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Hershiser, Gibson, and the Improbable 1988 Dodgers
By Josh Suchon
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2013 Josh Suchon
All rights reserved.
October 1987 to February 1988
Before the improbable streak, before the impossible home run, there was the indispensable reality: the Dodgers were a franchise in turmoil.
It wasn't just that the Dodgers finished with back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1967–68, or that they were under .500 for the third time in four years, or that their longtime rivals in San Francisco won the division title in 1987.
Just as concerning, the Dodgers were losing the interest of a city that fell in instant love when they arrived in 1958 but now had flashier, cooler, and better sports teams taking away attention.
The Lakers ruled the town. From 1980–87, the Lakers won four NBA titles and lost in the finals twice. They were the odds-on favorite to win again in 1988 (and did), behind the Showtime stars of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy.
The Raiders were arguably the second-most popular team in town. They won the Super Bowl played in 1984, their second year in town. They weren't a threat to win another Super Bowl in 1987, but the NFL was the most popular sport in the country, the Raider lifestyle resonated in urban areas and the suburbs, and they now had a star — albeit a part-time star — in running back Bo Jackson.
Attendance at Dodger Stadium was down, at least by L.A. standards. The Dodgers drew less than 2.8 million fans in 1987 for an average of 34,536 a game. That still ranked third-best in the National League.
But the 1987 season was the first non-strike season the Dodgers had finished with less than 3 million fans in attendance since 1979. They'd led the league in attendance 10 straight years and for 13 of the last 14. Now they were bad and boring, and the fans were looking elsewhere for entertainment.
"In '86 and '87, we were awful," infielder Dave Anderson reflected. "We needed to make some changes."
In mid-August 1987, Peter Gammons penned a 2,969-word scathing indictment on the state of the Dodgers for Sports Illustrated. The headline, "Oh For Those Glory Days of Yesteryear." The subhead, "The Dodgers have lost the way that Branch Rickey laid out for them, and the future could be threadbare."
Al Campanis, the Dodgers' general manager since 1968, was fired after making racist comments live on ABC's Nightline early in the 1987 season. The firestorm over his racial remarks glossed over a painful truth: he'd been terrible on the job for the last half-decade.
The vaunted Dodgers farm system was no longer producing stars. Actually, it was. Those stars just weren't staying in Los Angeles because of poor trades.
Rick Sutcliffe was traded to the Indians in 1981 for Jorge Orta and two minor leaguers who never did anything. Sutcliffe was an All-Star in 1983, and he won the Cy Young Award in 1984 for the Chicago Cubs. Ted Power was traded to the Reds in 1982 for Mike Ramsey. The durable Power led the league in appearances in 1984 and racked up 27 saves in 1985.
John Franco was traded to the Reds in 1983 for Rafael Landestoy. Franco was an All-Star in 1986 and 1987. Dave Stewart was traded to the Rangers in 1983 for Rick Honeycutt. Stewart needed two more organizations to find himself, but he'd just won 20 games for the A's.
Sid Fernandez was traded to the Mets in 1983 for Carlos Diaz and Bob Bailor. Fernandez was an All-Star in 1986 and 1987, helping the Mets to the 1986 World Series championship. Candy Maldonado was traded to the Giants in 1985 for Alex Trevino. Maldonado hit 20 homers and drove in 85 runs, while batting fifth as the Giants won the 1987 division title.
The recent Dodgers drafts weren't any better, and scouting director Ben Wade was taking a ton of heat. Pitcher Dennis Livingston, the first-round pick in 1984, was a bust who never reached the majors. Outfielder Michael White, the first-round pick in 1986, quit baseball a year later. He came back and played for seven years in the minors. Pitcher Dan Opperman, the first-round pick in 1987, blew out his arm in his first minor league bullpen session.
Going back further, the Dodgers brought a high school outfielder from their own backyard for a tryout at Dodger Stadium in 1980. Mike Brito, the same scout who signed Fernando Valenzuela, recommended they draft the kid from South Central. Despite an impressive tryout, the Dodgers ignored Brito's recommendation. Instead, the Reds drafted Eric Davis in the eighth round.
Wade claimed the Dodgers would have drafted a highly touted pitcher from the University of Texas in 1983. But because of Steve Howe's ongoing drug problems, there was a need for a left-handed reliever who could be in the majors soon. So the Dodgers selected lefty Erik Sonberg from Wichita State with the 18th pick.
With the 19th pick, the Red Sox drafted Roger Clemens.
It isn't known if that claim by Wade is the truth or revisionist history by somebody trying to deflect criticism elsewhere. Wade, who overall had a distinguished career with more scouting hits than misses, retired in 1990 and passed away in 2002.
Just about every poor decision was blamed on Howe, and usually it was true. Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog told Gammons, "[Howe] screwed them up more than any one player screwed up any other organization."
