Before beginning his thirty-year career with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Fred Claire worked for twelve years as a sports editor, columnist, and baseball writer. If there was anyone that understands the business of baseball, Fred Claire does. In this interview, Fred talks the history of the Dodgers, Vin Scully, the PCL, and the overall health and well-being of MLB.
Before beginning his thirty-year career with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Fred Claire worked for twelve years as a sports editor, columnist, and baseball writer for several Southern California newspapers. His life as a sports writer started with an article he wrote in college, "Make Way For the Coast League," which was published in the All-Star edition of Baseball Magazine in July 1955--the first time the All-Star game was played in Milwaukee.
Claire joined the Dodgers in 1969 as the team's Publicity Director and advanced to become General Manager and Executive Vice President in charge of day-to-day operations and player personnel. Claire has received the Robert O. Fishel Award, the Major League Baseball "Executive of the Year" award, the Award of Honor from the American Baseball Coaches Association, and the "Good Guy" award from the Southern California Sports Broadcasters. (He wins the OBC good guy award, too.)
Claire has also served Major League Baseball in a number of capacities, including as a member of the Board of Directors for MLB Properties, the Baseball Operations Committee, the Broadcast Advisory Group, and the Board of Directors for the RBI program (Reviving Baseball in Inner-cities). Since his departure from the Dodgers in 1998, Claire has remained active in the areas of sports writing, academia, and business consulting. He serves as an analyst for baseball broadcasts on ESPN Radio and currently writes a baseball column for SportsTicker, which has become a regular feature on MLB.com, ESPN, and Yahoo. He teaches a sports business class at the University of Southern California and serves on the Advisory Board for the Master's program in Sports Management at Cal State Long Beach. And he is a strategic consultant for SportsTrac Systems, Inc. of Boulder, CO, a pioneer in shoulder rehabilitation in the field of sports and overall health care; and a consultant for Bullpen Baseball Partners, an investment group with holdings in minor league teams.
We corresponded with Fred over the course of a few weeks and talked to him on the phone a week before the 2002 All-Star game in Milwaukee. Not only is he a man of great experience in the world of Major League Baseball, he is also very personable and friendly--a gentleman and truly a "good guy."
BizBall: The Dodger organization from the 1950s through the 1990s was known for its stability. While George Steinbrenner changed managers almost weekly, the Dodgers had two managers--Walt Alston and Tommy Lasorda--for more than 50 years. What can you tell us about this philosophy?
Claire: Stability was a key part of the Dodger success during the years the O'Malleys owned the team. I was with the organization for 30 years, and during that time there were two general managers (Al Campanis and myself), three managers (Walter Alston, Tommy Lasorda, and Bill Russell), two farm directors (Bill Schweppe and Charlie Blaney), two scouting directors (Ben Wade and Terry Reynolds), and two traveling secretaries (Lee Scott and Billy DeLury). During most of my 30 years, Bob Smith ran stadium operations and Walter Nash was the ticket manager.
BizBall: Not to mention the same guy in the booth for the last 52 years. It would be great to hear Vin Scully call at least one more World Series before he retires, preferably in LA. What makes him so special?
Claire: Vin Scully is great because his love of baseball and his knowledge of the sport come through every time he announces a game. Vin grew up with a passion for the game, and that passion has grown through the years. He cares about the game, and he prepares for every game as if it was the first game he was going to broadcast. Vin Scully is one of those unique people, someone who is as good and as caring as he appears to be when you see him in a public forum. He is a great human being, and I'm proud to consider him a friend.
BizBall: As soon as the O'Malleys sold the Dodgers, personnel changes have become more commonplace for the team. Is that just the way of the business these days?
Claire: When News Corp. (Fox) took over ownership in 1998, there were many changes. Fox is noted for making changes--that's the right of ownership.
BizBall: Is it better? Or just different?
Claire: Without question, there were different business philosophies at work when you compare the O'Malleys and Fox. I'm not judging one as being right and one as being wrong. I do believe the O'Malley-run Dodgers stood the test of time.
BizBall: Are the days of family-owned teams over?
