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It began as one of the saddest days of my 30 years in Dodger blue, but I never dreamed it would deteriorate further, ending as my last day in Dodger blue.
It was Father's Day, June 21, 1998, a family day, but, as the general manager of the Dodgers, I felt an obligation to be with the team whenever possible. And so there I was on that Sunday, in a visiting suite at Denver's Coors Field, watching from above as the Dodgers concluded a series against the Colorado Rockies.
It hadn't been an easy trip. Or an easy season. The trading a month earlier of catcher Mike Piazza, one of the most popular players in team history, had sent shock waves through the organization that would reverberate for years to come.
I was trying to stabilize a very shaky situation. When a general manager makes a bad trade, his spirit is damaged. When a trade is made without the knowledge of the general manager, his credibility is shattered.
When I learned after the fact from team president Bob Graziano that Piazza had been sent to the Florida Marlins as part of a seven-player deal, I decided to resign. But Graziano and Fox executive Chase Carey assured me the Piazza deal was an aberration, that I had not been stripped of any power, that I was still a key figure in the team's future.
I didn't want to walk out at such a dark time in Dodger history. I didn't want to turn my back on the team I had been so instrumental in building throughout the previous dozen years.
So, I agreed to stay and see if I could repair the damage. But damage control was no easy task.
With losses in San Diego in the first two games of the trip, and another in the three previous games at Coors, the Dodgers stood at 36-37 starting play on that Sunday in late June, which left the club in third place, 111/2 games out.
The continuing instability on the field wasn't my only concern on that trip to Denver.
On Friday night, as we were beating the Rockies, 4-3 in 10 innings, our publicity director, Derrick Hall, told me there was a story by Baseball Weekly writer Bob Nightengale circulating in the press box that claimed Whitey Herzog was to be named Dodger manager on Monday, replacing Bill Russell.
Normally, I could dismiss a report like that in a minute. But it was Nightengale who had broken the story earlier in the season of trade talk between the Dodgers and the Seattle Mariners involving their ace lefthander, Randy Johnson. That was interesting, since the only Dodger official who had any advance knowledge of that potential deal was Graziano.
Did Nightengale have a pipeline to Graziano? And was it possible that pipeline was again flowing with accurate information?
It was hard to believe the position I suddenly found myself in after three decades of being on top of everything Dodger related. Here I was, unable to comfortably dismiss a story having to do with a possible change in Dodger managers.
I tried to reach Graziano during that Friday night game, but was unsuccessful.
At that point, my gut reaction was to simply say the story wasn't true. If it turned out to indeed be true, it would be the last time I would tolerate a key Dodger personnel move coming my way from an outside party.
As it turned out, the Nightengale story was apparently a rehash of something he had written in Baseball Weekly the week before.
On Saturday, there was more unsettling news, and this time, there was no questioning its accuracy.
Talking by phone to our farm director, Charlie Blaney, I learned that Graziano had inquired about the weekend schedule of Glenn Hoffman, manager of our Triple A team in Albuquerque. Perhaps Bob was planning a trip to see the Albuquerque team. If so, he hadn't told his general manager about it.
Bob finally returned the calls I had made to his home Friday night on Saturday, reaching me at my hotel in Denver.
With the team returning home after Sunday's game, Bob and I agreed to meet Monday to discuss Russell's status and also plans for the payroll. Earlier, Graziano and I had agreed to discuss Russell's status at the All-Star break coming up in a few weeks. Graziano's timetable had obviously changed. I felt our sense of direction related to the payroll needed to be defined.
If there was another item to be added to the agenda, Bob didn't tell me on that Saturday.
On Sunday, with righthander Chan Ho Park on the mound for the finale of the series, we were struggling again, but it was hard for me to keep my mind on the game.
The day had begun pleasantly enough with a call to my daughter Jennifer at her Claremont apartment to wish her a happy 35th birthday. She used the occasion to wish me a happy Father's Day.
But the happiness soon faded.
The next call came from Eric Tracy, a Los Angeles radio reporter for KFWB.
"Al Campanis passed away last night," he told me, having learned the sad news from one of Al's neighbors, who also worked for KFWB.
The news was just about to break, and Eric wanted to know if he could get my response on tape. We made arrangements for Eric to call me back a little later.
When he did, I told Eric, as I told others that day, that Al Campanis, who had risen from player to general manager in the Dodger organization, was a man who devoted his life to his family and to baseball. His dedication to both knew no bounds. I had always respected Al as a baseball man, valued him as a friend and treasured the support he had shown me.
Al told me on a number of occasions that, when the Dodgers were discussing the idea of hiring me in 1969, he had enthusiastically endorsed me.
My life was inextricably tied to his. I had become the Dodger general manager only because of Al's unfortunate remarks on Nightline in 1987 that had cost him his job.
But beyond personal considerations, I felt the loss of one of the steadiest and oldest links to the Brooklyn years. I thought of this tragic news as the passing of an era.
How ironic considering that my own era would pass as well in just a few hours.
I first became concerned about my own fate in the eighth inning of a game we would go on to lose 11-6. Derrick Hall entered my box to inform me Graziano wanted me to call him at home.
With this being the finale of the series, I would be accompanying the team home that night. Bob asked if I could make a detour upon landing and come to Dodger Stadium for a meeting with him and Peter O'Malley before heading for my house. Bob also asked about Russell's schedule. I told Bob I assumed Bill would be heading to his Glendale home once we arrived at LAX.
