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Graziano Out-Foxed by Dodgers

Baseball: President is fired after 14 years with team. There is no timetable to find successor.

September 29, 1999|JASON REID | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — Joining a still-growing list of scapegoats for the Dodgers' failure under Fox, it was announced Tuesday that President Bob Graziano has been fired, less than two years into his watch at the ballclub's helm.

The 14-year Dodger employee was told of the long-rumored move Thursday by Rick Welts, recently hired as president of Fox Sports Enterprises. Welts declined to discuss specifics of the decision he said he made on his own.

However, it's obvious that Peter Chernin, Rupert Murdoch's top lieutenant, is displeased with the team's poor performance and seeming front-office malaise.

Chernin endorsed many moves during the previous off-season that pushed the payroll to $80 million. However the team was 74-82 before Tuesday night's game against the Giants at 3Com Park.

Moreover, Welts and his superiors did not consider Graziano capable of guiding the franchise into the 2000s because of his relative lack of experiencing running a professional sports franchise, and his handling of key issues confronting the ballclub to this point.

No successor has been selected, nor is there a timetable for filling the position. Welts said, however, that he has contacted several candidates on his short list.

Graziano, the former chief financial officer, became the latest ousted official during Fox's brief but stormy tenure.

"This is not a happy day at Dodger Stadium," Welts said at another hastily arranged conference call to announce another change in direction. "Bob is a thoroughly likable guy and a competent guy, and this is a very difficult decision for me to make.

"But I've been around a lot of sports teams and I've seen a lot of organizations develop, and it doesn't happen without change. Sometimes it isn't pleasant and it doesn't seem fair at the time. But again, I don't know how to move forward without change."

Graziano took the high road in interviews with reporters, declining to criticize Welts or Fox. He said he accepted Fox's decision but added he was satisfied with his effort in an increasingly difficult job.

"Unfortunately, this is a natural part of the process when companies buy other companies," Graziano said. "But I feel like I've done a tremendous amount for the Dodger organization.

"I don't feel I could have done more, given more or sacrificed more for the organization. I feel good about that."

With Chernin's approval, Graziano fired former general manager Fred Claire and manager Bill Russell on June 21 last season. There were also other dizzying firings and trades during the Dodgers' first season under a corporate umbrella.

Welts, a former longtime NBA executive, had hoped to wait until the end of the season to announce the firing. Graziano didn't cooperate, wanting to inform the organization's employees after speaking with Chernin on Sunday.

Graziano had one year remaining on the four-year contract former owner Peter O'Malley gave members of his management team before selling the team in March of 1998.

Graziano, who succeeded O'Malley as president last March, has offered to remain long enough to assist his successor and Welts in the transition. Welts said he plans to discuss other opportunities at Fox with Graziano, but a team source said Graziano has already rejected a vice presidency with Fox Sports Enterprises and will leave the organization once the transition is completed.

The perception has been that Graziano has made questionable decisions, foremost among them regarding the franchise's search for a new spring-training home. However, high-ranking team sources said that, despite Welts' comments to the contrary, the team's inability to meet expectations on the field was the biggest factor in Graziano's dismissal.

"Everyone is accountable when you don't perform up to the level people expect," Manager Davey Johnson said. "It's just very disappointing."

General Manager Kevin Malone also took the news hard.

"It's extremely difficult for me because he's a close friend," Malone said of the man who hired him last September. "Apart from the job, and that's tough enough, I'm going to miss him.

"It's somewhat of a shock, yeah. He was a great supporter of baseball operations. And again, we worked closely together."

The Dodgers committed almost $170 million in acquiring players during an off-season spending spree intended to help the team qualify for the playoffs. Among those moves was the controversial signing of pitcher Kevin Brown to a record seven-year, $105-million contract. Brown also received an unprecedented perk--the use of a chartered jet for his family.

Brown has pitched well, but the Dodgers simply did not accomplish enough collectively to satisfy their new corporate owners.What's more, Graziano at times was drawn into battles with Fox forces trying to exert control over the Dodgers.

One event during the last few months illustrated Graziano's eroding power, team sources said.

He had tried to rehire Derrick Hall, former media relations director who'd left the organization in January, for a newly created vice presidency. Graziano agreed on the terms of the position, but Welts changed them, and Hall rejected the revised position.

Hall, who has a show on the team's flagship radio station, KXTA, and is a part-time sportscaster for KNBC-TV, declined comment on his recent contract negotiations with the Dodgers.

Welts, besides overruling Graziano on that move, also rejected many of Graziano's other staffing and strategic proposals in recent weeks.

"I happen to be a big fan of Bob Graziano," Welts said. "It's absolutely not a consideration at all to say we're going to place blame [for the disastrous season] in Bob Graziano's lap. We're not singling Bob out in any way, shape or form. It's just that Bob has a different set of skills and experiences for what I want to accomplish long term."

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Times staff writer Paul Gutierrez contributed to this story.

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