Believing that Howe was recovered from his drug problems in 1983, the Dodgers figured a minor league lefty was expendable and made the Franco-for-Landestoy trade. In fairness, Franco hadn't developed the screwball that would make him an All-Star closer. Why they'd even want Landestoy was another topic. He was coming off a .189/.250/.243 slash line.
Howe's departure for drug rehab forced Ken Howell into a closer role sooner than he was probably ready. Howe's third drug suspension forced the Fernandez-for-Diaz trade. Diaz couldn't fill the need in the bullpen. He had one awful year, two bad years, and was released after 1986.
The snowball impact of Howe continued. Needing a lefty reliever, the Dodgers sent backup catcher Steve Yeager to the Mariners in 1985 for lefty Ed Vande Berg. That didn't work, and Vande Berg was released a year later. Meanwhile, a backup catcher was now needed, so the Dodgers made the Maldonado-for-Trevino swap.
Not every trade was Howe's fault. After the 1981 World Series title — which Howe closed out — the vaunted infield ofRon Cey at third, Bill Russell at short, Davey Lopes at second, and Steve Garvey at first was broken up.
Lopes was traded to make room for Steve Sax — a wise decision. Lopes was 36 years old and didn't have much trade value. Still, all they got in return from the Oakland A's was a minor leaguer named Lance Hudson, who never played in the majors.
After the 1982 season, when Joe Morgan's home run on the final day of the season eliminated the Dodgers, the corner infielders departed. Greg Brock would take over at first base. Pedro Guerrero would play third base.
Garvey signed a five-year contract with the Padres and led them to the 1984 World Series. Cey, who still had three good years left in him, was traded to the Cubs for minor leaguer Dan Cataline and pitcher Vance Lovelace — neither had any impact in the majors. At least Lovelace is now one of current general manager Ned Colletti's more trusted talent evaluators.
There was fighting within the farm system, too.
Tommy Lasorda commented during the tumultuous 1987 season that there weren't any replacements coming out of the farm system. Terry Collins, then the Triple A manager at Albuquerque, fired back, "That's his opinion. Sometimes I think what Tommy Lasorda is doing is wrong. But that's his decision, and he's going to have to live with it."
There was another problem with the farm system, and while it's convenient to connect the dots to Howe, it was a widespread problem throughout all of society — substance abuse, specifically drugs and alcohol.
The story would get buried come October for obvious reasons, but the context is important to note as the 1987–88 off-season was beginning. The Associated Press quoted Dr. Forrest Tennant, the Dodgers' drug adviser, as telling a Rotary Club in Alaska, "The drug problem wiped us out."
Tennant said minor leaguers brought cocaine, marijuana, and alcohol onto the field, into the dugout, and into their hotel rooms. He said in 1983, 45 percent of the Dodgers' minor league players tested positive for marijuana, cocaine, or a high level of alcohol.
By 1988, that number was less than two percent. It's impossible to know what impact the unchecked drug and alcohol problem had on the Dodgers' minor league teams earlier in the decade. Certainly, it didn't help the shaky development track record.
Then there was the matter of Lasorda's well-documented longing for the GM job and powers that Fred Claire now held. Lasorda always denied that he was looking for a dual manager-GM job, saying he turned down millions from the Yankees and Braves. The industry thought otherwise.
But even Lasorda's star had faded. The second-guessing from his decision to not intentionally walk Jack Clark in the 1985 playoffs was still fresh in people's minds. He was entering the final season of his contract, and no extension was offered in the off-season. Lasorda's future was filled with more question marks than ever.
Claire went into his first off-season as general manager needing to fill a lot of holes. The farm system wasn't bursting with potential answers. The industry had its doubts about Claire, based on his background. The press reviews of his first five months of the job weren't kind, and optimism wasn't high for the future.
"I was never swayed by what was written or what was said," Claire reflected. "That didn't really have a major impact on what I saw that needed to be done. There was a lot written because of Steve Howe and the problems he had, that it set off a whole scenario of problems that you mentioned. I don't prescribe to that feeling. In Steve's case, it was very sad because it was drugs that played the role that totally derailed his career and caused his life to end too soon. But you have players with injuries, players with remarkable ability who simply aren't able to break through. No matter whatever happens, your job as an organization is not to dwell on that; it's to move on and fix it. There were a number of things that happened, but I didn't see that as a burden that we'd have to bear moving forward."
Claire didn't even know how long he would be the general manager. He'd been on the job for five months, didn't have a multiyear contract, and didn't have any public reassurances from owner Peter O'Malley.
"The [reporters] would ask Peter O'Malley, 'How long does he have the job?' and Peter would say, 'He has it today,'" Claire reflected. "I figured that's what I had. From day one, that's how I looked at the job, 'I got it today.' I'm going to do everything I can today to make our team better."
