New look to Dodger tradition Stability: The club has a new manager for the first time in 20 years and is up for sale, but the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same in Dodgertown.

March 04, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Things have never been so different. The Los Angeles Dodgers have opened spring training with a new manager for the first time in 20 years and with the ownership of the franchise soon to change for the first time in more than a half-century.

Things have a way of staying the same. New manager Bill Russell runs the club through the same drills that Tom Lasorda ran, and Walter Alston before him. Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax observes a group of young pitchers throwing at the "strings," a Dodgers workout routine that was in place long before a boyish Koufax struggled to keep the ball inside the same string-framed strike zone in the mid-1950s.

Tradition runs deep at Dodgertown, so deep that the changing of the guard has caused little more than a ripple in the club's stream of consciousness.

"The only thing that will be different will be all the inquiries we'll receive asking us if it is different," general manager Fred Claire said.

Well, it is a little different. It's a lot quieter for one thing. The boisterous Lasorda stopped by for the first couple of days of training camp, but he left quickly to embark on a goodwill tour of Japan. Russell is a quiet, unflappable leader more from the Alston mold, so the clear focus of each workout is on the field rather than on the field manager or his star-studded cast of friends.

There are whispers that Lasorda wanted to return as manager this year, but was compelled to retire after suffering a heart attack last season. But Lasorda's retirement was quickly overshadowed by the news that the family-owned Dodgers franchise had been put up for sale.

But not even that stunning announcement has changed the way the Dodgers go about their business.

"We're trying to keep a tradition going -- a winning tradition," Russell said. "That's what Tommy did. That's what Walter did. That's what I want to do. You want to keep that continuity going in an organization."

That's never easy. The Orioles maintained a strong winning tradition for a couple of decades, but just went 13 years between playoff appearances. The New York Yankees are the pinstripe that runs through modern baseball history, but they had to overcome years of turmoil to win their first world title in 18 seasons. The Dodgers have been to the playoffs the past two seasons and have been to the postseason eight times in the past 20 years.

No long playoff droughts. No internal turmoil. No coincidence.

"It's business as usual," Claire said. "I haven't been given one single instruction to do anything different than I've done in each of my 10 years as general manager. There has been too much time invested, too much effort invested, too much history invested to do that."

Team for sale

It still seems odd, however, to be talking about the Dodgers and their search for a prospective buyer. The club has been in the same hands since Walter O'Malley assumed a controlling interest in 1950, and it may be the most financially successful professional sports franchise in history.

The Dodgers got a sweetheart deal when they moved to Los Angeles, so sweet that they own their own stadium outright and hundreds of acres of prime real estate overlooking downtown L.A. Every ticket dollar stays in the family, and every season the club is one of the top draws in baseball. The organization's assets also include the impressive Dodgertown training complex and a baseball school in the Dominican Republic.

Peter O'Malley, who assumed control of the team when his father died in 1979, shares ownership with his sister (Terry Siedler) and her husband, but he said he decided to put the team up for sale to protect the family against the massive estate taxes that would be incurred if he or his sister should die while still owning the team.

It is a smart business move, especially since O'Malley is in a position to handpick a new owner who might keep him in place as president and leave the front-office staff intact, but it has fans in Los Angeles and Vero Beach worried about the effect new corporate ownership might have on the team.

Rumors of a spring training relocation apparently are unfounded, even though an Arizona site would allow more of the club's L.A. following to visit spring training. No one can speak for the new owner -- because no one knows who it will be -- but Claire said that Dodgertown won't be closing its doors anytime soon.

The quiet man

Perhaps the smooth transition from Lasorda to Russell is the best example of the way the Dodgers organization can change and resist change at the same time. Russell is as different from Lasorda as night is from day, but he took over the team midseason last year and it didn't miss a beat.

HTC The club went on to the playoffs for the second year in a row and returns this spring with -- by most accounts -- the best team in the National League West.

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