New L.A. ownership can't dodge turmoil

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LOS ANGELES -- The baseball world has turned upside down. The New York Yankees are now the quiet, professional team that has gained the grudging respect of everyone looking up at them in the standings. The Los Angeles Dodgers -- who used to fit that description right down to their matching T-shirts -- have undergone a personality change so profound, they might as well switch to pinstripes.

New ownership has brought a strange new direction to one of baseball's most staid franchises. How else to explain the three weeks of turmoil that began with the blockbuster Mike Piazza deal and did not subside even after general manager Fred Claire designated disgruntled Japanese pitcher Hideo Nomo for assignment and pulled out of the Randy Johnson sweepstakes?

The Dodgers are owned by Rupert Murdoch -- the tabloid king. What exactly did you expect?

No sooner had Claire cleared the air on Tuesday than another set of headlines turned Dodger Stadium into a media magnet. The New York Post reported in Wednesday's editions that Claire and manager Bill Russell would be fired at the end of the 1998 season and replaced by Florida Marlins GM Dave Dombrowski and manager Jim Leyland.

It was a fishy story, of course. The same rumor had been floated in Chicago about Cubs GM Ed Lynch and manager Jim Riggleman just a few weeks before, and sharply denied by Cubs president Andy MacPhail, but this one still resonated in Southern California. And why not?

The New York Post is owned by -- who else? -- Murdoch, raising immediate suspicion that the story was a trial balloon, floated to test the public reaction to a front-office shake-up in L.A. That's a stretch, but Claire had little choice other than to address the situation before Wednesday night's game.

"We're trying to get things settled down, so this is not beneficial," Claire said. "Bob [Graziano, club president] talked to me after the story came out to tell me it was not true, and I know he also talked to Bill."

Fox spokesman Vince Wladika also denied the report, attributing it to continued speculation in Florida about the deconstruction of the Marlins.

That's probably true. If Fox Sports officials wanted to drop hints about the future of the club, they probably would not be so ham-fisted as to do it in a Fox-owned publication 2,500 miles away. There are plenty of news outlets in Los Angeles that would love to have leaked that story, including a Fox television affiliate.

Maybe a conspiracy-theory proponent might see some dark genius in doing it that way, but the Fox media conglomerate probably has better things to do than engage in that kind of petty button-pushing.

"Rupert Murdoch owns a lot of companies, and I don't think they are all in sync to the point where he would use one entity to talk about another," Graziano said.

Still, the issue of Russell's and Claire's job security figures to remain open throughout the season, especially if the Dodgers continue to play .500 baseball.

The Dodgers once were the most stable organization in baseball, employing only two managers over a period of 43 years, but the events of the past month have changed that perception dramatically.

"This is baseball in the 1990s," first baseman Eric Karros said. "This kind of thing never happened in the Dodgers organization. Nothing ever gets done out in the open. Now we are like everyone else."

Start spreading the news.

Nomo skepticism warranted

If anyone doubted that there has been a dramatic drop in the overall quality of major-league pitching the past few years, consider the level of interest in Nomo -- which even Claire characterized this week as surprising.

Nomo has a 2-7 record for a pretty good team, and scouts are saying that his fastball has dropped from 93 mph to 86, yet the Dodgers indicated that four teams made serious offers and several others expressed interest before a deal was consummated Thursday night with the New York Mets.

The Orioles pulled back when Dodgers officials were reluctant to make Nomo available for a physical examination. Desperate as the Orioles are for pitching help, they were right to proceed cautiously.

After the disastrous 1991 trade for Glenn Davis, incoming owner Peter Angelos made it a club policy that every new player undergo a physical examination as a pre-condition of any trade or free-agent signing. It's a good policy, and this was no time to make an exception.

Why the Mets?

The deal that sent Nomo to the Mets along with reliever Brad Clontz for swingman Dave Mlicki and reliever Greg McMichael was a mild surprise, considering Nomo's progressively higher ERA against National League competition the past three-plus seasons.

Most of the interest in him was believed to be from the American League, where he figured to enjoy a honeymoon period against a league full of hitters unfamiliar with his pitching style. Instead, he will be reunited with former Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza, who has caught him throughout his American career.

