later be conned into paying) the previous off season and had managed to spend his way to a championship. Listen to any sports talk radio station or talk baseball around any watercooler in the last three months of 1997 and these sentiments were sure to be expressed by someone.
I don’t know if any other single event has effected the Dodgers franchise in quite as insidious a manner. Keep in mind, all of this is what the Fox people were seeing as they were just entering the baseball business. It must have seemed so seductive to them – the notion that they could write a few checks and find themselves the owner of a championship team. Baseball was easy.
So a deep-seated case of Marlin envy took hold. Within a few months they’d traded for many of the key players from that Marlin’s team – and done so by taking the highly unusual step of bypassing Fred Claire, their own general manager. In doing so, they created the need for a new general manager. Enter Kevin Malone, right?
Well…sort of. But not before an exhaustive GM search. Actually the man at top of Fox’s wish list was none other than Dave Dombrowski – the architect of the Marlins championship roster (did you think I was kidding about Marlin envy? It is amazing they didn’t change our uniforms to teal!). Other candidates interviewed included Jim Bowden, Bob Watson, Omar Minaya, and Dean Taylor. And then of course…Kevin Malone.
Dombrowski ultimately opted to stay with the Marlins. Perhaps he sensed how dysfunctional the situation would get in LA, but that says something given the fact that he had just been ordered to dismantle a world series team and new ownership was also taking over in Florida. It leads me to wonder what the GM interviews with Fox were like. I picture them something like this:
Dave Dombrowski: Given the state of the current roster and the talent within the farm system, I propose a three-year plan to bring a championship to LA.
Bob Watson: I believe in a strong focus on player development.
Fox: (yawn) Next!
Jim Bowden: I think a rebuilding process is warranted here.
Fox: (annoyed) Next!
Omar Minaya: Building the proper team chemistry is crucial.
Fox: (lots of eye rolling) Get this guy outta here!
Dean Taylor: I’d like to win the Dodger way. With strong pitching, speed, timely hitting and defense.
Kevin Malone: Buy a championship? I can do that!
Fox: By Jove, I think we’ve got our man!
My point being, I don’t think Fox unwittingly hired an idiot. I think they specifically hired someone to do an idiotic job. It was your standard issue “garbage in/garbage out” situation. No self-respecting baseball man ought to have agreed to do it. Maybe Kevin Malone was dumb enough to think it was a good idea. Maybe he simply wanted to return to the GM’s office after having grabbed that brass ring in Montreal and losing it through little fault of his own. Who knows? Maybe I’d have done the same. After all, Fox had a an almost limitless budget and Malone had already built baseball’s best team once, only to see the 1994 baseball strike deny his 74-40 Expos the post-season berth they clearly were heading for. He probably decided to put his faith in his own talent and in God (he is an avowed evangelical) – and so he agreed to attempt one of the most colossally foolhardy bad ideas ever attempted by a major league team: He tried to turn a sow’s ear into silk within a single offseason.
The common wisdom surrounding the Dodgers going into the 1998-99 season was that they lacked an ace and were badly in need of left-handed power. So an argument could have been made for making Kevin Brown baseball’s first $100 million dollar man, but it would have been a very bad one. Especially given that the last and most expensive years of the contract extended into Brown’s 40’s. If the Dodgers were already a contender and Brown was the final piece needed, this might have made sense. But as a first piece towards creating an instant contender… it was absolutely reckless.
Similarly you could look sideways at both Todd Hundley and Devon White and tell yourself that they were the answer to our left handed power problems. If you had only the free agent pool and trade options available at that exact little sliver in time, it would be possible to view guys like them as reasonable targets. Of course you’d have to put out of your mind the fact that Hundley was coming off reconstructive surgery and that an aging Devon White was coming off of only his second season of 20+ homers in a o15 year career.
And so it was for almost all of Malone’s moves. He paid top dollar and gave out long term cntracts to players simply because they were there and they appeared to fill a need on his roster – if you did not look to closely.
Meanwhile he seemed to enjoy shooting his mouth off for the press, proclaiming himself the new sheriff in town at his first official press conference. But within the organization he was hardly the law. Fox was still convinced that they knew baseball well enough to make baseball decisions and thus they forced him to hire Davey Johnston to manage the Dodgers over his clear choice Felipe Alou, who had all but accepted a deal with us before supposedly changing his mind just minutes before an announcement. Could it be that the Expos simply outbid us with a last minute offer? I doubt it. Not given the open check book Malone clearly had. Nope – the incident clearly stunk of interference by Fox.
The net result of all of these and other moves was a third place finish in 1999 led by a barely interested davey Johnston. Fox would allow Malone to continue to try and spend his way to a championship in 2000 as they approved his trade of disgruntled Raul Mondesi for Shawn Green – a trade which allowed the Dodgers a window to extend Green to a six-year $84 million dollar deal. Green was a talented player and had success in LA, but the team around him was still too fundamentally flawed to truly compete for a championship and ended up in second place 11 games behind the dreaded Giants.
After that Fox apparently abandoned their hope of buying a championship, clamping down on the wallet from then on until the sale to Frank McCourt. Meanwhile our hero Kevin Malone finally shot his mouth off one time too many when he challenged a heckler to a fight during a game in San Diego in April of 2001. He resigned a few days later. Not to return to baseball since. Among other ventures since he is co-owner of a Mercedes dealership in Southern California with Hall of famer Eddie Murray.
As for me, I’m waiting for the day that they get the bright idea to sell off all of their inventory in a single off-season. I could use a cheap Mercedes!