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Feeling the Burn

Kevin Malone Sits On a Hot Seat of His Own Making, Thanks to the Fox Group's Generous Checkbook and His Fierce Aversion to Losing

May 23, 1999|Patrick Goldstein | Patrick Goldstein is a Times staff writer. His last article for the magazine was a profile of music industry attorney Allen Grubman

Kevin Malone hates to lose. The new general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers will put up with just about anything: insults from sports-talk radio loudmouths, a toilet-bashing spree from new star pitcher Kevin Brown, sniping from fellow baseball executives about his free-spending ways. Finishing second? Forget it.

"Everybody wants to win," says Ed Creech, Malone's new hire to oversee the Dodgers' amateur scouting operations. "Kevin's just more open about it than most people."

At laid-back spring training in Vero Beach, Malone barked at umpires over bad calls and exulted when his team won a meaningless exhibition game. Up in the press box, his baseball buddies were full of stories about Malone's competitive fire: One favorite tale has him shutting down a towering rival player in a rec-league basketball game, then taunting him with the playground boast, "Face!" after sinking a jump shot.

"If you look in the AMA manual under 'Type-A personality plus,' you'll see a picture of Kevin," says Florida Marlins Manager John Boles, who coached Malone at the University of Louisville. "As much as anyone I've ever met, he hated to lose."

Perhaps that's why the 41-year-old former scout and seminary student eagerly sought the Herculean job of reviving the flagging fortunes of the Dodgers, the once-proud baseball institution that hasn't won a postseason game since the ragtag 1988 team upset the Oakland A's to win the World Series.

When Malone was a college ballplayer, he always got his uniform dirty.

When he was a scout, he barely made it home for the birth of his kids, so determined was he to find the next phenom. When he was negotiating with sports attorney Scott Boras to sign Brown, the two men would jog together each morning, with Malone running farther every day, challenging Boras to keep up with him.

"There are times where Kevin is so intense and focused that it's really hard to get his attention," says his wife, Marilyn, who met him when he was at divinity school, coaching the seminary college's baseball team.

Until now, Malone has had a low profile outside the insular world of baseball. But you can't keep a low profile working for Rupert Murdoch, whose Fox Group bought the Dodgers for $311 million in 1997. Malone's shoot-from-the-hip manner, coupled with the Fox Group's open-checkbook approach to rebuilding the Dodgers, has put him in the hot seat. In some ways, Malone lighted the fire himself. As soon as he arrived in Los Angeles after being hired away from the Baltimore Orioles with a four-year deal worth about $2 million, he proclaimed himself the new sheriff in town. Convinced the Dodgers needed a team leader, he signed Brown, a 34-year-old former San Diego Padre, to a seven-year, $105-million contract, which included 12 free rides a season for Brown's family on a corporate jet plus a unique Fox perk: a "Star Wars" poster autographed by George Lucas.

Malone immediately began dismantling the Dodgers' creaky farm system, bringing in Creech and Bill Geivett to supervise scouting and minor league operations. He also hired former Orioles Manager Davey Johnson, another fierce competitor who has the best winning percentage of any active major-league manager. For the team lineup, Malone acquired a new center fielder, free agent Devon White, and traded for Todd Hundley, even though the power-hitting catcher had missed most of last season after elbow surgery.

Thanks to Fox's deep pockets, the Dodgers are going all out to win. The team now has a payroll of roughly $80 million, second-highest after the New York Yankees. But while Malone's free-agent signings have gotten the lion's share of attention, his minor-league rebuilding efforts are the key to the franchise's long-term health. In many ways, he's doing with the Dodgers what Fox has done with its movie studio and television network; he's creating a valuable franchise.

"There are a lot of similarities between baseball and entertainment," says Fox Group chairman Peter Chernin. "When we rebuilt our movie company, we went after the best scripts, the best up-'n'-coming talent--you've got to get the fundamentals right. What impressed me about Kevin was that he spent the most time talking about the farm system, player development and scouting. He knows we're trying to build [a team] that will be a contender year after year."

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