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What a Difference a Winter Makes

July 31, 1988|David Israel

FOR FRED CLAIRE, the test came last December in Dallas, at baseball's Winter Meetings. Claire, the Dodgers' executive vice president, had taken charge of the team's player personnel department the previous April when Al Campanis was deposed after the "Nightline" debacle. Through the summer, Claire recast the Dodger roster only moderately in an effort to control the damage of a second consecutive losing season.

By December, it was clear that those early moves had been reasonably astute. Mickey Hatcher, discarded by the Minnesota Twins and signed as a free agent, had proved to be a capable platoon player and reserve at a number of positions. Aging pitcher Rick Honeycutt was traded to the Oakland Athletics for youthful pitcher Tim Belcher. And relief pitcher Tom Niedenfuer was traded to Baltimore for center fielder John Shelby.

However successful, those deals weren't nearly sufficient to revive the Dodgers and restore them to their previous glory as perennial pennant contenders. But the deals Claire aspired to make in Dallas would. "We said we were looking for help at shortstop and in the bullpen," Claire says now. "I arrived on a Sunday and hoped to meet with every major league club before making a move. We were there to do business."

But three days passed, and still there were no moves. The gossips haunting the hotel lobby concluded that Claire was indecisive. He smiles now at the recollection. "When the story was circulating that with the Dodgers there was a lot of talking but not much action," Claire says, "the trade was completed."

The trade was a three-team affair. The Dodgers traded pitchers Bob Welch, Matt Young and Jack Savage to Oakland. The Athletics traded Savage, and pitchers Wally Whitehurst and Kevin Tapani to the Mets. New York traded left-handed relief pitcher Jesse Orosco to Oakland. And the Athletics traded Orosco, shortstop Alfredo Griffin and right-handed relief pitcher Jay Howell to Los Angeles.

Claire's next goal was to obtain a left-handed power hitter to complement Pedro Guerrero and Mike Marshall. Four days later, he outbid the Yankees and signed free agent Mike Davis for two years and slightly less than $2 million. What Claire did not know then was that Kirk Gibson, a left-handed power hitter under contract to the Detroit Tigers, would be declared a free agent a month later and would sign a three-year contract with the Dodgers on Feb. 1. Claire will not speculate on whether he would have signed Davis if he had known Gibson would become a free agent.

He will say that he is pretty gratified by the way things have turned out this summer. "Is it better than I could have dreamed? I dream of winning," he says. "I just feel fortunate that things have worked out well. We have won in the past. This organization knows what winning is all about. I never want winning to be surprising to this organization, and it hasn't been this season."

THE STANDINGS All stats as of All-Star break (84 games) compared to same number in '86 and '87.

1986 38-46 In last place, 7 games out of first. 1987 37-47 In fifth place, 9 games out of first. 1988 48-36 In first place by 2 1/2 games.

TEAM PERFORMANCE

OFFENSE '86 '87 '88 Batting average .251 .252 .263 RBIs 295 298 347 Home runs 66 69 53 Stolen bases 87 64 70 Runs scored per game 3.79 3.79 4.39 DEFENSE Errors 100 72 65 Double plays 80 75 71 PITCHING ERA 3.42 3.63 3.19 Saves 11 12 25 Shutouts 5 4 9 Complete games 20 16 15 Home runs allowed 58 65 45 Bullpen ERA 3.94 3.94 2.50

ODDS AND ENDS

Different lineups used 58 61 34 Team batting .245 .236 .294 average with men in scoring position One-run decisions (won-lost) 15-24 8-16 11-13 Come-from-behind wins 10 17 17 Games won after 27 26 40 leading at the end of six innings Games lost after 8 6 4 leading at the end of six innings

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