Campanis sits in Dodger blue home, waiting for his black cloud to pass

December 26, 1990|By Kevin Modesti | Kevin Modesti,Los Angeles Daily News

He lives where he has lived since the move west in 1958 -- in Fullerton, Calif., in a cul-de-sac, in a Dodger-blue-and-white house with a pool in back and a satellite dish on top.

"Do you know what a cul-de-sac is?" Al Campanis, still a teacher at heart, asks as he gives you directions on the phone.

"A dead end," you say.

But Al Campanis' cul-de-sac is not a dead end.

Many who knew his devotion to the game thought Campanis might just shrivel up and die after some loose talk on a "Nightline" telecast about baseball and minorities cost him a Dodgers' vice presidency 3 1/2 years ago.

Instead, at 74, he is looking to the future. He's tan, he's rested, he's ready. His pitch to prospective employers is "Have mind, will travel."

One can only compare him to another Greek-American, one Jimmy Snyder, fired from CBS Sports under similar circumstances. A few months ago Jimmy the Greek told a newspaper he felt like an exile -- the melodramatic quotation was "I'm dead."

In Al Campanis you find no such despair or bitterness, and no shame. He's had enough of looking back.

"I don't have to be the top man," says the man who did all those general-manager things for 19 years with the Dodgers and still refers to the team as we. "I could really help a club by being an adviser."

Cold winter mornings like this, newspapers full of trades and free agents, once belonged to Campanis and men like him, men who learned sports from the field up.

Now the hot-stove season belongs to men like Fred Claire, the button-down executive who became the Dodgers' new chief on that shattering day after in April 1987.

Campanis was an innovator -- especially in his days as a minor-league manager and scout. If he hadn't thought to steal a page from his days as an NYU football coach, maybe baseball wouldn't have advance scouts today; maybe the Dodgers wouldn't have Mel Didier and in 1988 Kirk Gibson wouldn't have had Didier's legendary advice: Expect a backdoor slider from Eckersley on 3-and-2.

With the Fred Claire generation of baseball executives, if you say they're sportsmen, you mean they play a mean game of racquetball.

Campanis likes what Claire has done for the Dodgers this winter, but worries that the new generation can't judge ballplayers well enough to say no to their salary demands, and can't imagine building a winner when they can buy one.

Campanis sees more baseball in the average summer now than he did when he was working, thanks to that contraption on the roof.

"It's really surprised me the mistakes I see on a major-league field," he says, Reeboks propped up on the coffee table. "Second basemen and shortstops who don't turn the double play properly. You say, 'Where's the infield coach?' "

Campanis will still teach the double-play pivot to anyone who'll stand still -- right there in the den, if need be, with an old Brooklyn Dodgers photo serving as second base. This is the man who taught Jackie Robinson and Jim Gilliam.

A couple of teams thought they could put Campanis' enthusiasm to more practical use. The Seattle Mariners considered making him a consultant, but then-owner George Argyros was frightened by a boycott threat and told him, "Maybe we ought to just cool it." Campanis says another team considered him for something pTC recently but "went another direction."

He knows baseball might be waiting for the approval of the black leaders whose protests forced Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley to fire Campanis for what he still maintains were misconstrued remarks.

Although it's been 3 1/2 years, Campanis does not, however, feel shunned, exiled. Why should he? A gift from Peter O'Malley arrives as you sit there. Don Newcombe phones to say merry Christmas.

If he can't get back into baseball, Campanis would be content to be close enough to press his weathered nose against the window.

He's still hoping to teach a series of seminars on baseball coaching, managing scouting and administration; major-league funding for such a program targeting minorities hasn't come through.

He thinks there might be an opportunity for him in the coming National League expansion.

A couple of players -- black, Campanis points out -- have asked him to negotiate contracts for them.

And there are always his memoirs, which sit in a Dodger-blue three-ring binder, unedited and without a publisher, next to the sofa.

"Everything positive," he says as he ushers you out.

In those difficult days after the firing, the Rev. Robert Schuler wrote to Campanis: "Knowing you, you will turn the scar into a star."

He can't wait to, even if it moving away from his cul-de-sac and his Dodger-blue-and-white house.

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