We all make mistakes. The problem with making a mistake if you’re Bill Buckner or Scott Norwood or even Fred Claire is, it happens on the world stage for all to see.
Coincidentally, Claire’s miscues from the general manager’s chair have intersected at some point in history, with current or former members of the New York Mets. It’s like six degrees of separation, but not.
With the Winter Meetings come and gone and the New Year here, once again the ghosts of winters past will pay a visit to Claire.
It started in 1990 when the Los Angeles Dodgers signed free agent right fielder Darryl Strawberry away from the Mets. “No free agent had more talent that Darryl Strawberry,” wrote Claire in his book, My 30 Years in Dodger Blue. “But there are no championship stories to be written about Darryl as a Dodger.”
To Claire’s credit, at the time, the signing of Strawberry to a five-year deal was celebrated. The former Met was already an eight-year major league veteran at age 28 and was coming off a productive season in New York, hitting 37 HR and 107 RBI. It was believed Strawberry’s best days were in front of him.
Strawberry, a California native and Crenshaw High School graduate, was coming home when he signed in Los Angeles. No one, including Claire, could have predicted the nightmare that lie ahead for Strawberry.
After a productive 1991 season, it was all down hill for Strawberry. Between 1992 and 1993, the Dodgers right fielder played in 75 games. He suffered through numerous injuries and off-the-field bigger problems were brewing.
“It came to a breaking point at our final exhibition game at Anaheim Stadium in April of 1994,” Claire recalls. “Darryl failed to show up for our Sunday game.
“I told the media I didn’t know where Darryl was. It was obvious I was upset. The only feeling greater than my anger was my concern about Darryl’s whereabouts. Finally that evening, I received a call from Darryl.
“Fred,” he said, “I just want you to know I’m OK, and I will be with the team tomorrow.”
“No, Darryl, you won’t be with the team,” Claire said. “I want to meet with you tomorrow morning because we have come to an end of the road. You failed to show the responsibility that is needed to be part of our team. You can bring any representatives you care to have with you.”
The next day Strawberry and his lawyer Robert Shapiro arrived at the Dodgers offices. Shapiro wasted no time, telling Claire, “We want you to know that Darryl has a problem with substance abuse. We have talked to the Players’ Association about getting assistance for Darryl.”
Shapiro’s efforts to salvage Strawberry’s career in Los Angeles were too late. Claire had already made a decision in the best interest of the Dodger organization to cut ties with Strawberry and the trail of personal problems accompanying him.
As Claire recalled, Strawberry sat in the Dodgers offices with tears streaming down his face.
“Fred, I feel sorry that I let you and the Dodgers down,” he said.
Claire’s Winter blues reached it’s peak on November 17, 1993, the day he traded Pedro Martinez (now the ace of the Mets staff), then 22, to the Montreal Expos for second baseman Delino DeShields. Claire recalls the misery so well he dedicated a full chapter to it in his book.
“There’s one baseball trade … where I wish I could have had a second chance,” wrote Claire, “That trade, of course, was the one that sent Pedro Martinez to the Montreal Expos … in exchange for second baseman Delino DeShields.”
The Dodgers needed a second baseman, and before trading Martinez, Claire made a three-year, $7.8 million offer to Jody Reed. Instead of taking the deal, Reed tested the free agent market and the Dodgers pulled the offer. Claire later considered free agents Harold Reynolds and Robby Thompson. Reynolds, then 33, was not a long-term solution and Thompson re-signed with the San Francisco Giants before the Dodgers could make a serious bid.
With Reed still on the open market, Claire decided to look elsewhere anyway. After learning about DeShields availability and the Expos asking price (Martinez), Claire picked up the phone.
“I made two calls before moving forward with the deal,” said Claire, “One to Tommy Lasorda and one to Ralph Avila, the man in charge of our baseball operations in the Dominican Republic. I told both men they had veto rights on the trade. Both agreed it was a good deal for the Dodgers in that we would solve our problem at second with an outstanding young player.”
In three full seasons with the Dodgers, DeShields hit .240, playing in just 89 games in 1994, his first year with Los Angeles. He retired after the 2002 season with a career .268 batting average, hitting a career high .296 for the Baltimore Orioles in 2000.
