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Second Thoughts

Dodgers: New owner will have some big decisions to make after team's disappointing second-place finish.


DENVER — Open letter to Rupert Murdoch:

Dear Rupert,

Do you know what you're getting into?

Do you know what it could cost you?

We're not talking about the $350 million you have already agreed to spend on purchasing the Dodgers from Peter O'Malley. All that's going to buy you is a stadium, spring training facilities, a 40-man roster and some minor league affiliates.

That's the easy part.

No, what you're buying into is tradition, high expectations and the teeth-gnashing, stomach-turning frustration that results when those goals are not realized.

Take Sunday, for example, at Coors Field.

After the Colorado Rockies had beaten the Dodgers, 13-9, in a meaningless regular-season finale, much of the sellout crowd of 48,197 stayed around as the Rockies took a victory lap.

In the visitors' clubhouse, the Dodgers quietly said their farewells and talked with weary resignation about a season that had gone wrong.

What's wrong with this picture?

The Dodgers finished ahead of the Rockies by five games in the National League West.

It doesn't matter. What matters is that Dodgers finished two behind the division-winning San Francisco Giants.

For the third consecutive year, the Dodgers' season ended in frustration. And they made the playoffs in the past two seasons. But each time, they were swept out in three games.

"With the Dodgers, you are expected to win," catcher Mike Piazza said this weekend as he finished his fifth and best season. "I realize that. I have to accept that. But you always have next year because of what this organization is like."

What he means, Rupert, is that under the 48 years of the O'Malley regime, the price was paid to keep this team a perennial contender with only a few off-years here and there.

But before you can make a commitment to continue that tradition, you and your people must decide what went wrong, how a team that was touted as a pennant contender in the spring, that had four guys hit 30 or more home runs, that picked up two speedy specialists for the stretch run, and that ranked second in baseball in earned-run average behind the Atlanta Braves, didn't even make it into the postseason.

And what do you do about it?

"I don't think this team needs an overhaul," said first baseman Eric Karros, who figures to be a key figure in any overhaul that would be made. "You can't attack the numbers on this team, so you look at the chemistry deal, the passion deal.

"I don't think there is anybody in here [the Dodger clubhouse] who is not competitive, who is not on the same page. The fact is, we didn't win enough games. Everybody has their own theory as to what happened. It depends what kind of mood you're in.

"Everybody wants to jump on the Kirk Gibson thing."

In case you're not familiar with baseball history, Rupert, Karros is referring to 1988, when a Dodger team considered to have generally mediocre talent was jump-started by Gibson, a fiery competitor, and went on to win the World Series.

"If you bring that type of guy in here," Karros said, "I don't think it's going to make that much of a difference on this club. The Braves had the best team last year, but they didn't win [for your information, Rupert, the New York Yankees did], but it wasn't because they didn't want to. Do you make changes because other teams clicked?"

So what do you do? Here's a look at what happened in '97 and, with your money and wisdom, Rupert, what could happen in '98.

* Manager--Forget 1996. Bill Russell picked up the pieces after a heart attack caused Tommy Lasorda to retire and just tried to hold it all together.

This season was Russell's rookie year, and as with even the best of rookies, Russell did some things right, and some things wrong simply because he had never been on the hot seat before.

"I need to be more hands-on, more aggressive," he said. "Overall I think I did a good job, but I think I will improve even more from experience."

Russell pulled the trigger too quickly on some of his starting pitchers and stayed too long with closer Todd Worrell when it seemed Russell was the last guy in Los Angeles to get the word that his finisher was finished.

But Russell certainly deserves to return and benefit from his experience.

Advice to Rupert: Perhaps give Russell a veteran coach to sit beside him in the dugout, allow him a voice in personnel moves and then judge him on the results.

* Starting pitching--It was solid in 1997, but not necessarily the way people thought it would be.

Chan Ho Park and Tom Candiotti were battling for the No. 5 spot in spring training. Instead, Park became the stopper and Candiotti one of the most dependable starters.

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