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Former Sportswriter Goes From Covering the Team to, Suddenly, Running the Show : FRED CLAIRE

May 27, 1987|SAM McMANIS | Times Staff Writer

Even back when he was just another sportswriter pounding the Dodger beat for a living, Fred Claire seemed unalterably destined to become one of the people he wrote about.

In fact, if you want to trace the genesis of an ascent that has seen Claire become the second-most-powerful man in the Dodgers' organization, behind owner Peter O'Malley, it might be that late March morning in 1969 when Claire was covering spring training for the Long Beach Press-Telegram.

Claire and his press-box cohorts had boarded the team bus bound for Orlando, Fla., when Claire was called back outside by the manager of the Dodgers' Triple-A team in Spokane, Wash., a guy named Tom Lasorda. A few nights earlier, after both had finished work, Claire had asked Lasorda if he could work out with his Spokane team on a slow day.

Lasorda, however, told Claire that morning he wanted him in the lineup when Spokane played Bakersfield, another Dodger affiliate. Claire entered in the third inning, replacing Bobby Valentine at shortstop, and Lasorda told spectators that this kid was just acquired from the Angels. There was some truth to it. Claire had covered the Angels the previous season.

After striking out twice, Claire came to bat with a runner, Steve Sogge, at third and two outs in a tied game. But he lined weakly to first base. Lasorda, for some reason, never asked Claire to suit up again.

Proving that the pen is mightier than the bat, Claire filed this story for the next morning's newspaper:

S cribe Blows Chance

to Wow Dodger Brass

VERO BEACH--Dear Boss:

I didn't cover Friday's game between the Dodgers and Minnesota at Orlando. You're probably not going to believe it, but I was playing shortstop for Spokane . . .

It's not much consolation, but if I tell the story often enough I may score Sogge yet.

--Fred Claire, Staff Writer

Stability and forward-thinking have long been the foundation of the Dodger organization, considered one of baseball's best. But all it took was one interview to shake up the club's corporate structure.

Al Campanis, the vice president of player personnel, questioned the inherent abilities of blacks to manage major league teams, saying they neither had the "necessities" nor were willing to "pay the dues."

Two days later, amid pressure from civic groups, politicians and media coverage, Campanis, 70, was fired from a job he held since 1969 and from an organization for which he had worked for 46 years.

Claire, who did not accompany the Dodgers to Houston to open the season, did not watch Campanis' nationally televised interview. As executive vice president, Claire technically ranked ahead of Campanis on the Dodger front-office marquee. But Claire's duties were almost entirely administrative, while O'Malley and Campanis made the high-profile decisions on player moves.

Now, though, O'Malley was on the phone from Houston offering Campanis' job to a surprised Claire, who accepted. Claire may or may not have aspired for this job--he won't say, now--but he took it.

"My main concern was the company," Claire said. "What was happening was just complete turmoil. Certainly, it was the most unfortunate thing that happened to us. Unfortunate would be my best summation."

One man's misfortune is another's opportunity, and it made a steady, two-decade climb to power nearly complete for Claire, who unblushingly says he'd like to keep the job.

That, of course, is the intrigue encircling Chavez Ravine these days.

Will Claire remain the club's top decision-maker? Or will Claire return to his administrative duties and be replaced by Lasorda, who has expressed a desire to move into the front office?

At the time of Campanis' firing, O'Malley said Claire had the job "for the time being." O'Malley has not wavered since, saying the club is constantly evaluating its personnel, both players and front office.

It still may be too early to know whether Claire has the necessities for the job.

His only professional playing experience was that one inauspicious spring training game in 1969. Other than that, Claire didn't make it past the Torrance High School junior varsity team.

But his background in baseball covers just about every other non-playing, scouting or managing position. He wrote about baseball, served as the Dodgers' public relations director and vice president of promotions before becoming executive vice president in 1982.

This position, however, is totally different from any other he has held. It's one thing to write about or promote the Dodgers, quite another to chart the team's future.

Claire lacks experience, but he says he has compensated by regularly consulting with Lasorda, Bill Schweppe, vice president of minor league operations, and the Dodgers' stable of scouts and advisers.

But, as Claire proclaimed on his first day on the job, it's his job and his signature will be stamped on every decision.

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