Count him in

Colorado Rockies third baseman Vinny Castilla is understandably mystified that he ranks only fourth among National League third basemen in the All-Star voting -- behind Chipper Jones, Ken Caminiti and Scott Rolen.

After all, he ranks behind only Mark McGwire in home runs and RBIs and plays for the team with baseball's highest attendance.

"I'm disappointed," Castilla said recently. "We've got more people than anybody in the stands. I think I'm having a pretty good year, but I never get the votes. I don't know why. I don't think I'm going to get voted in, so if I'm going to make it, I'm going to have to be picked by the manager."

Leyland, who'll manage the NL team, seems likely to choose him, but Castilla shouldn't have to be in suspense with the kind of numbers he has put up.

Milton struggling

Former University of Maryland star Eric Milton is not having a fairy-tale rookie season in Minnesota. The 22-year-old left-hander 3-5 (5.29 ERA) after a no-decision last night and is having particular difficulty against left-handed hitters.

Lefties were hitting a combined .408 (28-for-69) against Milton before his start yesterday in Pittsburgh, leaving opposing managers no reason to stack the lineup with right-handed hitters against him.

The loss on Tuesday was particularly galling since the difference in the game was a pair of two-run homers by left-handed-hitting Matt Stairs and Ben Grieve, but the Twins are hopeful that Milton will have better success if he works lower in the strike zone.

'El Duque' sneaks in

The Yankees hope to steer Cuban pitcher Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez around the pitfalls that made Hideki Irabu's first major-league season so difficult.

In his effort to hold down the hype, general manager Brian Cashman even had club employees remove a reference to Hernandez from the marquee outside Yankee Stadium on the day of his major-league debut.

So far, so good. Hernandez gave up a run on five hits over seven innings to defeat the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Of course, Irabu pitched great in his debut against a soft opponent (Detroit) last July.

Drew's second chance

The St. Louis Cardinals were not hesitant to select holdout draft choice J. D. Drew in Tuesday's draft, so the club apparently is confident that it can sign him.

"Drew was the No. 1 guy on our draft board," said general manager Walt Jocketty. "We knew he'd be tough to sign, but we feel we have a lot to sell him on St. Louis. We're just going to give it our best shot."

Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire has been highly critical of the decision by Drew and agent Scott Boras to turn down a $6 million offer from the Philadelphia Phillies -- who drafted him last year -- but indicated on Tuesday that he will help in the effort to persuade Drew to sign if Cardinals management asks him to get involved.

McGwire is the Cardinals' unquestioned clubhouse leader, so his involvement might smooth Drew's eventual arrival to the majors. Hopefully, Drew and Boras realize that, and don't make the mistake of rebuffing a well-intentioned attempt to defuse the situation.

Schmidt on a roll

Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Jason Schmidt ended the Mets' nine-game winning streak on Monday and ran his personal-best winning streak to seven with a strong performance. He's the first Pirates pitcher to start 8-1 since knuckleballer Tim Wakefield did it in 1992.

"I don't know if you could expect Cy Young himself to be 8-1 on a club that's three games under .500," said manager Gene Lamont.

Schmidt, who didn't get his eighth victory until his 25th start last year, is trying to keep things in perspective, but it isn't easy.

"I'm 8-1 and I can't help but think about it," he said. "It's a great feeling, but honestly, I'm trying not to get too wrapped up in it. I know it sounds like a cliche, but I really have to go out to the mound thinking my record is 0-0.

"I feel good about what I've done, and it makes me feel good that I'm living up to the expectations people have for me, but this really means nothing at this point. It's a long season, and there's a lot of time left."

Unbridled optimism

Montreal Expos manager Felipe Alou looks at his $9 million team and sees more than a club with the second-worst record in the National League. He sees -- or, at least, he says he sees -- a bright future.

"We are playing against set clubs with established players," he said. "We have noticed improvement in several areas and we will do better against those lineups as the season progresses.

"Look at the lineups in [Double-A] Harrisburg and even [Single-A] Cape Fear and you will see players who should be ready to help. I don't look as far down the line as some people in seeing the day when we will be contenders. We will be a good team next year."

That's good news for the rest of baseball, since the best of those young players will be available for trade in four or five years.

Pub Date: 6/07/98

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