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Dodgers in search of better days

Special to

April 21

Kevin Malone made mistakes for sure, the final one offering to fight a gentleman from the San Diego County Board of Education who on Wednesday night brought the entire faculties of the two area schools ravaged by recent shooting incidents to Qualcomm Stadium.

The Sheriff thing, which was Malone's first big mistake, turned into a comedy routine, and so did a couple of the contracts he gave to Carlos Perez and Devon White.

But what has happened to the Dodgers isn't just Kevin Malone's fault. And it's not just Fox, although one wonders how they could have traded Mike Piazza, fired GM Fred Claire and hired Malone, all prior to Bob Daly taking over as club president. It's been going on for a long time, before the aberration of the 1988 World Championship won by Orel Hershiser and perhaps the weakest 25-man roster to win it all in Shawn Green's lifetime. This is the team that drafted Erik Sonberg (right in front of Roger Clemens), Dennis Livingston, Bill Bene and a cast of nobodies with their first round picks; Bene was so wild that he warmed up with an inflatable doll dressed in a Dodger uniform in the batter's box.

I am open to all ideas, but most of all I want someone who will bring in a lot of bright, creative people who will help make us the best organization in baseball.
Bob Daly, Dodgers Chairman & CEO, on what type of person he's looking for to fill the club's GM vacancy.

Daly understands this. He is a lifelong baseball and Dodger fan, not to mention an entertainment industry giant. "I want to bring the Dodgers back to where they should be," he says. "Let's give Kevin Malone credit. He brought a lot of very good baseball people into this organization. We have some very good young players on the A-ball level, and we're going to be in very good shape in time. But Kevin couldn't dig himself out of the hole that he dug for himself."

What is unique about this Dodgers GM job is that this team can win this year, with a few trades and changes. Daly knows this, but also says "I want to find someone who will carry this organization and the Dodger tradition on for the next 10 years and further. I want the Dodgers to be the Dodgers again."

Malone was a Bob Graziano hire, not a Daly hire. The former Warner Brothers boss overruled Malone and picked Jim Tracy as the team's manager, and says "Jim can be our Walter Alston. He could manage this team for a long time." Daly also brought back former pitching coach Dave Wallace as a special assistant, and while Wallace took the GM job on an interim basis after telling Daly that he had no ambitions to be a manager or general manager, the job is his for the time being as the Dodgers begin their search for annew GM on Monday.

Daly has been peppered with name candidates: John Hart, Billy Beane, Brian Cashman. "I am open to all ideas, but most of all I want someone who will bring in a lot of bright, creative people who will help make us the best organization in baseball," Daly says, and most people believe that, run the way they should be run, the Dodgers provide the best job in the game. Daly also says he would "like to have someone in place by the All-Star break," which means that barring some odd strongarming in Cleveland or Oakland would seem to make the Hart or Beane selections nearly impossible.

Or so it seems. But Indians sources indicate that ownership would allow Hart to go, if Daly asked. By doing so, it would clear the decks of Hart's salary, and while it would speed up Mark Shapiro's ascension into the GM job, there really isn't a lot left to do with this year's team. The Dodgers had not called for permission to speak with Hart as of Saturday afternoon, but if they do, Hart is certainly interested and might be able to go immediately.

"The Jim Tracy hiring shows that I am not tied to a 'name' candidate," says Daly. "I want the best person for this situation. A big name doesn't necessarily insure the best success. I think it's important to bring in someone who isn't insecure. A good executive isn't afraid to surround himself with bright, ambitious people."

It is clear that Bob Daly wants to take responsibility for the restoration of the Dodger tradition. It is also clear that he trusts Wallace, his one front office hire. So if Beane or Hart isn't available, then don't be surprised if the Mets' No. 2 man, Jim Duquette, is the early front-runner. Duquette is close to Wallace. He is very smart and he has learned from two of the best general managers in the game, Steve Phillips and Gerry Hunsicker. He has extraordinary people skills and he has learned from Phillips and Hunsicker that the best way to deal with the media is to answer everything, anytime and honestly.

Wallace and Don Welke can work on the deals that have to be made to make this $110 million team win the NL West. They need a middle infielder who can defend at second and short, a Donnie Sadler/Kelly Dransfeldt type. After they get Adrian Beltre back, they will need more bench depth both in hitters and pitchers.

They, however, don't need that much in the short term. In the long term, they also don't need a reconstruction. Rather, they need someone who can be a young John Hart or a young Billy Beane, someone who can present Daly with an organization of bright, creative thinkers. One gets the sense that with Daly and Wallace, the thought process is finally grounded, and that the Dodgers can once again be the Dodgers.

Around the majors

  • Cardinals manager Tony La Russa says, "if we get Mark McGwire back before the All-Star break, we'll be OK. If we get him back right after it, we'll have time. But no one knows. We're told that this injury takes eight months with superb athletes and 11 months for the normal guy; Mark right now is at eight months."

