Artless Dodgers

They were once L.A.’s team, proof of the city’s ascendance. Now we hardly know their names

The first to go was Piazza, a trade that will haunt the Dodgers all the way to Cooperstown. Besides being the best-hitting catcher in the game, maybe in history, Piazza was also the most popular Dodger of his day—and probably the team’s most marketable player ever. He was pretty enough to do shampoo commercials; he was dangerous enough, with that pencil-thin Fu Manchu, and ethnic enough, with those double-barrels, to have credibility in urban L.A. When he came to bat, women stood up in the stands and waved MARRY ME, MIKE signs.

As his appeal soared, however, Piazza’s relationship with the Dodgers grew weary. He was voted onto the All-Star team in each of his five seasons here, but Piazza never led the Dodgers to a championship, never even won them a playoff game. With the 1998 season approaching, former center fielder Brett Butler ripped Piazza, calling him a “moody, self-centered, ’90s player” who had failed to live up to his hype. As if to confirm that perception, Piazza unwisely chose opening day that year to bitch about his contract. He was looking for a seven-year extension that would have made him baseball’s first $100 million man. The Dodgers were offering about $80 million over six years, a deal that would still have made him the highest-paid player in the game. Although Piazza would later insist that he always expected to remain a Dodger, his public funk set off a panic at the Fox Group, whose purchase of the team had become official just a few weeks earlier. Without an agreement, Piazza would become a free agent at the end of the season, in which case the Dodgers would likely lose him anyway and receive nothing in return. The trade was made by Fox Television chairman and chief executive Chase Carey, a Hollywood suit. “It was a mistake, absolutely,” O’Malley says. “I think today if you were to call Chase, he would tell you that.”

Murals came down. TV spots were yanked. The Blue Crew fan club had to go hunting for a new leader. It got worse when Piazza signed a seven-year, $91 million contract with the New York Mets later that season, a sum that was not so far from what the Dodgers had put on the table. The Mets thought it a small price. “We needed an identity, a marquee player, someone the fans could latch onto, that the players could latch onto,” said Mets general manager Steve Phillips, and that is precisely what the Dodgers had lost. By the time they realized it—and tried to get the Mets to consider trading Piazza back to them the following year—the Dodgers only bought themselves more ridicule.

Hungry for a new hero to launch the 1999 season, the Dodgers went shopping on the free market. They made a hard run at Randy Johnson, the six-foot-ten strikeout artist. But Johnson snubbed the Dodgers, opting instead for the Arizona Diamondbacks, a lowly expansion team that he thought was doing more to beef up its roster. He now has a World Series ring to prove he was right. Still looking for a headline-grabbing name, the Dodgers finally lured Kevin Brown, another veteran pitcher who was coming off successive World Series appearances. Getting him to L.A. took an industry-rattling seven-year, $105 million deal, the first triple-digit contract in baseball history—and a good bit more than either Piazza or Johnson is making. The fact that his contract included an unprecedented perk—12 yearly trips for his wife and kids on a chartered jet between Los Angeles and their home in Macon, Georgia—did little to improve his image as anything but a hired gun. “If Kevin Brown gets us to the World Series, he pays for himself,” then-general manager Kevin Malone said.

Kevin Brown has not taken the Dodgers to the World Series. He has not won a Cy Young Award. In his three years here, he has been good, at times very good, but he is solitary and prickly, saddled with expectations he may never be able to meet. He is also 37 and trying to come back from a season-ending elbow injury. What is a Dodger fan to make of this famously dour competitor, a soldier of fortune who has yet to conquer L.A.’s heart?

