How Cancer Led to Reconciliation Between Fred Claire and Tommy Lasorda: an Excerpt from Extra Innings


01 Jul

In 1988, as general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Fred Claire was the architect of the team’s last World Series championship. Nearly three decades later, in the winter of 2017, cancer that had begun as speck on Fred's lip had returned with a vengeance. The prognosis had been poor from the time his melanoma had spread to his jaw two years before, but now, as Fred remembered, “It looked like it was the end of the road.”

In the very recent past, the only medical option for him would have been palliative care, an attempt to minimize the pain of his death. But Fred’s oncologist at City of Hope National Medical Center, Dr. Erminia Massarelli, offered one last bit of hope, an experimental immunotherapy treatment that would unleash her patient’s own immune system against the disease.  

Fred, his history making career in baseball and his remarkable cancer journey, is the subject of my latest book, published next week. In the following excerpt from Extra Innings, Fred and his wife, Sheryl, witness the beginnings of a medical miracle, and Fred experiences healing of a very different sort, reconciliation with an old friend.

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On March 27, Fred sat down in a City of Hope infusion room for the first of what would be seven intravenous immunotherapy treatments that would be administered every other week. In typical cases, it takes about two months for checkpoint inhibitors (immunotherapy drugs) to stoke up the immune system, but within just a few weeks of his first treatment, Fred began to notice that the pain in his neck was subsiding. The area around the tumors had softened to the touch. He could turn his head with greater ease. Something was happening.

“Dr. T.J. Gernon (Fred’s surgeon at City of Hope) said that would not happen unless the drugs were working,” Sheryl said. “But it was so new, we didn’t want to get ahead of ourselves. We were guinea pigs.”

The results of his first scan, on May 3, were also hopeful. The tumors had not grown in the two months since the treatment.

“The cancer was stable,” Massarelli recalled. “This was good.”

A month later, on the evening of June 10, 2017, she and a City of Hope legend, Dr. Stephen Forman, were among the guests of the Claires at Dodger Stadium. On that remarkable night for Fred and his family, the physicians witnessed healing of a very different sort.

***

Fred Claire’s thirty years in Dodger blue ended nineteen years before, almost to the day, on Father’s Day, June 21, 1998. That weekend, he and Sheryl were in Denver for the last game of a road trip. Early on that Sunday, Fred called his daughter, Jennifer, to wish her a happy birthday. A few minutes later, a reporter called Fred with the news that Al Campanis (Fred’s predecessor as the Dodger general manager) had died.From left behind Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda: Fred Claire, former general manager Al Campanis, and team owner Peter O'Malley.

“My life was inextricably tied to his,” Claire wrote later in his memoir. “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 the 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 career as a Dodger executive would pass as well in a few hours.”

After the championship season in 1988, the Dodgers had returned to the playoffs on only two other occasions over the next decade, losing in the first round both times.

“I regretted it every year that we didn’t win, but I always tried to use the experience to make us better the next year,” Claire recalled.

Tommy Lasorda had retired in 1996 after suffering a heart attack. By the summer of 1998, the Dodgers were limping along, well out of first place. But it wasn’t the performance of the team that most threatened Claire’s long tenure.

The previous March, the universe of the Los Angeles Dodgers had been turned upside down—Peter O’Malley had sold the team to media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his Fox Group. Though O’Malley briefly stayed on in a figurehead position, previously unthinkable occurrences began to take place within the organization.

The most striking came in May, when Dodger superstar catcher Mike Piazza was traded to the Florida Marlins by the team’s new leadership—without the knowledge of Fred Claire. The team’s new president, Bob Graziano, told Claire about the trade during a game at Dodger Stadium, saying it needed to be announced afterwards.

Claire replied that there would be two announcements: the trade and his own resignation.

“This is not the way the Dodgers operate,” a furious Claire told Graziano. “You don’t need a general manager if trades are being made without his involvement.”

It became even messier from there. The transaction could not be announced after all, because the player the Dodgers were to acquire for Piazza, Gary Sheffield, had a “no-trade” clause in his contract. That had yet to be sorted out, which Claire and any other general manager would have known.

“The people making this trade had no clue,” Claire recalled.

Yet he decided to stay on to help the organization he loved sort through its issues.

“I wasn’t going to walk away and leave this mess of a trade, even though I hadn’t been involved,” Claire said years later.

 Then came Father’s Day. That day in Denver, not long after learning of Campanis’ death, Claire received a call and was told to be at Dodger Stadium that night for a meeting with Graziano as soon as the team returned to Los Angeles.

“A Sunday night meeting after a road trip was highly unusual and sounded awfully important, but I didn’t push for details,” Claire wrote. “Still, I couldn’t 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. In that time of turmoil, anything was possible.

“And I knew that the Fox people were unhappy with me because when the Piazza trade ultimately went through, I talked publicly about how it had come about and how I had felt about it.”

