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Fox Engineers Trade of Piazza to Marlins in Seven-Player Deal

SPORTS EXTRA / A New Blueprint

Dodgers: This wasn't a Fred Claire project, it was Graziano and the new owners taking command.

May 16, 1998|JASON REID | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fred Claire has handled scores of deals during his tenure in charge of Dodger player personnel.

The longtime executive vice president has made trades big and small--good and bad. But during the past decade, Claire's stamp has been on every deal the Dodgers have done.

Until the biggest in franchise history.

Claire acknowledged Friday night that he wasn't the point man on the seven-player deal that sent all-star catcher Mike Piazza to the Florida Marlins. Moreover, his role was almost nonexistent--except for being a messenger.

He was told to inform Piazza and third baseman Todd Zeile on Thursday night that they would be going to the Marlins for all-stars Gary Sheffield, Charles Johnson and Bobby Bonilla, along with Jim Eisenreich and rookie right-hander Manuel Barrios. It was a role to which Claire was unaccustomed.

"I want to be perfectly clear and accurate about this," he said. "I got a call from [President] Bob Graziano, and he informed me that the trade had been made."

Seems simple enough. But that short statement speaks volumes.

The historic trade that sent the Dodger franchise player packing was orchestrated without assistance from the man who has built the team. Instead, Graziano, who holds the job Claire once seemed destined to occupy, was the point man for Fox Group officials.

Claire was left out of the loop throughout the negotiations with Piazza on the multiyear contract extension that spurred the trade, and then his opinion wasn't sought on a deal that has dramatically altered the team he has dedicated much of his professional life to building. Typically, Claire was the loyal soldier Friday night when the trade was finally announced.

"This is a trade that obviously improves our team, and I feel good about that," he said. "We were in a position to add several quality players to our team, and we did that."

But without his input.

The deal was the pet project of Chase Carey, chairman and chief executive of Fox Television, and Florida Marlin President Don Smiley. When it came time to call in a closer, Carey didn't turn to Claire, a man who has done that sort of thing since 1987.

He turned to an accountant.

"I recommended the deal to people at Fox," Graziano said. "I think this helps improve our chemistry, helps improve our hitting and helps improve our defense. I think the team is markedly improved."

Based on all his experience, how couldn't he?

That's not to say that this deal won't work out for the Dodgers. Only time will tell.

But it's curious that Claire was involved so little in the process, for appearance sake if nothing else. Of course, Graziano disputes that Claire wasn't an integral player in the event.

"I had many discussions with Fred about the trade," he said. "But this was an unusual deal, and it involved an unusual number of players. In making the deal, I didn't view Fred's input as any less significant."

However, that's not the way it seemed to many within the organization. Some team officials predicted that Claire would be phased out by Graziano when he was named president in March.

Nothing personal, just different guys.

Many were surprised when Claire wasn't involved in Piazza's recent negotiations, because of his typically active role in contract negotiations. Sam Fernandez, team counsel, was Graziano's point man on that front.

Claire won't say it, but he didn't want to trade Piazza. He believed he could have gotten a contract signed--or he wanted to fail trying.

"It's been my experience that you have ups and downs in any negotiation," he said. "It can be an emotional process, but you have to stay focused on the object. That's the key thing for the team and the player."

That's Claire. He believes in his players and supports them. He's even admired by agents, who are often his adversaries.

"Fred Claire is really a genuine guy," said Dan Lozano, Piazza's agent. "He truly cares about his players personally, and that's evident in the things he does. Mike and I always had a good relationship with Fred, and we thank him for that."

Before its purchase of the team was completed, the Fox Group tried to allay the concerns of baseball owners by saying it would be business as usual with the Dodgers.

Were they lying? That may be too strong, but it's safe to say that former owner Peter O'Malley wouldn't have sent Claire to fetch coffee while the franchise was working on one of the biggest deal in baseball history.

If this is the end for Claire, he deserved a better send-off.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

TO THE FLORIDA MARLINS

MIKE PIAZZA, C

Age: 29

1998: .282, 9HR

Contract: $8 million

Contract ends: 1998

With Dodgers: 6th season

*

TODD ZEILE, 3B

Age: 32

1998: .253, 7HR

Contract: $6.4 million

Contract ends: 1999

With Dodgers: 2nd season

TO THE DODGERS (plus rookie pitcher Manuel Barrios)

GARY SHEFFIELD, OF

Age: 29

1998: .272, 6 HR

Contract: $61 million

Contract ends: 2003

*

CHARLES JOHNSON, C

Age: 26

1998: .221, 7 HR

Contract: $3.3 million

Contract ends: 1998

*

BOBBY BONILLA, 3B

Age: 35

1998: .278, 4 HR

Contract: $17.7 million

Contract ends: 2000

*

JIM EISENREICH, OF

Age: 39

1998: .250, 1 HR

Contract: $1.6 million

Contract ends: 1998

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