Claire: You look around and you see there are no real family ownerships of Major League teams today. Basically, it's too great of a risk for a family ownership. We live in a corporate world. Once again, I was fortunate to be a part of Major League Baseball when you had family ownership. I attended many Major League meetings where you had owners and team executives (usually the Executive VP and/or team GM). Today you will find the owners accompanied by a large group of attorneys and accountants at the meetings.
BizBall: What was it like to work for the O'Malley family?
Claire: Walter O'Malley was a man of great vision. He always thought about the future. The Dodgers' move to the West Coast and the building of Dodger Stadium were all part of Walter's vision. He planned for the future, and he wanted to build on a solid foundation. The O'Malleys worked very hard, and they were very dedicated during their time of owning the Dodgers. Peter O'Malley had a great background when he became the president of the Dodgers. He had been well schooled by his father, and Peter always put forth a full effort in directing the Dodgers. I consider myself fortunate to have been a part of the Dodgers during the O'Malley ownership years.
Pacific Coast League
BizBall: For more than 50 years, the Pacific Coast League played major league level baseball in California, Oregon, and Washington before the National and American Leagues ever got further west than St. Louis. Was the act of moving two successful National League teams to California a preemptive strike to prevent the PCL from coming of its own?
Claire: I don't know if the move of the Dodgers and Giants was a preemptive strike to prevent the PCL from becoming a third Major League. I think it was more of a case of Walter O'Malley seeing the great potential that existed on the West Coast. I truly believe Walter wanted to keep the Dodgers in the East, but he wasn't afraid to make a move when his plans for a new stadium didn't receive the necessary support.
BizBall: What do you remember of the PCL before the Dodgers and Giants moved to California? How did it compare to the National and American Leagues?
Claire: I always had a fondness for the Pacific Coast League. My family moved to California in 1950 and by that time I already was in love with the game of baseball. I loved playing the game, and I loved following the game. My introduction to baseball had been on the fields of a small town (Jamestown) in Ohio. My father and mother introduced my brother Doug, sister Lynn, and me to Major League Baseball at old Crosley Field in Cincinnati. When I saw Crosley Field and a game between the Reds and St. Louis Cardinals (my brother was a Cardinal fan and a Stan Musial fan), I was hooked on baseball for life. Seeing a game at Crosley remains one of the greatest thrills associated with baseball I ever have had. It provided me with a passion for baseball that has never left me...and never will leave me.
There was a void when my family moved to California because there was no Major League Baseball west of St. Louis at that time. I became a fan of the Pacific Coast League and started to follow the Hollywood Stars. I loved PCL baseball.
When I was in junior college, as part of a feature writing class, I submitted a story--titled "Make Way for the Coast League"--to Baseball Magazine. And they published it. I felt the PCL cities could support Major League baseball. History shows I was on target with my thoughts.
One of the great treasures of my career in baseball was to become friends with men who were a part of the PCL in the early 1950s--Bobby Bragan, Chuck Stevens, Monty Basgall, George Genovese, Chuck Connors, Tommy Lasorda, Gene Mauch, Red Adams, Gail Henley, Gordon Goldsberry, Dale Long, Dee Fondy, Ben Wade, and so many more. They are great guys, and I treasure the friendships.
Problems: contraction, expansion, and relocation
BizBall: History does show you were on target with PCL cities playing the major league level: Major League Baseball has expanded or relocated into five of the original six cities that made up the Pacific Coast League. But now MLB is talking about eliminating teams. In November 2001, after what many experts consider one of the best World Series of all time, the owners, in what might be called a calculated and scripted move, announced their unilateral decision to contract two teams. Is contraction a realistic plan to solve the game's alleged economic problems or to achieve competitive balance? Or are owners using it largely as a bargaining tool with cities and players? And how do you think the players view it?
Claire: There probably is some support for contraction among the leaders of the Players Association, but the way the plan was rolled out didn't make too much sense to me. It was as if the owners were saying, "We can do this, and we are going to do this, and the only thing we have to negotiate with the union is the results of the plans." You know what, the results are tied into the actual act of contraction, and I think this subject got confused and controversial from the outset. It could have been--and should have been--handled in a better way. Baseball says it has problems in given franchise locations. Fine, no debate. Let's look first at the areas that may be a part of the solution to help resolve the problems.