The Sunday night meeting took place in what had once been Peter O’Malley’s office, where Claire had spent countless hours as the trusted and longtime executive who had worked so closely with the Dodger owner. O’Malley, in fact, sat in on what would be a very different gathering, one in which Graziano did most of the talking. He told Claire that manager Bill Russell would be fired.

“Then the other shoe hit the floor with a thud that shook my very being,” Claire recalled.

He, too, was being let go, Graziano told him. Tommy Lasorda would be named the interim general manager.

“At age sixty-two, after a lifetime of steady employment in an unsteady field, I had just been fired for the first time,” Claire wrote. “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.”

That night, Claire wanted it made known that he had been terminated.

“They were not going to say Fred Claire quit,” he remembered.

Claire called his wife after the meeting.

“Are you sitting down?” he 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,” she said.

The next day, Fred and Sheryl returned to Dodger Stadium to clean out his office. For nineteen years after that, she would never return. Fred went back on only a couple of occasions at the request of friends, including an invitation from Dodger great Maury Wills, which came after the team had been sold again, this time to businessman Frank McCourt.

Years later, Claire said he was never bitter about the way his years with the Dodgers ended. “I knew I had given the Dodgers the best I had each and every day,” he recalled in 2019.

As much as anyone, Claire also knew the realities of professional sports. He himself had released many players over his time as general manager. What was more difficult to reconcile were the memories of a family-owned sports franchise that had placed such a premium on continuity and loyalty—values clearly not part of the corporate philosophy of the new ownership.

Claire’s career was just one prominent example of the old ways. He had earned the trust and respect of Peter O’Malley over many years, which went far to explain the owner’s decision after the 1987 season to retain Claire as general manager. With the new ownership, a much different calculus would clearly be brought to bear.

For Claire, cherished relationships built over three decades were altered by the way his Dodger days came to an end. He remained cordial with Peter O’Malley, but their friendship would be more distant. After Lasorda succeeded Claire as general manager, tension lingered between the two men for years.

Their friendship dated to 1969, when Claire was still a sportswriter and Lasorda a minor league manager. That was when the manager had actually put Claire into a spring training game as a shortstop for his Spokane team, replacing Bobby Valentine, who went on to become a successful Major League manager himself.

“Fred and I are as close as brothers,” Lasorda had been fond of saying.

“It was a generally good relationship, even after I became general manager at a time when Tommy already was a veteran manager with hopes of becoming a GM himself one day,” Claire said later. “The GM-manager relationship is never easy, but Tommy and I worked well together in those roles for a decade because we both had a burning desire to see the Dodgers succeed.”

The two men would also be forever linked by the magic of 1988. But after Claire’s firing a decade later, and until 2017, their relationship was strained and Fred blamed himself.

“I made comments about changes in the coaching staff after I was fired that shouldn’t have been made,” he said in 2019. “I was no longer there. It wasn’t my place to comment.”

***

By 2017, the Dodgers had been to the playoffs for four straight years, and with a new generation of stars like slugger Cody Bellinger and pitching ace Clayton Kershaw, the team seemed positioned to win its first championship since 1988. Amid the growing buzz in Los Angeles, Bill Plaschke, the Los Angeles Times sports columnist, remembered another Dodger legend who had disappeared from the public eye: “Everyone was talking about the great new Dodger era and all the division championships like it had never been done before. And I thought, ‘Wait a minute. The general manager of the last World Series champion is right down the street and you’ve forgotten all about him.’ He had never been truly honored at Dodger Stadium and that was a shame. I didn’t want this great man and his great accomplishments to be forgotten.”

That was what inspired Plaschke’s visit to the Pasadena home of Fred and Sheryl Claire in April 2017, and the newspaper column that appeared a few days later.

“You may barely remember him,” he wrote. “His contributions have never been publicly honored. He has never thrown out a first pitch. His face has never been shown on a video board. He was ushered away from [Dodger Stadium] twenty years ago and has rarely returned since.

“But the echoes of [the stadium] will always include him, because Dodger history was forever changed by him. In a dramatic reversal unmatched in franchise lore, the former sportswriter weaved a classic comeback tale that stabilized a franchise, immortalized a manager, and helped turn lost souls into champions.”

Plaschke’s words resonated throughout the Dodger nation and in the front office of the team itself. A few days after the column was published, Fred Claire got a call from Lon Rosen, the team’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer.

“Plaschke nailed us,” Rosen told Claire. “He’s right. This is long overdue.”

He invited Claire to throw out the ceremonial first pitch on June 10, before the Dodger game against Cincinnati.

“When was the last time you threw a baseball?” Sheryl asked her husband when she heard.

“Love, I’ve been throwing a baseball all my life,” Fred said.

“Yes, but how long has it been?”

“About twenty years,” Fred said.