    For the time being, La Russa will use Bobby Bonilla a few days a week and work in Craig Paquette and Placido Polanco. "We need to get Jim Edmonds healthy and swinging the bat again," says La Russa.

    The Cardinals' other problem is closer Dave Veres' index finger, vital for any pitcher who relies on throwing a splitter. Veres has experienced numbness in the finger, and while La Russa says "the doctor says there isn't any permanent nerve damage," they don't know for certain, which means that until Jason Christiansen comes off his rehab, La Russa will have to mix and match with Steve Kline, Mike Timlin and Gene Stechschulte

    Vinny Castilla
    Vinny Castilla is off to yet another bad start for the Devil Rays this season.

  • La Russa on pitcher Rick Ankiel being kept from talking to the media: "At this point, he's answering the same question, over and over. It's at the point where what people need from him isn't what he needs. He has to get the feel of changing speeds back and concentrate on that, not answering the same questions."

  • Devil Rays GM Chuck LaMar regretted firing Larry Rothschild because he knows the team's problems weren't of Rothschild's doing. Then LaMar had to fly to Baltimore to settle things with Vinny Castilla, who said that the organization "is showing me no respect" by bringing up Aubrey Huff and playing him. LaMar offered to let Castilla out of his contract, but Castilla didn't want that, he rather wanted his release and his $6.5 million salary.

    LaMar calls the Castilla acquisition "a bad deal" and hasn't found one team that will take him even if the Rays pick up even part of the contract.

  • By Aug. 1, the Rays hope to move some of their veterans and make room for Huff, second baseman Brent Abernathy, catcher Toby Hall and perhaps young outfielders Carl Crawford and Josh Hamilton. But the veteran who will fetch them the most is right-handed pitcher Albie Lopez, who after years of developing is now one of the premium starters in the league, is a free agent in November and will not be re-signed by Tampa Bay because of cash-flow problems. "Lopez," says one GM, "could be the pennant for the right team."

  • As the Indians watch Jaret Wright on rehab, they think about Lopez. "Jaret has better feel, a better curveball and better changeup than he ever had," says one Indians official. "If his velocity comes back to where it was, he's at worst a young second or third starter. If it stays where it is now, he can be a solid No. 4. Jaret has really matured."

  • Several teams -- led by the Red Sox, and including the Indians, Mets and Rangers -- are going to Lake Elsinor Wednesday to watch Sterling Hitchock, who three outings into his rehab is back up to 84-85 mph -- not far from his old stuff -- and has had outstanding command. The only pitch Hitchcock isn't throwing is his cutter, which he thinks hurt his arm in the first place. Hitchcock could be ready to pitch in the big leagues by mid-May.

  • Montreal had scouts Mike Berger and Donnie Reynolds following the Rangers this past week, heightening speculation that Texas is trying to get Ugueth Urbina. As if the Rangers' pitching wasn't bad enough already, now closer Tim Crabtree has back problems. And poor Ken Caminiti hurts on virtually every spot on his body.

  • Boston papers got excited because A's manager Art Howe told writers he wouldn't mind having Dante Bichette, whom he coached many years ago in Colorado. "We have no interest, none whatsoever, period," says one Oakland official. "What would he do for us? Even if he were making $700,000, I don't know what we'd do with him." Translated, the folks who make decisions with the A's don't think Bichette can play any more.

  • Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker is in the market for a left-handed hitter who can play third base, since it appears that Bill Spiers' back problems may sideline him for the rest of the season. Houston's only available left-handed bat in that role right now is Jose Vizcaino, so they'll look for someone to replace Spiers. It won't be easy replacing Spiers, however, as he is a dangerous hitter and one of the clubhouse foundations of that team.

    News and notes
  • Chuck LaMar thinks "the three best teams in (the AL) might be in the East," and points to the development of the Boston and Toronto bullpens as to why they are better. He also adds that Joe Kerrigan "is the best pitching coach in the world." Jimy Williams and Buck Martinez have developed the pens with their closers -- Derek Lowe and Billy Koch -- struggling. Rolando Arrojo is throwing 95 in his new role, Rod Beck is back, Rich Garces is a strikeout pitcher, Pete Schourek has adapted to the pen and Tim Wakefield can pitch every day. "What makes them so good," says LaMar, "is that they give you so many different looks." As for Toronto, Paul Quantrill and Dan Plesac have been outstanding, while Kelvim Escobar is throwing as well as any closer in the league.

  • Speaking of closers, Troy Percival is back, hitting 98 on the gun and has his old arm action.

