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O'Malley's Way : His Dodgers Keep Winning, the Stands are Always Full. So Why Does Everybody Say, 'He's Not His Father'?

August 18, 1991|JIM SCHACHTER | Jim Schachter is an assistant business editor for The Times. His last article for this magazine was "The Daddy Track." and

THIS WASN'T PRECISELY WHAT PETER O'MALLEY HAD IN mind when he hopped a Wednesday afternoon flight from LAX for his first visit in years to the Los Angeles Dodgers' top farm club, the Triple-A Albuquerque Dukes.

The Dodger owner had discouraged Dukes President Pat McKernan from inviting him to throw out the first ball this late spring evening before the game against the Colorado Springs Sky Sox. But here O'Malley stood, in his home-and-away uniform--navy blazer, white shirt, rep tie, cuffed gray slacks, black wingtips--tossing one high and outside to Dukes catcher Carlos Hernandez. And, having been called to the attention of the Sports Stadium crowd of 2,700, the proprietor of what is often described as America's most successful sports franchise settled in for nine innings of what he most abhors: the spotlight.

A photographer snapped his picture--the disheveled McKernan in the front-row seat beside him--as the prim O'Malley gamely chewed a hamburger. A boy, 9 or 10 years old, presented a ball for an autograph. "You ought to use it," O'Malley scolded gently. A short walk to the press box to check the score of the night's Dodgers-Houston game turned into a crowd scene, as youngsters and grown-ups pressed him to sign bats and gloves and scorecards.

Ever the gentleman, O'Malley satisfied each request. "The fans," he had reminded the doubting McKernan earlier, during a discussion of hot dog preferences, "are always right."

But later, from the safety of the press box, O'Malley wondered what the fans could have been thinking. "Maury Wills, an all-time great player, is sitting down there, and nobody's asking him for an autograph," he said, nodding toward the former Dodger shortstop, now a minor-league instructor for the Dodger organization. "And here I am, walking around signing autographs."

It's not a scene you'll see repeated at Chavez Ravine. Peter O'Malley is in his 22nd year as Dodger president--longer than his father, Walter; longer than anyone but old Charlie Ebbets back in Brooklyn; fully one-fifth the life of the franchise. But he'd rather no one notice he's in the ballpark.

In a business notable for loudmouth or eccentric or erratic owners, O'Malley is quiet, staid and steady. His dad was larger than life--the risk-taker who outdueled Branch Rickey to win control of the team, all but ran the industry for three decades, brought baseball to the West Coast in the 1950s and turned Brooklyn's beloved Bums into Los Angeles' perennial contender and frequent champion. The earnest son, Peter O'Malley, often gets credit for little more than not having screwed up what his extraordinary father worked so hard to create.

Baseball's longest-tenured chief executive at only 53, O'Malley in fact is both more and less than he seems.

Within his own organization, it is O'Malley, in his cool and deliberate way, who establishes the high expectations--for everything from clean bathrooms and quality giveaways to on-the-field success--that have made it possible for the Dodgers to draw 3 million fans in seven of the past 11 seasons.

There have been missteps. Who could have imagined that the cause celebre of the 1991 season would be whether you could get a grilled hot dog at the ballpark? The disastrous debut of the Marriott Corp.'s new food services at Dodger Stadium--another step toward making a most button-down ballclub even more corporate--has frustrated the Dodgers and preoccupied the perfectionist owner.

Until hiring Marriott, the Dodgers had been slow to modernize their food operations. They had taken years to upgrade the scoreboard. Indeed, some of the team's marketing advisers say the unwillingness of the Dodgers and their tradition-bound owner to take bold chances handicaps the team in its pursuit of the next great commercial threshold in baseball: 4 million fans a year.

But it's hard to argue with success. And a public-relations machine driven by O'Malley to near-paranoid guardianship of the Dodger image--the front office bleeds Dodger Blue as much as Tommy Lasorda--makes sure that even bad hops bounce the Dodgers' way.

However, in the broader world of major league baseball, O'Malley's impact does not measure up to his team's success. Thrust into an unwinnable battle with his father's ghost for the hearts and minds of baseball's elite, O'Malley preaches a message that doesn't match his actions. He calls for restraint in spending, yet his Dodgers have the third-highest player payroll in baseball. He sermonizes on the need for greater comity among baseball owners. Yet he is no more prepared than any other big-city owner to share his wealth with weaker teams in smaller towns--the most divisive issue in the game today.

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