A few days later, his wife came home with two new baseball gloves and a ball. For weeks leading up to the big night, as Fred continued his last-ditch cancer treatment, the couple played catch in the driveway of their home.

***

Not coincidentally, June 10 was also the date of the Dodgers’ annual Old Timer’s Game. Orel Hershiser was back in uniform that night, with Mickey Hatcher and past team greats like Ron Cey, Steve Garvey, Fernando Valenzuela, Don Newcombe and Joe Torre, a former manager of the team. Before the gates were opened to the fans, Fred Claire stepped onto the field in a dark dress shirt and khaki pants for an easy, laugh-filled reunion with people who had been at the heart of his professional life for three decades. It was as if Claire had never been away. Current players also waited their turn to shake the hand of the man who was quietly such a part of Dodger lore, and the architect of the team’s last championship.

At one point, a Dodger employee handed Claire a package that contained the familiar white jersey with blue trim. When Claire unfolded it, he saw his name on the back over the number 88. He was initially reluctant to put it on.

“I always felt that jerseys were earned by the players,” he recalled. “I didn’t play the game. They played the game. I always had total respect for that.”

But Claire made an exception that night. He put the jersey on and stood on the third base line for the National Anthem, next to Sheryl and his daughters, Jennifer and Kim, his young granddaughter, Tyler, and Dodger manager Dave Roberts.Throwing a strike on a night of healing. (photo by Rich Kee.)

Then came something Claire was not expecting.

“A few of us knew ahead of time what was going to happen,” said photographer Rich Kee, Claire’s close friend who was on the field to capture the moment with his camera. “He did not. The announcer directed everyone’s attention to the left field message board.”

A video tribute began to play.

“There are moments in Dodger history that fans will never forget. We remember those moments thinking of the players on the field,” the narrator said. “Sometimes it’s worth remembering the people behind the scenes, the ones who put those players in a Dodger uniform.

“Would Jackie Robinson have taken the field as a Dodger without Branch Rickey? And would Kirk Gibson have hit one of the most historic home runs in baseball history without former general manager Fred Claire making the move to bring him to the team?”

The screen showed Claire and Lasorda, champagne soaked, holding the World Series trophy, and the two men posing with the trophy and President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy.

The narrator recalled how Dodger catcher Rick Dempsey had presented the general manager with the ball from the final pitch of the 1988 World Series, saying, “Fred, this belongs to you.”

“Fred donated the ball to the Baseball Hall of Fame, where it is on display for all fans to see in an exhibit called Autumn Glory. Today, we’re pleased to welcome back the man who brought autumn glory to Dodger Stadium.”

Kee was standing a few feet away as Claire looked up at the screen.

“I started to see his face transform from surprise to deep emotion,” Kee said. “He’s a very proper person, and you don’t see him show emotion in public. But I saw his face, and I was pretty sure I knew what he was thinking. ‘This is my life. I’ve dedicated my life to my work and I’m seeing it being played out on that screen.’ He had never been shown that kind of appreciation. I think any guy standing there would have felt the same way. It was a cool thing.”"This is my life." (photo by Rich Kee.)

When the tribute was done, Claire was finally directed to take the pitcher’s mound. He waved to a cheering crowd, then strode across the infield grass and toed the rubber before delivering a strike to Mickey Hatcher, who was waiting behind the plate.

As the game began, Claire, his family and friends congregated in a stadium suite.

“It was up there that I checked the images in my camera, and I said, ‘Fred I think I’ve just taken my best photograph from all my years at Dodger Stadium.’ He looked at it—the picture that showed his eyes filling with tears as he watched the video—and he said, ‘My goodness, Rich.’ Given how personal it was, I didn’t want to show the photo around without his approval. He said, ‘Rich, emotions are human and photographs don’t lie. Please feel free to use it.’”

But that night, the greatest healing took place out of the spotlight.

***

Claire knew that Tommy Lasorda was likely to be at the ballpark for the Old Timer’s event and hoped to make the most of an opportunity.

“I wanted to see resolution,” Claire recalled. “I wanted Tommy to know how much I cared for him and how much his friendship of almost fifty years meant to me. I didn’t want those distant feelings to be there, and I didn’t know how much time I had left. If I didn’t say that night what I wanted to say, I didn’t know if I would have had the chance two months from then.”

Early in the evening, as Claire and his daughters, Jennifer and Kim, walked through a stadium concourse, they saw Lasorda headed in their direction, riding a motorized scooter. His aide, Felipe Ruiz, was walking beside him. The former manager had recently been released from the hospital himself and looked frail.

“It’s great to see you, Tommy,” Claire said.Reconciliation at Dodger Stadium. (photo by Rich Kee.)

He leaned and put his arm around his friend.

“I love you, Tommy,” Claire said softly.

“I love you, too,” Lasorda replied.




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