If the Dodgers has somehow managed to get to the World Series, all might have been forgiven. If the Dodgers had pleaded for patience or time to rebuild, once it became apparent the new regime was in over its head, failure might have been forgiven even then. Baseball is a game of such intricate specialization—leadoff men, setup men, utility men, pinch hitters, switch-hitters, cleanup hitters, starters, middle relievers, lefties, righties, closers—that otherwise-savvy executives often take years to begin deciphering its mysteries. But the new Dodgers did not win. They did not lose gracefully, either. Desperate for a quick fix, Fox continued to spend wildly, boosting payroll from a modest $43 million under O’Malley to a stratospheric $110 million by the end of last season. That is supposedly the virtue, or at least necessity, of corporate ownership; it allows the team to function as a loss leader, to sink more into talent than a sole proprietor could afford. But Fox awarded contracts like so many foul balls, filling the Dodger clubhouse with a procession of has-beens, retreads, head cases, and flameouts, all paid like future Hall of Famers.

Dodger officials compounded the problem by blowing smoke at every opportunity, acting as cocksure and self-congratulatory as the crew of the Titanic. When he was hired as general manager in 1998, Malone called himself “the new sheriff in town” and dismissed his critics as jealous “Dodger haters.” He was ousted 16 days into the season last year, after challenging a heckler to a fight during a game in San Diego. When manager Davey Johnson came on board in 1999, he introduced himself at a press conference by saying that, with the talent on the Dodgers, “they could hire the village idiot and win.” Fired after two desultory seasons, he is now more sober in his assessment. “A lot of bad decisions were made—management decisions, personnel decisions, probably from top to bottom,” says Johnson, who had been baseball’s winningest active manager. “I’m not saying they were made maliciously, but great organizations don’t make those mistakes.”

As the 2000 season approached, Fox came to the same realization and sold a 10 percent interest in the team to former Warner Bros. chief Robert A. Daly, making him the club’s chairman and CEO. Daly is a Brooklyn native and lifelong Dodger fan, someone who used to check his pager for the latest score while attending movie premieres. His arrival was widely applauded as the first step in restoring the organization’s mystique. (When I requested an interview, wanting to know how much progress he thought he had made, I was told that Daly would not be available.)

Daly’s most important decision so far has been to hire a new general manager, Dan Evans, who had spent 19 years in the relative obscurity of the Chicago White Sox front office. Evans is diplomatic and even-keeled, unlikely to repeat the mistakes of his shoot-from-the-lip predecessor. But he is still having to prove himself a worthy heir of the Dodger Way. During baseball’s annual talks in December, he showed up for a meeting with Cincinnati Reds general manager Jim Bowden. “Where’s Tommy?”‘ asked Bowden, refusing to discuss possible trades unless his old friend Lasorda was at the table. Evans tried to get the session going. Bowden again rebuffed him. Evans finally contacted Lasorda by cell phone and invited him to the meeting. Even then, Bowden insisted on waiting until Lasorda actually arrived. “When you think of the Dodgers,” Bowden told the executives in the room, “you think of Tommy Lasorda.”

By the time the 2001 season was under way, the Dodgers had only one player left to show for the Piazza trade. That was Gary Sheffield, the most uncertain Dodger of them all. He was the kind of hitter who everyone, including the opposing pitcher, knew could change the game with a single swing. He was also cranky and narcissistic and, with his corn-rows and diamonds, maybe just a little too bad for most L.A. fans to embrace. During spring training that year, Sheffield went on a tirade against Dodger officials, Bob Daly in particular, calling them liars for making him believe they were prepared to give him a lucrative contract extension. He demanded a trade. When opening day came and Sheffield was still in a Dodger uniform, he was booed mercilessly, just as fans had howled at Piazza for his outburst three years earlier. I added my boos to the chorus. At the moment when the Dodgers most needed a savior, someone who bled for the team, here was a guy reminding us that it was all just about getting paid. Then, in the sixth inning, Sheffield did what he does best: His solo home run broke open a scoreless game, clinching a 1-0 victory. The boos turned to cheers, the cheers to a curtain call. I grimaced, unable to swallow my distaste so quickly. But I understood the yearning of the people around me. Sheffield might have been a son of a bitch, but at least he was our son of a bitch. Maybe it was better to learn to live with him than to not have him at all.