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Bill Shaikin SUNDAY REPORT

He's someone to contend with

July 13, 2008|Bill Shaikin

To an L.A. kid playing high school ball on a dirt infield, Dodger Stadium is hallowed ground.

Look up from the infield at Chatsworth High, and you see a fence, and a street with passing cars. Look up at Dodger Stadium, and you see levels of seats stacked toward the sky, one color after another.

Larry Beinfest was determined to look up from that infield. He knew he might never get that chance again.

This was almost three decades ago. He was the shortstop at Chatsworth, and his team was playing at Dodger Stadium, for third place in the City Section. In the quarterfinals, a runner had slid in hard, breaking up a double play and breaking Beinfest's leg, in two places.

So there he was, on the field at Dodger Stadium, in a wheelchair.

"My mom snuck me out of the hospital," he said.

He was on the field at Dodger Stadium the other day, standing tall. The kid grew up to be the general manager of the Florida Marlins, architect of the unlikeliest of contenders this season.

"I never really imagined coming to Dodger Stadium and rooting for anybody but the Dodgers," he said.

You never know, in baseball and in life.

The Dodgers spend $120 million on payroll and the Marlins spend $20 million, and the Marlins have the better record.

The Detroit Tigers acquired Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis from the Marlins last winter, but the Marlins are in better position for a playoff berth. Joe Girardi manages the New York Yankees now instead of the Marlins, but the Marlins are in better position than Girardi for a playoff berth.

The Marlins found their closer, Kevin Gregg, on the surplus pile in Anaheim.

"You know you're a contender with the Angels," Gregg said. "You know what they stand for. It was uncertain what I was getting into here.

"I heard the stereotype of the organization, before I came over here and saw what we're all about."

They're about winning on a tight budget, in front of so few fans that "crowd" is an overstatement. It would be nice if the Marlins drew more fans and spent more money -- rival owners subsidize their entire payroll via revenue sharing -- and perhaps that new stadium will help on both fronts.

The ballplayer's favorite cliche is this: Don't worry about things you can't control. That's Beinfest in a nutshell. He doesn't worry about how many pennies his owner will let him spend or how many hundreds of fans show up. That's the stuff of stereotypes, and that's not his department.

He handles the winning. If the Marlins finish with a winning record this season, they'll have four winning records in the last six seasons, with one World Series championship.

They won in 2003, with Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo creating havoc atop the lineup, with Mike Lowell and Derrek Lee and Ivan Rodriguez driving in the runs, with Josh Beckett and Brad Penny the stud arms in the World Series.

Those Marlins featured pitching and defense, as Beinfest's teams usually do. This year's Marlins?

"Really, we've just whacked," Beinfest said.

They lead the majors in home runs. The Dodgers don't have anyone on pace to hit 20. Florida's All-Star infielders, Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla, already have 23 apiece.

Beinfest isn't the only general manager to build a World Series champion in Miami. Dave Dombrowski did it too. Now he runs the Tigers, with a $138-million payroll and a sincere appreciation of what Beinfest and the Marlins have done since he left for Detroit.

"I would tip my cap," Dombrowski said. "He -- and they -- have done a fantastic job.

"There's no question you'd rather be in a position where you have the resources. If you look at the clubs that succeed without the high payrolls, they're very consistent in how they approach things year in and year out. They have a solid philosophy. If you have a very thorough thought process, you can make it work."

So this makes sense: The Marlins do hand out long-term contracts -- but to their executives, not their players. Beinfest is signed through 2015. So are his top player personnel executives -- Michael Hill, Jim Fleming and Dan Jennings.

The Oakland A's do more with less, with GM Billy Beane signed through 2012.

The Minnesota Twins do more with less, and they haven't missed a beat since promoting Bill Smith when longtime GM Terry Ryan retired. The Smith era started with the loss of Torii Hunter to free agency and the trade of Johan Santana to the New York Mets for prospects, but the Twins have a better record than the Mets.

There might come a time when Beinfest yearns for the chance to do more with more, but he swears he has not thought about it. Bob Lofrano, his Chatsworth High coach and now athletic director at Pierce College, counts Beinfest as one of his closest friends.

Even in private, Lofrano said, Beinfest never has floated a desire to work with a real major league payroll.

"He's never expressed that to me," Lofrano said. "He's got maybe the best contract in baseball right now. But just think what he could do with some bigger purse strings."

Said Beinfest: "I don't think you ever think that way. We have a really good organization, from the top down. It's a good situation. There's a lot of upside still to come, hopefully, with our new venue.

"I was just a guy in baseball hoping for a chance. This team gave me that chance. I'll be forever grateful."

That takes Beinfest off the potential list of replacements in L.A., with Dodgers owner Frank McCourt restless and refusing to publicly guarantee another year to his GM, Ned Colletti.

And that's too bad for McCourt, who would love to introduce an executive who wears a World Series championship ring on his finger, who grew up rooting for the Dodgers and who keeps a picture of Vin Scully on his office wall.

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bill.shaikin@latimes.com

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