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BILL PLASCHKE

Reeling Fox Has Heavy Hitter in Its Corner Now

July 17, 1999|BILL PLASCHKE

At least he has the name for it.

Rick Welts.

A sports heavyweight hired to throw some punches for reeling Fox.

Descending on Chavez Ravine as quietly as a white-billed batting practice cap, Welts may be of some interest to those who follow the Dodgers.

Because he's, like, running them.

In simpler times, if Peter O'Malley hired somebody to direct this civic treasure, he would throw an old-fashioned baseball lunch.

These days, Fox calls the business editor.

Until this story, the business section is the only place Welts' name has appeared in this newspaper in conjunction with his new job.

That's why you've probably never heard of a guy who may have a lasting impact on what kind of baseball you watch, and how you watch it.

It was a little item on Page 9, back by the stock listings, in the first week of May.

Don't be fooled.

His main business since arriving in town two weeks ago has been the dirty one of fixing Fox's failing baseball investment.

His official title is President of Fox Sports Enterprises.

His unofficial title is New Sheriff.

Everyone on the Dodgers now ultimately reports to him.

This includes President Bob Graziano, who may not be reporting for long.

This also includes General Manager Kevin Malone, who immediately loses all honeymoon privileges as the new executive on the block.

Welts is not a baseball guy, which is troublesome.

But he hits well when behind in the count, which is good.

He's a former NBA ballboy who rose through the ranks to become the league's third-ranking executive, helping turn a lounge act into an international headliner.

He is the marketing force behind the NBA's All-Star weekend, the Olympics' Dream Team, and the WNBA.

When he joined the NBA, its championship series was still being televised on tape delay. When he left it for Fox, it had become the prototype of modern sports marketing success.

If the Dodgers have to ultimately be controlled by a businessmen, which is the case with every team these days, the 46-year-old Seattle native seems as qualified as any.

His job description includes overseeing Fox's interest in the Staples Center and Kings and Lakers.

But again, don't be fooled.

"Initially, I have been spending a great deal of time with the Dodgers," he said Friday.

In other words, he's up to his ears in new stadiums and old losing streaks and fans who are only coming to the games because they dance on the field.

"Everybody is disappointed," he said Friday. "Everybody had higher hopes for the investment.

"But nobody questions the effort. Nobody second-guesses what has happened so far."

Did I say he's also a former public-relations guy?

Say this much for Welts, who just finished his second week of work out of the Fox lot in Century City:

He's not afraid to talk to the people of Los Angeles.

This is more than you can say for his superiors.

Peter Chernin and Chase Carey were either too busy or frightened to deliver a traditional midseason message to the hometown fans.

While Dodger officials were declining to make them available to your local rags, Carey decided instead to field softball questions from a wire-service reporter in New York.

(Once and for all, somebody should remind Carey that his corporation did not buy a team in New York. Then again, considering that's where Mike Piazza eventually ended up, maybe he did.)

This stuff only matters in that it is more difficult to be patient with a decaying city landmark when its absentee landlords are unwilling to even periodically face the neighbors.

That is why Welts is so refreshing.

He was phoned. He picked up.

And get this: He likes organ music.

"I can't imagine an NBA arena with organ music," he said. "But at Dodger Stadium, it sounds like a really good thing."

Welts, who never advanced beyond Little League, is not expected to bring any baseball sense to the organization.

"That's not going to be my role," he said.

But he should make up for it with common sense.

He instituted the NBA dunk contest and old-timers' game because he wanted to capitalize on tradition.

He helped start the WNBA because he likes doing traditional things with a twist.

His NBA achievements seemed to be the result of careful planning with an understanding that for a sports business to work, it must first be about sports.

"When I was first contacted about this job, I didn't have any interest," he said. "But the more I listened to Peter and Chase talk, the more respect I had for the great tradition that is the Dodgers, and the more I wanted to help make that tradition great again."

In other words, this doesn't seem like a guy who would allow the Dodgers to embarrassingly lose a leverage battle with Vero Beach and an Arizona Indian reservation.

No, it does not look good for Graziano, who was not hired by Fox and who, despite his best efforts, has infuriated fans with everything from the 1998 midseason firings of Fred Claire and Bill Russell to the clumsy searches for a manager and general manager.

Fox needed a hit man, and it finally has one. Look for Welts, and welts.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address: bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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