A Sunday night meeting after a week away sounded awfully important, but I didn't push for details.
Still, I couldn't quite get it out of my mind. The team was struggling, the media was questioning the team's direction under the ownership of Rupert Murdoch's Fox Group and the fans were restless and unhappy after the Piazza trade.
So it might be time to designate a scapegoat.
Had they decided to fire manager Bill Russell?
Or had they decided to fire both Russell and the general manager?
The normal postgame routine-the clubhouse meal, the showers, the sprint through autograph seekers to the bus, the banter on the way to the airport, the flight home to the accompaniment of shuffling cards--was all so familiar to me. I had been through it on hundreds of trips before, trips highlighted by noisy celebrations after big victories or deadened by the pall of devastating defeats. But this time, it all seemed to drag on so agonizingly.
When we landed, I and my wife, Sheryl, who had accompanied me on the trip, got into the sedan of Stan Kilpatrick, a driver who had driven us to and from the airport for years and had become a loyal friend in the process. On happier trips, there had been many pleasant conversations with Stan, but, on this night, it was quiet and tense as we drove.
When we pulled into parking lot 5 at the stadium, I got out and asked Stan to take Sheryl on to our home in Pasadena. A few scattered lights bathed the empty field in a beautiful glow. But the lights were on in many of the offices, a rare occurrence on a Sunday night with the team having been away.
I walked into Bob's office, but he said we would be meeting in Peter O'Malley's office. Peter was there awaiting us. There was little small talk about the team or the road trip. There obviously was a point to this meeting and Bob got right to it.
"We've decided to make a change in managers," he said, "and we are going to replace Bill Russell with Glenn Hoffman."
Then the other shoe hit the floor with a thud that shook my very being.
"Also, Fred," Bob continued, "I can't recommend you on a go-forward basis at the end of the season, and thus, I've decided to make Tommy Lasorda the interim general manager. Tommy will help us locate a permanent general manager."
At the age of 62, after a lifetime of steady employment in an unsteady field, I had just been fired for the first time. That I had lasted so long didn't lessen the blow, ease the pain or soften my resolve to maintain my dignity and my convictions.
Especially when Bob followed up his bombshell with a truly bizarre offer.
"We will pay off your contract," he said, "but if you would like to stay during a period of transition to assist Tommy, we would welcome that."
"If I stay for this period of transition," I asked Bob, "will I be compensated for it?"
"Oh no," he said, "you won't be paid additionally."
"In other words," I said, having trouble grasping the logic here, "I can come to work tomorrow, or Sheryl and I can go play golf tomorrow and I will be paid the same amount either way. Is that correct?"
"Bob, the only thing I really need to know," I said, the shock turning to anger, "is when I'll have a chance to clean out my office."
Mixed in with the anger was amazement that Peter had been present for the meeting. And that it had taken place in Peter's office. I had advised Peter for 30 years. If I had been asked about this meeting in advance-obviously I wasn't going to be-I would have told Peter not to get involved. I felt this was totally a Graziano-Fox move, not one where Peter should be present.
But, for one of the few times in three decades, Peter had not sought my advice.
I turned, went into my office and immediately called Sheryl.
"Are you sitting down?" I asked her.
"Why?" she said.
"I've just been fired. Would you come to Dodger Stadium and pick me up. We're going home."
"I'll be right there, Sweets," Sheryl replied.
Somehow, with her words, I knew there would be life after the Dodgers.
I left word with the guard at the Elysian Park entrance to ring me when Sheryl came through so she wouldn't have to come into the office. When the call came, I walked out through the glass doors at the entrance to the offices into a scene I'll never forget. At the top of the ramp leading to the parking lot was Sheryl's jeep. At the bottom was Bill Russell's car. He and his wife, Susan, had just pulled up in response to the call he had gotten at home from Graziano a half hour earlier.
Sheryl and I paused to embrace and then we walked down to the Russells. I told Bill I had just been fired and that Tommy was my replacement.
"They fired you?" Bill repeated, shock on his face as the words sunk in.
It all seemed so unreal, Bill and I with 60 years of Dodger blue between us, standing in the deserted Dodger Stadium parking lot on our last night in the organization, the lights from our cars reflecting off the trees and hills to provide the only illumination on this dark moment in our lives.
"What about me?" asked Bill, pessimism in his voice.
"In all fairness," I said, knowing full well there was no fairness in this whole deal, "I think it's better if Bob and Peter tell you what's happening."
Bill didn't have to be told.
As he looked around in the darkness, as if in search of a ray of hope, Bill spotted Tommy's car.
"I'm not going in that office if he's here," Bill said firmly.
At that moment, Derrick Hall came out looking for Bill. I asked Derrick to please make sure Tommy wasn't in Peter's office.
I didn't think he would be, but, on this night, there were no sure bets.
"I'm proud to have worked with you for 30 years," I told Bill. "You don't deserve what is happening."
Dodger Stadium had long seemed like home to me, but, deep down, I always knew there is a difference between where you work and where you live. It's just that the lines get blurred at times when you devote most of your life to a job.
I got into the passenger side of Sheryl's jeep and she got behind the wheel and began making the drive down from Dodger Stadium to the freeway below, a short drive I had made thousands of times in the previous 30 years.
I didn't look back, instead staring straight ahead as I realized I would never again have the same warm feeling about that drive.