Welcome to The Quazcast – a weekly podcast that brings listeners a frank conversation between myself and a random person from the world of sports.
I might speak with a 90-year-old NFL kicker one week, the manager of a Major League Baseball team the next, and a bull fighter the week after that. The Quazcast is about digging deep and avoiding the cliché question and answers that too often plague sports interviews.
Today’s guest is Fred Claire, the former general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers and author of “My 30 Years in Dodger Blue.”
Claire took over running the Dodgers after Al Campanis made his infamous comments about the managerial capacities of blacks on national television. He built the 1988 world champions piece by piece, then — when FOX bought the ballclub — things changed drastically. He may well be the only general manager in baseball history to have his star player traded behind his back.
Below is an excerpt of our conversation, and a recording of our complete interview. To get future podcasts downloaded straight to your listening device, you can subscribe to The Quazcast on iTunes.
Jeff Pearlman: Very few teams these days – I can count maybe on half of one hand – have sort of a family feel where everyone knows everyone and there’s a sort of sense of community and a bond. Do you feel like it was the same way with the Dodgers back then or had it already sort of flipped to more of a corporate feel?
Fred Claire: No, it very much was, Jeff, when I arrived in 1969, because really, I was so fortunate. Here’s Walter O’Malley, a visionary, a legendary person. Here’s Al Campanis and Bill Schweppe, the farm director, who was trained under Branch Rickey. Here was Ben Wade, our scouting director. Here were coaches like Monty Basgall and Red Adams and Danny Ozark. It was a very small unit of people. Our front office, if one went back to look at a yearbook from ’69 to ’70, we didn’t have more than 30 people, 25 people in our front office. And in the later ’70s, I guess it was ’77, the staff hadn’t grown much, but we were drawing three million people. So that was really the core … and there was a great, great spirit, Jeff, of the people working together and dedicating their lives – all of their days and their lives to the game. Al Campanis was a very tragic figure, is the only way to look at that, because he was a wonderful baseball man … we don’t have the time to get into all that, but tried to defend the sport of baseball that he loved where there was no defense. But the people involved and the scouts and the player development … it was small. And even as we grew, there was still a sense … I never used the word family, and I never heard Walter O’Malley never use the word family, and I never heard Peter use the word family. Vin Scully would use it. The fans used it. But my whole feeling about that is that, if you run a business in a right way, whether it’s a newspaper or whatever it is, it can develop where it almost feels like it’s a family. But the O’Malleys always understood, and I understood, it was a business. It was a business. it wasn’t a family. Families are families. Business is business. I respected that. But they treated the family great.
JP: When you see two years ago Albert Pujols leave St. Louis, as a guy who’s been in the executive seat as a general manager, are you thinking, “Oh, man, the Cardinals are in trouble,” or are you thinking, “The Cardinals are really, really smart not to give this guy a 10-year contract”?
FC: Well, it would sound smart to say I thought it was smart, but I did think it was smart, because the contracts – it’s reflective of the Cardinals’ decision-making ability. But here’s the key to that, Jeff – not only Pujols, but you lose, or he leaves, one of the most high-profile managers, and (it’s) the highest-profile player; and you know what? They don’t skip a beat. This is the point – it’s not the highest-profile manager, with all due respect, it’s not the highest-profile player, with all due respect, that’s going to determine your success. it’s the organization – and you have to understand how an organization works. And with all the turnover today, a lot of people never get that chance to learn from mistakes, learn from history, learn from continuity. And so the mistakes keep getting repeated – and obviously financial times have changed, but you have to be able to make the tough decisions and stay with your philosophy.
JP: If you are a GM in the modern age, are you right to be skeptical – let’s say, for example, Robinson Cano is coming up as a free agent, and he wants a 10-year deal, and his name has been loosely associated with the Biogenesis agency in Miami. As a general manager, are you wise to consider that, to investigate it? Is it ethical to consider that, to investigate it? Should you just look at a player’s numbers? And should general managers be angry or demand some sort of refund if it turns out, a la Melky Cabrera with the Giants last year, that a guy was using? Or is it on the executives themselves to figure this out?