Martinez spent four years in Montreal compiling a 55-33 record, striking out 222 batters in 1996 and 305 in 1997. It was his final year with Montreal that he made his mark with a 17-8 record, a 1.90 ERA, 305 strikeouts, 13 complete games in 241 innings pitched for a team that finished the season under .500 (78-84). Martinez signed with the Red Sox in 1998 and the rest is history … a career record of 197-84, 2.72 ERA, 2,861 career strikeouts, two 20-game winning seasons and, of course, three Cy Young Awards (1997, 1999 and 2000).
In reflection, Claire wrote, “The deal was made. There are no mulligans in baseball.”
The final strike was the trade of Mike Piazza, a deal that shocked Los Angeles, its fans, the baseball community and Claire himself. It was a trade that subsequently led to Claire’s departure as Dodgers general manager.
The Piazza story is a great story for baseball fans, not so much for Claire. “The deal which sent Piazza and third baseman Todd Zeile to the Marlins … was struck without even the courtesy of informing me, the Dodger general manager.”
It was a sign of the times for the Dodgers. They had just been bought by Fox television from the legendary, and longtime baseball family, the O’Malley’s. To this day, as Claire tells it, the trade that sent Piazza out of Los Angeles was “first and foremost a television deal” constructed and executed by Fox TV executive Chase Carey.
As the 1998 baseball season approached, Piazza was heading for his final season under contract when Fox assumed control of the Dodgers. “The last thing Fox wanted was a bidding war over Mike,” wrote Claire, “and the embarrassing possibility that the team’s most popular player would choose to depart … Incredibly, they managed to make it an even worse start.”
The transition in ownership delayed talks between Piazza and the Dodgers. So much so, spring training came and went with no deal, infuriating Piazza. The future Hall of Fame catcher finally exploded.
After an Opening Day loss in St. Louis, Piazza was approached by Jason Reid of the Los Angeles Times about the contract talks. Piazza lashed out, telling Reid, “… I am confused and disappointed by the whole thing. I’m mad that this dragged into the season and that it now has become the potential to become a distraction … How can I not think about this?”
Claire was miffed to learn of Piazza’s public comments and requested to meet with him before the next day’s game. The general manager and the star met privately at Busch Stadium.
“I want to get this contract settled or I want out of here,” Piazza told Claire. “You guys are low-balling me!”
“First of all, Mike, we are not low-balling you,” Claire said. “ … your statements on Opening Day were not good for you or this team. I’m disappointed in you. We’re just starting out the season. We don’t need that bullshit.”
“I want to know what you guys want to do,” Piazza snapped back. “Either sign me or get me out of here.”
Less than a week later the Dodgers made Piazza a contract offer: six years, $81 million. Piazza’s agent Dan Lozano countered with seven years, $105 million. The Dodgers balked. No deal. Piazza shut down negotiations.
May 14, 1998: As the Dodgers and Phillies played at Dodger Stadium, Claire received a phone call from team president Bob Graziano, who was in the Dominican Republic. Graziano informed Claire, “Fred, we made a trade that needs to be announced tonight,” he said. “We have acquired Gary Sheffield, Charles Johnson, Bobby Bonilla and Jim Eisenreich for Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile.”
Claire later recalls thinking to himself, “Talk about stunning news,” he wrote. “Here I was, general manager of the Dodgers, being informed of a trade already consummated … I could barely believe what I was hearing.”
Claire told Graziano, “Bob, there will be two announcements tonight, because I will have an announcement on my status … after this trade, you don’t need me.”
In retrospect, the deal was never announced that night. Bonilla’s no-trade clause had to be waived before the deal could be finalized. He did and Claire’s living nightmare became a reality. After the announcement was made at a press conference at Dodger Stadium by the team’s public relations director Derrick Hall, Claire told the media, “I want to be perfectly clear on how I learned of this trade. I received a telephone call from Bob Graziano in the Dominican Republic.”
Afterward, Florida Marlin general manager Dave Dombrowski said, “I felt bad from Fred’s perspective, but we all get caught up in situations we can not control” he said. “But the circumstances of that trade, with Fred not being included at all, were one of the most unusual I’ve seen in my career.”
Claire admits his public statements eventually cost him his job with the Dodgers, a harsh, abrupt end to a long and successful tenure.