Claire told O'Malley they had three areas to address that off-season: a shortstop, a closer, and a left-handed reliever. In the last two years, they couldn't close games and they couldn't catch the ball at shortstop. If they didn't fix those holes, they wouldn't win.
* * *
It was one of those rarest of trades where everybody was getting rid of players they no longer needed and everybody got better.
It was announced on December 11, 1987, at the Baseball Winter Meetings — the same day Magic Johnson baby hooked a shot off the glass to beat the Celtics at the buzzer inside the Boston Garden. The trade involved eight players, and seven were pitchers. All three teams had either recently been in the playoffs or felt they were one or two pieces from making the playoffs.
The Dodgers sent starting pitcher Bob Welch and lefty reliever Matt Young to the A's and minor league pitcher Jack Savage to the Mets. The Dodgers received shortstop Alfredo Griffin and closer Jay Howell from the A's, plus lefty reliever Jesse Orosco from the Mets. The A's also sent minor league pitchers Kevin Tapani and Wally Whitehurst to the Mets.
The A's didn't need Griffin because they had rookie Walt Weiss ready to take over at shortstop. They didn't want Howell closing out games because he was coming off an injury, the fans hated him, and they were going to experiment with Deniis Eckersley as their closer(against his own wishes, by the way).
The Mets didn't want Orosco because he wasn't the same after his 1986 playoff heroics, manager Davey Johnson didn't trust him, the fans constantly booed him, his contract was for $1 million, and everybody thought he was hurt. In return, they got three pitching prospects. The prize of the trio turned out to be Tapani.
The Dodgers didn't need Young because he wasn't very effective and they were getting Orosco. They didn't want to get rid of Welch. But they had young pitchers ready to contribute to the rotation, and they needed to give up something to stabilize the bullpen and the middle of their infield.
It was the fourth straight year the Dodgers traded for a left-handed reliever to fill the void of Steve Howe in the bullpen. Howe's drug use had cost the Dodgers wins, money, respect, and top prospects. Now, it cost them the highly popular, very talented, and very hyper Bob Welch. Tommy Lasorda said he cried at the decision.
Claire addressed his team's biggest needs at shortstop and the bullpen. But all three new players were either coming off an injury or suspected to be hurt. The national reviews were not kind, as illustrated by Gammons' review in his "winners and losers" column from the Winter Meetings.
"'The meetings were Fred Claire's Nightline,' wrote one observer, referring to the Waterloo of Claire's GM predecessor, Al Campanis. Claire was publicly ripped by other club officials for being 'unprepared' and 'unprofessional.' The Dodgers ended up trading Welch, Young, and a good young reliever (Jack Savage) for Griffin, a 30-year-old (or older) shortstop with his left thumb in a cast; Howell, a sore-armed reliever; and Orosco, who carries a $1 million contract and was available for the asking."
Claire knew his performance was being watched closely. He wasn't a scout. He wasn't a traditional baseball man. The other general managers in baseball weren't chummy with him. He was not only a rookie. He was a former sportswriter-turned-publicist who inherited the GM job after Campanis' meltdown on live TV eight months previous.
It was widely known in the meetings that Claire would entertain offers for Welch. But no trade was made after a few days. Throughout the hotel hallways, GMs and other baseball front-office men whispered about Claire's inexperience. They said he was afraid to make a move. The headlines said that Claire was holding up the trades at the winter meetings.
Claire defended himself to the Los Angeles media: "It wasn't our intention to hold up the meetings, and I don't think we did. ... Everyone has a right to their opinion, but we haven't intended to do anything but improve the club and keep people informed. We identified our needs and stayed after them. ... Whatever judgments or comments have been made, that's up to others, but we never once told another club not to do anything until they talked to us again. ... Some clubs may have decided that we had the player they wanted and that they didn't want to talk to any other club, but that's their decision. ... The bottom line is that in any trade discussion there are many factors. Some are more complicated than others, and many of those go beyond the basic issue of player evaluation."
The Blue Jays were interested in Welch. As a Blue Jays staff member told the L.A. Times, "We'd give them two names, and they'd want three. We'd give them three names, and they'd want four," Blue Jays GM Pat Gillick stated on the record. "The Dodgers have a new general manager. They may be moving slowly because of that."
The rumor at the time was that the Blue Jays were offering shortstop Manny Lee and pitcher Dave Stieb. The Dodgers asked for lefty John Cerutti instead, because they were concerned about Stieb's health and his contract, which had seven years remaining and an escalating salary. The Blue Jays wanted a combination of Welch and a skinny 19-year-old kid who pitched in the Florida State League. His name was Ramon Martinez. The Dodgers weren't trading Ramon Martinez.
One night, when the Dodgers called the Blue Jays, they were told Pat Gillick had gone to bed early. Claire felt he was being strung along. He moved on.
Excerpted from Miracle Men by Josh Suchon. Copyright © 2013 Josh Suchon. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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