FC: Two parts there, Jeff. You definitely want to know everything you can – and you should know – Because Robinson Cano has been in the Yankee organization for what, seven, eight, nine years? So you should know everything about him. And to that point, when you’re going to make a significant investment, what really gets overlooked – and shouldn’t – is makeup. You’ve got to know the individual, because when you reach for talent, you can get burned. I don’t like to say this about players, but as it turned out, Darryl Strawberry – if you looked at Darryl with his talent, where he was when we signed him as a free agent, what he had done up to that age, 28 or whatever it was, and what we could project him mathematically, perhaps, to do … but there were too many problems associated with Darryl. And the makeup wasn’t strong. And I don’t say that to diminish Darryl, because I have a lot of sympathy for him, but he was not the type of guy that you wanted to invest with for a future.
JP: So is that on you? Or on the player?
FC: I think it’s on the general manager. I think it’s on the club. The player’s the player. Your evaluation is going to make the difference. The second part about the refund, that’s not something the general manager controls, because that’s something the players’ association controls by the agreement between the owners and the players’ association. So you really don’t have any recourse there. But you have to know makeup. I thought last year – and again, I say these things and I’m almost reluctant to because I don’t want to diminish a player or his ability when he’s playing at the major-league level – but the Angels made two huge mistakes with the signing of Pujols and Hamilton. Huge mistakes. Huge mistakes. Because it was … they’re different cases, obviously, but they were projecting the ageing process, and with Hamilton, there simply had been too many problems in the past to take that risk. And no one wanted to give people more of a second chance than I did, but I lived through some of this. I lived with Steve Howe, and spent great time with Darryl Strawberry and with others, because I went back to the period when “recreational drugs”, cocaine, marijuana, were in the headlines more than performance-enhancing drugs.
JP: I covered baseball at SI during a lot of the sort-of prime PED Era, or at least what we thought was the prime. And I always felt, in a way, that the players’ union was doing a real disservice in that, yeah, they were protecting players from getting caught, but what’s the price long-term? What are these guys putting into their bodies and how is that going to impact them when they’re 40, 50, 60?
FC: Yeah, that was always part of my concern. In fact, one year in spring training, Tim Belcher, who’s a wonderful, wonderful human being, came up to me and said, “Fred, you don’t like me, do you?” I said, “Hey, Timmy, I think the world of you. Why would you say that to me?” He said, “You come into this clubhouse in the morning …” – this is in spring training – he said, “You talk to that guy over there, you talk to that guy over there, you talk to that guy over there. You don’t come up and talk to me.” I said, “Timmy, let me ask you something: When I come in to have breakfast in the morning in the Dodger dining room, do I see you sitting there at 7:30 in the morning?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “When I walk through the trainer’s room, do I see you on an exercise bike at 8:30?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “When I come back in here after most people have left, do I still see you in the clubhouse?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “I’m not worried about you. You see those guys I’m talking to every morning? I don’t know where in the hell they were last night. I don’t know where in the hell they’re gonna be tonight. I’m concerned about them.” But he taught me a lesson, because what happens, Jeff, is this: You spend 80 percent of your time worrying about five percent of your players.
JP: I had Shawn Green on last week, and we talked a little bit about Yasiel Puig. And Shawn, he shares your sensibilities about baseball, I think, to a certain degree. And I think he and a lot of retired players are sort of torn on Puig. You see the talent and you see the exuberance and I think a certain part of you says, “Wow, this is great, this is really energizing, it’s sort of what Major League Baseball needs, it’s powerful, it’s impactful.” And then, at the same time you see a guy presume he’s hit a home run, stand at the plate, show up the pitcher and then, “oh, crap, it’s not a home run, I gotta sprint to third.” And you think, “Oy, is this really what I want.” Are you comfortable with guys like that, with that sort of approach? Do they need to adjust to the game? Does the game need to adjust to them?
FC: They need to adjust to the game, Jeff. And there are three words that will help Puig adjust, once he understands what those three words mean. Joey Amalfitano – a life-long baseball man who I have great respect for – used the words a lot. The three words that Yasiel Puig needs to understand: Respect the game. Respect the game. And you don’t respect the game when you hit that ball to right field and stand there like it’s long gone. And even staring down the umpire in a moment of the championship series. This guy is a great, great talent, so yes, you need some patience, but it has to be a continual education, or this player is going to run into continual problems.
To hear the entire interview – including Claire sharing what it was like to win a World Series and the reasoning behind trading Pedro Martinez for Delino DeShields - you can download the podcast here or listen below.
Jeff Pearlman is a former senior writer for Sports Illustrated. He is the author of six books including Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton, The Bad Guys Won (a biography of the 1986 New York Mets) and Boys Will Be Boys (an account of the Dallas Cowboys dynasty from the 1990s). His newest book – Showtime (due to be released on February 11, 2014) - explores another famous sports dynasty: the Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s.