By Ross Newhan
It is no surprise to any of the check signers among the new owners and management leaders with the Dodgers that their industry record payroll of $230 million has only guaranteed them a series of questions for which they hope to find answers in spring training. Nor is it a surprise that in the approximate 15 years since Peter O'Malley sold the team, ending the club's last period of stability and continuity, that baseball salaries and payrolls would have continued to inflate amid record revenue and attendance, internal revenue sharing, global merchandising and soaring TV contracts.
Yet, that $230 million compared to what Fred Claire was working with in his last five full years as general manager under O'Malley is staggering--or as Claire said in a phone interview--"even when you consider the number of years and acknowledge that it would have been a surprise if salaries and payrolls wouldn't have continued to rise, the number is somewhere between surprising and shocking."
Doing his own research and leaning on former assistant Robert Schweppe for help, Claire said the Dodger payroll over his last five full years totaled $194.7 million, a period in which Dodgers had the fifth best record in baseball and spent the second lowest amont of money.
Instructed to stay under $48 million, the Dodgers had a 1994 payroll of $37,194 million to rank 10th, a 1995 payroll of $30,459 million to rank 18th, a 1996 payroll of $34,647 million to rank 12th and a 1997 payroll of $43,400 million to rank 11th.
"There is only one thing by which to judge a season by and that's winning the World Series," Claire said. "Yet, there is a natural tendency to measure what you've accomplished against expenditure, and no matter what the payroll I was given, I never felt that was not a reason for not winning. I mean, the World Series is the prize, but we were leading the division when the strike cancelled the rest of the season in August of 1994, we reached the poast-season in 1995 and 1996, and we weren't eliminated until the next to last day of the 1997 season."
The Dodgers have not won a World Series since 1988, Claire's second year after replacing Al Campanis, and the years since O'Malley sold and Claire was replaced under Fox in 1998 have been marked by increasing parity throughout the industry.
In the last two years alone, 13 of the 30 teams have made at least one post-season appearance, and nine teams have won the World Series in the last 12 years, the average payroll of those teams ranking 10th.
The big market teams still have more room for error in judgements, or as Claire said, "there is still a relationship between winning and payrolls, but it has become obvious that the biggest payroll doesn't guarantee the biggest prize."
The Dodgers will be putting that to a test this year, but at $230 million they must first decide on a leadoff hitter, the health of Carl Crawford and Matt Kemp, the ability of Hanley Ramirez to play a full season at shortstop, the rotation after Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greineke and where they turn if Brandon League isn't the closer that his three year contract suggests he is.
"I give the Dodgers a lot of credit," Claire said. "The new owners came in expressing a desire to win, to improve the team and to improve the fan experience. They have backed up their words.
"The signings make the headlines, but given what I know of Stan Kasten's background in Atlanta and based on what he has said, I know he understands that you can't neglect the other part. The importance of scouting, player development and consistency of philosophy and personnel are as old as the game and as important.
"I give the Angels credit because they understand that their farm system is the foundation of the team despite the big signings of the last couple years, and you can see that the Dodgers understand with the moves they have made to strengthen their international signings."
Kasten has insisted that the Dodgers do not intend to sustain a $230 million payroll. Who knows? Given baseball's rate of inflation, it could go up before it goes down.