When A Dodger Trade And Signing Led To A World Series Title
The Al Campanis theory is long outdated.
Campanis, the late vice president/general manager of the Dodgers who was fired in the first week of the 1987 season after his controversial appearance on the Nightline television show, often expressed the belief that you could not gain a true measure of your team until it had played every other team in the league.
The Campanis’ tenure, of course, spanned the years before interleague play and encompassed varying stages of expansion, ultimately up to 12 National League teams when he was fired. It was conceivable, in some of those years, to play every other team in the league prior to the June/July trade deadline, gaining an accurate measure, in his view, of Dodger strengths and weaknesses.
Now there are 15 teams in each league and an interleague game virtually every day/night of the season, obscuring the line between the American and National leagues. No team plays every other, and roster evaluations are required virtually every day as the analytical hordes have taken control. The Dodgers will begin the new decade with seven straight division titles and two National League pennants in that span.
By any measure Campanis’ former team has done an admirable job of balancing new and old approaches. Yet, the fan base and media have not been satisfied. The Dodgers have failed to convert that division dominance into a World Series title, and it is often pointed out that it has now been 31 years since their last, in 1988.
It is also often pointed out that ownership and management have failed to pull the trigger on the type signing or trade that would get the Dodgers that ultimate prize despite operating with record attendance and TV revenue.
Indeed, the New Year has started with attractive trade prospects Francisco Lindor and Mike Clevinger still in, and Mookie Betts in, and equally attractive free agents Gerrit Cole and Anthony Rendon having signed elsewhere.
Fred Claire has heard a similar drumbeat. Then owner Peter O’Malley, concluding that Campanis would have to be fired, asked Claire, then the Dodgers PR director, to take over as GM. There was little Claire could do in that emergency role to prevent a second consecutive season of 89 losses, although in September he would deliver two acquisitions that were instrumental in the ’88 success: center fielder John Shelby and pitcher Tim Belcher.
“We had been a combined 16 games under .500 the previous two years,” Claire said, recalling his thinking going into both the GM and winter meetings of the ‘87/88 offseason. “We were looking at three key elements. We had to get someone to stabilize the shortstop position, we had to get a closer because we weren’t going to win without one, and we needed left-handed help in the bullpen. All three were paramount.”
Claire and staff had two attractive bargaining chips: pitcher Bob Welch, who had been 15-9 with a 3.22 ERA in 35 workhorse starts in ’87, and outfielder Pedro Guerrero, who had finished second in the National League batting race at .338.
“Both represented big risks,” Claire said, “Bob was an elite pitcher and Pedro was a proven power hitter. But we were looking at some critical needs. In fact, at one point Orel Hershiser came to me and said he was willing to close games for us. I said ‘over my dead body’. But that’s how critical the closer need was.”
Ultimately, Claire would trade Welch to for shortstop Alfredo and closer Jay Howell. He would trade pitcher Jack Savage to the New York Mets for left handed reliever Jesse Orosco. He would also retain Guerrero after trade talks with for outfielder Kirk Gibson broke down under the cloud of the collusion hearings. Gibson was ultimately rewarded free agency and signed by the Dodgers, bringing, in Claire’s recollection, “talent, speed, leadership. He was a force.”
Gibson would win the NL MVP Award and come limping out of the clubhouse to hit that improbable home run in the ninth inning of Game 1 of the World Series, propelling the Dodgers to a longshot championship over the A’s.
All three teams involved in that pivotal trade—Dodgers, A’s and Mets—reached the postseason, certainly a satisfying development for Claire, who had heard it said throughout the industry that the rookie GM was afraid to pull the trigger on a trade before he finally did.
Mets general manager Joe McIlvaine had been particularly critical, but McIlvaine later called Claire and apologized for his comments.
“I told Joe that there was no need to apologize,” Claire said. “I was new in the GM role but I knew people throughout the industry and I knew what we needed to do.”
Now long in retirement Claire disputes the criticism leveled at the Dodgers.
“There’s a fine line involved in reaching a World Series let alone winning one,” he said. “I just don’t know how you can be critical. I have to think the Dodgers have the best winning percentage in baseball (during the division title streak), and I give them a lot of credit for maintaining a productive farm system and what they have done with (discarded) players like (Max Muncy, Chris Taylor, Austin Barnes and Kiké Hernandez). I also think the criticism that (manager) Dave Roberts has received (for postseason strategical moves) is totally uncalled for. I have total respect for what Dave has done with the Dodgers. He could manage for me any day, any year.”
A new decade begins with Roberts still at the helm and that fan/media drumbeat continuing to resound. Will the Dodgers pull the trigger?
Ross Newhan covered baseball for 35 years at the Los Angeles Times, the last 15 as the National Baseball Columnist. He was recipient of the 2001 J.G. Taylor Spink Award as voted by his peers in the BBWAA and is honored in the media wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame. He can be read regularly at newhanonbaseball.com.