BizBall: It sounds like you agree that baseball has economic problems, but you don't believe contraction is going to solve those problems. Is that a fair assessment?
Claire: I don't feel contraction is the cure-all for baseball. Whether you have 28 teams or 30--or 32 for that matter--you need to have a change in the structure of the agreement. This is what must come out of the agreement of revenue sharing and some sort of "luxury" tax. It still boils down to sharing the revenue in a sensible and agreeable fashion.
BizBall: Should the owners be thinking of eliminating teams when there are viable cities like Portland that can support a franchise?
Claire: What they should be thinking of is relocation. I recognize that Portland is working hard to bring Major League Baseball to the city. I believe if you examine the basics--interest, population, and TV market--you have to include Portland on a list of candidates for relocation and/or expansion. I don't know the length of the list but Portland should have a place on the list.
BizBall: You worked within MLB for 30 years in various capacities, serving at one time or another as a member of the Board of Directors for MLB Properties, as a member of the Broadcast Advisory Group, and as a member of the Baseball Operations Committee. Knowing what you do about broadcast revenues, why doesn't MLB adopt a broadcast revenue-sharing plan similar to the NFL's, which has been a proven success? Would revenue-sharing be the single, most effective solution MLB could implement to correct the competitive imbalance problem and help the "small market" teams? And are the owners ready to adopt a more balanced revenue-sharing plan?
Claire: From all that I have heard and read, baseball is ready to share more local revenue. This is a major step. The bottom line is this: Baseball generates 3.5 billion dollars in revenues. The players and owners should be able to figure out a way to share these dollars in a sensible fashion and also develop a plan to have more competitive balance. Is this easy to accomplish? Of course not, but it can be accomplished because there will be a new collective bargaining agreement. Every negotiation meeting needs to start with the understanding by both parties that "We need to come to an agreement and we need to figure out how we can get there." The meetings can't start by throwing darts at one another or with a lack of trust. I know one thing for sure--baseball can't afford a work stoppage. The scars of 1994 cut too deep. And if either side takes action to stop play, the recovery period will make the recent market slide look like a fleeting second of time.
BizBall: If Bud Selig were to retire, and the owners voted you in as Commissioner, what changes would you make?
Claire: I don't like hypothetical questions, but if Bud Selig retired and the owners voted me as Commissioner, I would call up Don Fehr and invite him to my office. I would then lock the door and wouldn't open it until we had an agreement. I would then immediately announce my retirement. I would go back to playing golf and doing consulting work, and Bud could come out of retirement and resume the job he loves.
BizBall: It sounds like you believe an improved union/management relationship is critical to the game's health and long-term success. During your long career with the Dodgers, the MLBPA became perhaps the strongest labor union in all of American history. Has the union's ascendance made it more difficult for management to deal with players? Has it helped or hindered either the game or team/player relations?
Claire: It is the lack of a partnership that has hampered Major League Baseball and the Players Association for too many years.
BizBall: Is that the union's fault?
Claire: The union came about because the players had a need to be represented. There was a time when the owners held all of the power. The best time to make a deal is when you hold the power and you have the desire to make a smart and fair deal. The power has now swung to the players' side. If the players--represented by the union--fail to handle the power they now have in a proper way, the game will be hurt. It will be hurt because a fair deal--one that allows for the growth of the game--will not be struck.
BizBall: What about free agency?
Claire: I was with Walter O'Malley at one point in the early days of free agency, and he was asked, "What would Sandy Koufax make if he were pitching today?" Walter spun his cigar and replied, "He would be my partner."
BizBall: Are superstars and their agents to blame for skyrocketing salaries? Alex Rodriguez signed a ten-year $252 million deal around the same time owners started clamoring for a salary cap to protect them from their own poor judgment.
Claire: Agents have become a very big part of the game. A lot of executives like to blame them for the troubles of baseball. I've never heard of a major league contract that wasn't signed by a team executive. An agent can't make a deal by himself. Teams have had the opportunity to say "no." Teams have had the opportunity to make judgments based on their own business sense and not based on the pressure of the fans or the media. Teams have made mistakes. You can't put all of the blame on the agents. I always looked at the agent as part of the players' support group. There are agents who have accepted this responsibility, and there are agents who have run from this responsibility. In thirty years as an executive for the Dodgers, I developed a pretty good scouting report on the agents.
