Dodgers fire manager and GM Russell, Claire replaced by Hoffman, Lasorda

June 23, 1998|By PETER SCHMUCK | PETER SCHMUCK,SUN STAFF

The Los Angeles Dodgers used to be the most stable organization in major-league baseball, but it has taken Fox Sports just three months to turn the team upside down.

The new ownership group cleaned house late Sunday night, firing manager Bill Russell and general manager Fred Claire in the franchise's most dramatic front-office shake-up in a half-century.

Russell has been replaced on an interim basis by Triple-A manager and former major-league shortstop Glenn Hoffman. Claire has been replaced at least temporarily by Hall of Fame former manager Tom Lasorda, who had been rumored to be lobbying for the position with Fox executives even before former club president Peter O'Malley finalized the sale of the team in March.

"I felt a change needed to be made in order for the team to improve and get back on track," said Dodgers president Bob Graziano, a holdover from the previous management team.

The Dodgers have undergone a lot of changes over the past few months, beginning with the sale of the team and including the blockbuster May deal that sent star catcher Mike Piazza and third baseman Todd Zeile to the Florida Marlins for Bobby Bonilla, Gary Sheffield, Jim Eisenreich, Charles Johnson and rookie pitcher Manuel Barrios.

The club was back in the headlines three weeks ago with the deal that sent popular Japanese pitcher Hideo Nomo to the New York Mets for pitchers Dave Mlicki and Greg McMichael.

It was at that time that speculation intensified about the impending departure of Russell and Claire. There was even a story in the New York Post -- which, along with Fox Sports, is part of Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp conglomerate -- that quoted unnamed sources saying they would be replaced at the end of the season by Marlins manager Jim Leyland and general manager Dave Dombrowski.

Fox officials flatly denied the report, but that scenario now seems much more plausible.

The cozy relationship between Fox officials and the Marlins front office smoothed the way for the Piazza deal. The arrival of Leyland and Dombrowski in Los Angeles could reignite concern over a possible conflict of interest between the new Dodgers ownership and Fox Sports' economic ties to 23 other major-league clubs.

That was the primary concern of a handful of owners who initially were reluctant to approve the sale of the club to Fox Sports, but interim baseball commissioner Bud Selig said yesterday that he was not worried that an improper relationship had developed between the Dodgers and Marlins.

"I don't interpret it that way," Selig told The Sun. "I think we're a long way from that. Since that story first surfaced, I have been assured that isn't so, and I have been aggressively following that pTC relationship. There is no relationship there and there isn't going to be, other than the one that Fox has with 22 other clubs."

The biggest casualty of Sunday night's shake-up was tradition. The Dodgers had not fired a manager at midseason in this century. The club employed only two managers -- Walter Alston and Lasorda -- from 1954 until Russell replaced an ailing Lasorda in 1996. Before that, the last time that a Dodgers manager didn't finish a season was 1948, when Leo Durocher bolted to join the rival New York Giants.

Claire had served as general manager since 1987, ascending the position after longtime Dodgers executive Al Campanis was fired for making insensitive racial comments on ABC's "Nightline." Campanis died Sunday morning of coronary artery disease.

Both Claire and Russell fell victim to the continued underachievement of an expensive, star-studded team that has been ravaged by injuries. The Dodgers were considered the preseason favorite to win the National League West, but are mired in third place -- 13 1/2 games behind the first-place San Diego Padres and eight games off the pace in the wild-card race.

The months of upheaval in the otherwise staid Dodgers organization have changed the face of the franchise, but Selig said he was not concerned at the apparent volatility of the new management group.

"No, I'm not," Selig said. "After all, they paid a lot of money for that club, and they are entitled to have the personnel they want."

Pub Date: 6/23/98

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