From 1969 until 1998, Fred Claire was a fixture in the Dodgers' front office and for the final eleven years of his time in L.A., Claire manned the club's baseball operations as General Manager. An awful lot has changed in the 15 years since Claire and the team parted ways and the longtime exec took the time to talk to MLBTradeRumors about the current state of the club and his experience at the wheel of one of baseball's most storied franchises.
Of course, the majority of Claire's tenure with the team took place under the ownership of the O'Malley family. He had a most unusual trip to the top of the blue ladder which began when he was covering the team as a beat writer in 1969. When someone in the team's PR department was let go, Claire jumped at the opportunity to link up with the club and he was on his way to a rapid ascent up the ranks.
His baseball knowhow and overall leadership ability put him in position to take over as GM for Al Campanis in 1987, but his time with the club came to an abrupt and bizarre end in 1998. Without Claire's knowledge or consent, the team's new owners – NewsCorp and subsidiary FOX Television – decided to deal franchise cornerstone Mike Piazza and veteran Todd Zeile to the Marlins for Gary Sheffield, Charles Johnson, Jim Eisenreich, and Bobby Bonilla. If the decision to trade a future Hall of Famer without considerable thought wasn't bad enough, the new owner's decision to cut one of the most experienced executives in the game out of the equation was a whole lot worse.
"It was damaging from the standpoint that the whole decision making process and the structure was so altered. You need to know the responsible person and you need to have the foundation of the decision making process and here the trade was being made by someone who had no background in baseball itself.
"It was basically a trade being made over a TV deal and I thought that was totally unacceptable and that's why when I was called and told that trade needed to be announced I said there would be two announcements. One would be the trade and then after that I would announce my resignation," Claire said.
In an ironic twist, there would be no need for Claire to rush his resignation letter. The "TV executive" who authored the Piazza deal wasn't aware of Sheffield's no-trade clause, which delayed the deal until later in the week. As one might imagine, Claire says the outfielder's no-trade provision was known to everyone in baseball, except for the person who made the deal on L.A.'s behalf.
When Claire made it known to the press that he had nothing to do with trading the catcher to Florida, the Dodgers let him go. Fifteen years later, the club has changed hands twice and is now backed by an ownership group with the biggest war chest in all of baseball. Claire never got the opportunity to work with a seemingly bottomless bank account the way that current GM Ned Colletti is, but it's not something that keeps the soon-to-be 79-year-old up at night.
Before the Guggenheim Group took control of the Dodgers, Claire joined forces with a different bunch – spearheaded by onetime Dodgers batboy Ben Hwang – looking to buy the club. Ultimately, the group headed by another familiar L.A. face won out, but Claire is happy to see the club restored back to prominence after a rough stretch of time under the ownership of Frank McCourt. While things seemed pretty bleak under the much maligned former Dodgers owner, Claire always had confidence that the team would bounce back.
"I was in baseball long enough and saw the changes that can take place. After all, in 1986 and 1987, before we won in '88, if you go back and look at that, we were 16 games under .500 in both of those seasons and next year won the world championship. I always realize that in this game, you can break through..I never felt that I was troubled by what was happening by Frank's ownership in the later years when all the things came up about making payroll and the other things that were taking place.
"That was troubling because it was a very unsettling period for the Dodgers but certainly when the commitment was made by the Guggenheim Group and Magic and company, I never had any doubt that they would back up their words. They paid an enormous sum for the Dodgers and I knew that they made this investment with the intent of backing it up in every way," said Claire.
Under current management, it's safe to say that the Dodgers won't have a hard time coming up with the checks every other week. Some have panned the Dodgers for being a team of tremendous excess, but the team's former GM is quick to note that you can never have too much depth when talking about a 162-game season.
"When you have that type of payroll or that type of financial capability, as far as winning goes, it is clearly a significant advantage because you're able to overcome things that happen with your team. The Dodgers had three pitchers that they planned on for this year in Josh Beckett, Chad Billingsley, and Ted Lilly who haven't been able to perform due to injury and that's a significant amount of payroll. But, they still had the means to overcome that thanks to their total payroll."
While Claire did not take another front office position after his lengthy run with the Dodgers, he has remained quite involved in the world of baseball. Claire's current pet project is AriBall.com, an analytics site he launched with the site's namesake and longtime friend, Ari Kaplan. With the site, Claire has stayed as engaged as ever with the game and its constant evolution.