BizBall: What about drugs in the bigs? Drug abuse in the 80s and 90s was of the so-called "recreational" nature; today, the problem appears to have shifted to performance-enhancing steroids. Which is worse? What should the league's responsibility be with regard to players who have recreational drug problems? Should the league take a strong stand against steroid usage?
Claire: The use of steroids by major league players is a major problem. It is a problem for the players, and it is a problem for the owners. It is a problem for Major League Baseball. It is a problem where the players association and management must share the responsibility and work together to find a solution. I know the problems of "recreational drugs." I spent a great deal of time with both Steve Howe and Darryl Strawberry during their problem days as members of the Dodgers. I gave the very best of what I had to give to help Steve and Darryl. I know the time it takes; I know the commitment it takes. I also know the toll that drugs can take on athletes and their families. I worry about steroid use because the problem is like a ticking bomb. When it explodes there will be more questions than answers. The subject of steroids should be the number one item on the agenda for the owners and the players and the association that represents the players. They have a mutual interest to deal with this subject.
BizBall: You've served as a member of the Board of Directors for Reviving Baseball in Inner-cities (RBI), a program created by former major leaguer John Young in response to the problem of drugs and gang violence among inner city youth. Critics of MLB say the sport is not friendly to minorities and that it is not "hip" enough to be popular with the younger generation. Is MLB doing enough to make baseball a more inclusive sport?
Claire: Major League Baseball needs to do more in promoting the sport in the US. This is particularly true in the inner cities, and that is why I have great respect for the RBI program and John Young. There isn't enough baseball being played in the inner cities. The playgrounds are shrinking and not being used to help the youth and the sport of baseball. This needs to be a priority.
I saw a startling statistic that showed about half of the Major League players are coming from outside the US. Is this because we lack the athletes in the US? No way. We lack the exposure of the sport, we lack the instruction of the sport, and we lack the financial backing of the sport. We need to do more, and I'm not talking just about baseball. We need to do more to promote sports for our youth. Sports serve as an excellent instructor for so many values that have been a big part of this country. Baseball should take the lead in this area because it has the biggest challenge.
BizBall: If you compare the cultural and ethnic diversity of the big four professional sports, none appears to have as much representation from all walks of life as baseball does. How do you account for this disparity between perception and reality?
Claire: Baseball does draw from all walks of life and this is one of the most attractive things about the sport. When you look at professional football and basketball players you see that you need to have incredible size to play these games at the top level. There are no exceptions. In baseball, it is skill--not size--that enables one to reach the highest level. Baseball needs to do a better job making youngsters aware of the opportunities in baseball. Those fortunate enough to reach the top level have the opportunity to enjoy long careers.
BizBall: What do you make of claims that baseball's fan base is aging? Is baseball a dying sport? What can MLB do to ensure the health of the sport and guarantee its popularity for the next generation of fans?
Claire: Baseball is not a dying sport. It's the best sport, by far. Does it need to do more to appeal to the youth? Yes, much more. You appeal to the youth by promoting the game. You appeal to the youth by having youth baseball programs. Baseball suffers an image problem with a large part of the youth population. The game is better than the image right now. It requires thought, work, and dedication. But never discount the importance of the game of baseball in this country.
BizBall: What about outside this country?
Claire: Baseball has a great opportunity to continue to grow at the international level. This is one area where the owners and the players association are on the same page. They both realize the importance of growing the game worldwide.
BizBall: The Dodgers' Hideo Nomo was the first Japanese player to make it big in the States. There are a number of other Asian pitchers doing well in MLB, including Kazuhiro Sasaki, Kazuhisa Ishii, and Byung-Yung Kim. Last year, Ichiro Suzuki of the Mariners proved that position players from Japan can make it big in MLB as well. What does this say about the level of play in Japan?
Claire: The level of play in Japan continues to improve. The most significant thing is that the young baseball players in Japan now look to the United States as the land of opportunity. The youngsters know they now have an opening to play Major League baseball. Hideo Nomo is the man who opened the door, and he was given free agency early because of a dispute with his team's management. History shows that disputes between owners and players have a way of changing the course of baseball. I think we will see the day when there is a Major League team in Japan. It will be part of baseball being played at an international level. It will happen and it will happen within a reasonable period of time.
