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Thomas Schieffer brings boyhood devotion to baseball to his job as Dodgers overseer

As a youngster in Fort Worth, Schieffer would watch the hometown Brooklyn Dodgers farm club that included Duke Snider and Maury Wills. His friends and adversaries say the L.A. Dodgers will be getting a tough oil-and-gas lawyer who won't shy from a fight.

April 30, 2011|By Phil Willon, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Arlington, Texas — With a stiff grin, wavy hair and old-fangled steel-rimmed glasses, a brass image of Tom Schieffer greets fans as they stream through the front gate of Rangers Ballpark, the Texas-size cathedral to major league baseball.

The wall plaque proclaims the stadium, built in the mid-1990s with ample taxpayer support, as the "lasting legacy" of the former Texas Rangers president and co-owner. A more modest monument to the solace Schieffer has always found in baseball lies a few miles west.

LaGrave Field on the banks of the Trinity River is where Schieffer's dad took him as a boy to see the hometown Fort Worth Cats, a Brooklyn Dodgers farm club where Dodgers greats Duke Snider, Carl Erskine and Maury Wills once hung their spikes. It's the same field where his older brother, CBS newsman Bob Schieffer, would take young Tom a few years later as respite from the grief over their father's death.

"My brother stepped into the role of father, and one of the things we did was, we went to a lot of baseball games together," Tom Schieffer said. "It was something we shared the love of, and something that meant the world to me."

Schieffer, 63, promises to bring that same boyhood devotion to the game to his care of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig last week appointed Schieffer to oversee the team's business operations as embattled owner Frank McCourt deals with Selig's investigation into the Dodgers' tangled finances.

"You have to protect the institution, and that's the thing you always have to keep in mind," said Schieffer, who has the power to approve all team expenses over $5,000. "The Los Angeles Dodgers are one of the great sports franchises in the world… I think everybody recognizes that the Dodgers need to be a healthy franchise for baseball as a whole to be a healthy sport."

Schieffer's folksy demeanor can be disarming. But make no mistake, his friends and adversaries say, the Dodgers will be getting a tough oil-and-gas lawyer who won't shy from a fight.

A glance at his resume shows why Selig picked him for the job. In addition to his law background, Schieffer combines the wiliness of a country politician — the Democrat won three terms to the Texas statehouse while still in his 20s — with the diplomatic skills honed by eight years as ambassador to Australia and Japan under former President George W. Bush, his onetime Texas Rangers partner.

"It's a big job, and he knows it," said his brother Bob, who is 10 years older. "He's done a little crisis work, though. When you're dealing with the notion that the North Koreans have nuclear weapons, and being asked what are you going to do about it, I don't think he'll have any trouble dealing with the Dodgers."

Schieffer, describing his own management style, offered what could be a subtle warning to McCourt.

"If people think you're being honest with them, they'll cut you a lot of slack. If they think you're going to try to pull one over on them, they don't like that. And guess what, I don't like that either," he said. "I think integrity is the foundation of everything."

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As president of the Texas Rangers through most of the 1990s, Schieffer cut a reputation as a get-it-done executive with meticulous attention to detail. He sat in the stands, just behind home plate, at almost every home game. Fans could often see him walking around the ballpark before the first pitch, looking for burned-out light bulbs and checking to make sure the place was clean.

Former Rangers general manager Tom Grieve said Schieffer kept his hands off the day-to-day decisions on the field — who would play, bat cleanup or be the closer — but was intensely involved in contract decisions and other big-money aspects of the game.

First baseman Rafael Palmeiro learned that firsthand in 1993. Palmeiro, a free agent, was asking for a $40-million, six-year contract. Schieffer offered him $26.5 million over five years.

"Tom said to him, 'You're a good player and there may be a team that will pay you more than that. But we can't and we won't. So if you want to play here for us, this is what we can do,' " Grieve said. "I guess Raffy thought it was part of the negotiation. But it wasn't … the next day we signed Will Clark."

Furious, Palmeiro the next day ripped Schieffer as a "backstabbing liar," saying the move was retribution for winning salary arbitration against the club the year before.

"They never gave me the option of getting back with them," Palmeiro said at the time. "It was unprofessional. But that's the way Schieffer operates … there was no loyalty involved."

Schieffer fired Grieve a year later, but at least he saw it coming. Schieffer told him to expect it if the team didn't start winning.

"This is baseball, after all," said Grieve, whom Schieffer then hired as the club's television analyst. "Tom Schieffer is very honest, straightforward and no-nonsense. You know exactly where you stand and if you don't understand it, it's your fault."

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