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Hemorrhaging Dodger Blue

In Trying to Turn Around Its Franchise, Fox Has Tapped Former Hollywood Mogul Robert Daly, Who Fell for the Team as a Boy in Brooklyn. If Only He Can Make Them Winners Again.

March 12, 2000|JAMES BATES | Times staff writer James Bates' last article for the magazine was a profile of Roy Disney

New Dodger chief Robert Daly squints into the glare above Chavez Ravine, looking through the glass walls of his office, just a pop fly from the foul pole marking left field. "This is my field of dreams," he says.

Some field of dreams. On this day, Dodger Stadium is a field of dirt. Lots of it, thanks to a $50-million make-over that must be finished before the Cincinnati Reds show up on April 14 for the home opener. No green anywhere, just rolled sod and dirt excavated from the hill where Walter O'Malley 40 years ago carved out what today is baseball's fifth oldest stadium. Where 56,000 voices once cheered Sandy Koufax's no-hitters, Fernando Valenzuela's shutouts and Kirk Gibson's miracle home run. Now there echoes the drone from two bulldozers and a tractor and an annoying high-pitched beep warning people to move. One bulldozer scrapes infield dirt from second base to third, moving so slowly that a one-armed catcher could throw it out.

The renovation at field level is much like the one taking place three sections up in the office Daly has occupied since late October. For nearly two decades, Daly was at the pinnacle of Hollywood power as head of the giant Warner Bros. studio. Now he's abruptly thrown himself into repairing the city's storied baseball franchise. How hard will that be? The Dodgers haven't earned a World Series trophy since Ronald Reagan was president. Last year's losses: $22 million. Despite pricey new seats behind home plate and a new row of luxury boxes, soaring player salaries mean that ending up in the black this year will be harder than winning all 162 games.

Daly also inherits a team that alienated fans the moment it passed from the familial stewardship of the O'Malleys two years ago into subsidiaryhood, becoming a tiny speck in Rupert Murdoch's global media empire, aimed at enhancing his cable TV operations. Now Daly is chief executive officer of the team, and plenty of fans believe it's not a moment too soon for a change. Last year, Murdoch's News Corp. and its Fox unit outspent nearly every other team owner, yet the Dodgers still lost more games than they won, finishing an embarrassing 23 games out of first place. If that wasn't enough, fans suffered through watching Mike Piazza--one of the most popular Dodgers in recent times until he was unceremoniously traded--in the playoffs wearing a New York Mets uniform.

Daly's coming summer couldn't be more different from the ones he spent on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, where he and his inseparable co-chief Terry Semel reigned for nearly 20 years. Theirs was the world of "Batman," "Lethal Weapon," "The Matrix," TV shows like "Friends" and "ER" and music from Madonna, Alanis Morissette and Metallica. Daly and Semel were on a first-name basis with Clint, Julia, Mel, two Toms, Jodie, Arnold, Steven, Sly, Barbra and any other star or director worthy of a private trailer on a movie set.

Stars loved doing movies for "Bob and Terry." The two execs could be taken at their word and the talent could count on being pampered with things like free Range Rovers or being chauffeured in Warner's Gulfstream IV jet. After the two shocked Hollywood by announcing that they were leaving, the stars crowded the courtyard at Mann's Chinese so Daly and Semel could cement not only their handprints on Hollywood Boulevard but also their place in Hollywood history.

All the more puzzling why someone like Daly at age 63 has answered Murdoch's siren call. He doesn't need the job. The millions he earned over the years are measured in triple digits. The old Warner Gulfstream IV? He and Semel bought it. Daly could just as easily be raising horses, chickens and pigeons on the $6.4-million, 17-acre ranch he and his wife, songwriter Carole Bayer Sager, bought last year in Malibu.

Yet here he is, spending up to $36 million of his own money to buy 10% of the team so he can become chairman of a business 1% the size of the one he ran before. He's an autonomous managing partner, but every fan he encounters won't hesitate to tell him what to do. Outside of the entertainment business, virtually no one knew or cared that Daly ran Warner Bros. Now, to the opinionated Dodger fan, he's both the genius who traded for emerging superstar outfielder Shawn Green and the idiot who got rid of pitcher Ismael Valdes and second baseman Eric Young. Some of the 30 or so letters he gets a week even complain about things like the Dodger Dogs mustard.

"What do I worry about? I worry about letting people down," Daly says. "I really feel an obligation here not to let people down."

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