  • The Yankees have not given up on left-hander Randy Keisler, despite his emotional outburst and his lapses on the mound. "What he has to get back to is his curveball," says GM Brian Cashman. "That was the pitch that caused us to draft him in the first place, but as he developed his changeup, he lost the feel of his curveball."

  • Derek Jeter's shoulder clearly isn't 100 percent and because of it his timing at the plate is off.

  • With reliever Doug Brocail probably done for the season, the Astros will give Jay Powell and Mike Jackson the opportunity to set up for Billy Wagner. If that doesn't work, they can consider moving Octavio Dotel back into the pen in front of Wagner. Houston has Roy Oswalt and Tony McKnight in Triple-A New Orleans as possible starters. And at their Double-A Round Rock club, they have three top prospects in right-hander Brad Lidge, left-hander Carlos Hernandez and righty Tim Redding. "If Lidge stays healthy," says Hunsicker, "he could come quickly. His stuff is really something -- 95 with a 84-86 mph slider that reminds me of J.R. Richard."

    The Astros also have a power left-handed reliever prospect at Round Rock in Wilfredo Rodriguez. As you can see, Houston may have more quality pitching prospects than any other organization. And dazzling defensive shortstop Adam Everett is hitting .300 and drawing raves from his Triple-A manager, Tony Pena.

  • The manner in which the Yankees treated Bernie Williams is a reason that players are so loyal to Joe Torre and Cashman. "They so respect their players that they get twice the respect back," says one agent. In '97, Mike Stanton had a family illness; Torre told him to stay away until it was resolved. In the '99 World Series, they allowed Luis Sojo to stay home in Venezuela because of the death of his father, and earlier that season Scott Brosius left the team for more than a week in order to be with his ill father.

  • Reds reliever Mark Wohlers threw 21 of 27 pitches for strikes last weekend while hitting 97 on the radar gun.

  • The Braves are worried about Quilvio Veras, whose career turned around when he learned to lay off the high fastball, and now has to try to hit that pitch. They brought in Marcus Giles for a look, and there's been discussions within the organization of bringing up Travis Wilson, the New Zealand softball player who put on such a hitting show in spring training.

  • Miller Park is apparently going to be a hitter's park; 31 homers were hit in the Brewers' first nine home games this year, 15 were hit in the first nine games last year at County Stadium. "The Brewers are an American League team," says an NL executive. "They can really hit and hit for power."

  • Arizona needs pitching, and teams like the Mariners want Erubiel Durazo, but can the D-Backs afford to be trading one of their few non-bluehaired players?

  • How good is Mike Matheny? He caught 14 of the Cardinals' first 15 games, and only one (among a total of four) baserunner who tried to steal on him was successful.

  • Don't tell the A's folks that their slow start has anything to do with the strike zone. "We were getting to the same hitter's counts, we just weren't hitting our pitches," says Billy Beane. In the 140 games they charted last season, they got into 2-0, 2-1, 3-1 and 3-2 counts, 51.9 percent of the time. In their first 12 games in 2001, before breaking out in Anaheim this week, they got to those counts in 51.8 percent of their at-bats. But while they batted .400 and slugged .733 in those counts last season, they slugged .580 in those situations in those first 12 games.

  • With the Mariners and A's again 1-2 in the AL in walks, it prompted one baseball official to say, "If the strike zone stays big, it won't hurt the patient teams, it will make the bad teams worse because there's more room to be bad."

  • One GM says "by the middle of June, there are going to be some big players like the Mets, Yankees and Mariners looking to trade for impact hitters. There is so much parity this year -- Bud Selig's worst nightmare going into the end of the labor agreement -- that there will be fewer sellers, and their prices will be higher than ever before."

    Scouting around
    Here are eight scouting reports to make note of from a number of different scouts:

  • "Doug Mientkiewicz is making himself into Keith Hernandez."

  • " Ichiro (Suzuki) is the best defensive outfielder in the American League. He runs great routes to balls, he can fly, he has a great arm and never misses a cutoff man."

  • "Scott Rolen just isn't the same player right now. Whether it's his back, or what, he isn't getting to good fastballs."

  • "The Dodgers infield has its problems to begin with, but the first baseman (Eric Karros) is the worst in the league and makes them all worse."

  • "The toughest back-to-back outs in baseball with games on the line are Carl Everett and Manny Ramirez."

  • "Shannon Stewart is the best all-around leadoff hitter in the American League. He is now a star, and in the not-too-distant future, Vernon Wells will be one, too."

  • In terms of stuff, Eric Milton is now the best left-hander in the American League."

  • Montreal may have the two best unknown power set-up men in the (National) League in Scott Strickland and Guillermo Mota. Either one could close if they trade (Ugueth) Urbina."

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  • Embattled Dodgers GM Malone steps down

    Gammons: column archive

     ESPN's Peter Gammons discusses L.A.'s possible replacements for Kevin Malone.
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