BizBall: Football and basketball have fairly strong presences in Europe, but baseball doesn't. Are there any plans to build the game beyond its North American and Southeast Asian strongholds?
Claire: Baseball's presence in Europe is growing and a key factor here is baseball being played in the Olympic Games. As long as baseball is a part of the Olympics, there will be funding for the baseball federations throughout the world. One person who is deserving of a great deal of credit for baseball in the Olympics is Peter O'Malley. I can well remember when he hosted the baseball federations from throughout the world because of his desire to see baseball grow on an international level. Peter; Bob Smith of the U.S. Baseball Federation; and Rod Dedeaux, the former USC coach, all are deserving of credit for the growth of international interest. There will be a true "World Series" one day, and it will have had its start due to the work of many men who have received very little credit.
BizBall: Tommy Lasorda, a former major league manager, coached the US team to Olympic gold in Australia in 2000. The NHL takes a break in its season to allow its player to compete in the Winter Olympics. Will we see Major League Baseball players--or former major leaguers--play in the Olympics?
Claire: I don't think we will see Major League players performing in the Olympics as long as the Olympic schedule conflicts with the Major League schedule. I also don't think we will see Major League Baseball taking a break to allow players to participate in the Olympics. I think we will see former Major League stars as part of the Olympics.
BizBall: How does Tommy rate in the pantheon of players turned managers?
Claire: I first met Tommy Lasorda in the Spring of 1969. He was the manager of Spokane and I was a writer for the Long Beach, California newspaper. We became good friends. I once played shortstop for Tommy's Spokane team in a Spring Camp game against Bakersfield. He challenged me to play, and I accepted the challenge, replacing a fellow named Bobby Valentine at shortstop. Tommy loved to issue and accept challenges and so did I. We were different in many ways, but we both had a great desire to win, and we formed a GM-manager team for a decade. Tommy earned his place in the Hall of Fame. He has been a great contributor to the game of baseball.
BizBall: The Dodgers have farmed out a lot of managerial talent in the last few years--people like Mike Scioscia, Davey Lopes, Orel Hershiser, and Bill Russell--who were significant longtime Dodger players back in the eighties. Is there something about the old Dodger system--sticking with guys, promoting from within--that is conducive to grooming managers and coaches?
Claire: For the last half-century the Dodger organization has been turning out Major League managers, coaches, and front office executives. I don't know the exact number of men who came through the Dodger organization to manage or coach at the big league level, but the list would have to be incredibly long. The Dodger scouting and minor league system has been very successful through the years in producing both Major League players and members of big league staffs. Sure, the system has had its critics, but when you operate at a high level, you are going to have critics. The good thing about baseball is that it can be judged by results, and no organization has been more successful through the years in turning out players, managers, and coaches. I treasure the relationships I have with the people who served in the Dodger organization during the time I was part of the team. I would go to war with this group of people any day of the week.
BizBall: You obviously haven't been idle since you and the Dodgers parted ways in 1998. What have you been doing to keep busy?
Claire: I have stayed very busy teaching, writing, and doing consulting work. I've also found time for family, golf, and fly fishing. It's not a bad combination. I've taught a class at USC titled "Sports, Business, and the Media." The most enjoyable part of that has been dealing with the students and helping a number of them find jobs in the world of sports. And I've been writing a weekly column for Sports Ticker that has been running on MLB.com, Yahoo, and ESPN.
BizBall: What kind of consulting work?
My consulting work at this time is for SportsTrac Systems of Boulder, CO, and Bullpen Baseball Partners. SportsTrac systems has a shoulder rehab program that is used by five Major League teams and also is being placed in hospitals and physical therapy facilities throughout the United States. Bullpen Baseball Partners is an investment group that has holdings in minor league baseball teams and is looking for additional opportunities. We currently are looking at a couple of minor league franchises that I consider very promising.
BizBall: What's your handicap?
Claire: I'm afraid I can't give too much information about my golf or fly fishing other than to say I'm trying to lower my number on the golf course and increase my number of fish when I visit Wyoming and Montana.