ARLINGTON, Tex. – Los Angeles Dodgers president Stan Kasten remembers the day in 2014 when he hired Andrew Friedman away from the Tampa Bay Rays to run baseball operations as one of the most important moments in the club’s recent history.
“I just had enormous respect for Andrew’s personal qualities as well his professional accomplishments in Tampa,” Kasten said Monday in an interview. “I thought his intellect, his love for the game and his passion for what he does is at the highest level.
“I thought those things would fit in perfectly here and obviously they have.”
Obviously. It’s all come around full circle six years later with the Rays opening the World Series against the Dodgers Tuesday night in the neutral environs of Globe Life Field. Both teams had the best records in their respective leagues, the Dodgers, 43-27, Tampa Bay, 40-20.
The Rays, though, have never won the Fall Classic in their 22-year history, having lost to the Philadelphia Phillies under the guidance of Friedman and manager Joe Maddon in 2008.
The Dodgers are there for the third time in the past four years, but they haven’t won it all since 1988 when Fred Claire teamed with Tommy Lasorda. Kirk Gibson is still pumping his fists on an endless video loop after limping off the bench to hit a walk-off homer to end Game 1. That set the tone in L.A.’s underdog romp of a five-game victory over the Oakland A’s.
“In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened,” the legendary Vin Scully explained as Gibson toured the bases in front of a roaring sellout crowd at Dodger Stadium.
Improbable? In a year when the coronavirus killed 1.12 million across the globe and 220,079 in the U.S., chasing baseball into postseason bubbles, the Dodgers were one of 24 teams that were not plagued by COVID problems. There were no setbacks.
“No setbacks that you know of,” Kasten said. “There are a lot of things that go on behind the scenes.”
Like this one: The Dodgers are going to lose big money this year, comparable to the New York Yankees, whose principal owner Hal Steinbrenner said last week, are going to lose the most in baseball. When asked where the Dodgers rank on that list, Kasten wouldn’t be specific.
“It would be right in that same neighborhood,” he said. “That’s really all I want to talk about it because right now I want to focus on the games.”
But Kasten had a few choice words to say about the course of the season.
“It’s been brutal and I’m tired of saying because it becomes a cliché,” Kasten said. “The challenges we’ve had to endure to get where we are too numerous to think about. But we can’t ever talk about that without recognizing there are so many people who’re truly suffering far, far beyond anything we’ve had to endure.
“So, I can’t even talk about our hurdles when you compare it to what our society and people around the world are having to go through.”
During the year of the unspeakable, ESPN at the ESPY’s named the Dodgers the Humanitarian Team of the Year in all of sports for their work through the Dodgers Foundation. Sans fans all season, Dodger Stadiums still has been utilized as one of the world’s largest COVID-testing sites, and will be a California polling place on Nov. 3 for the presidential elections. Washington’s Nationals Park and the Oakland Coliseum are the only others.
These are the things that make Kasten proud.
“It all matters,” he said.
Talk about the impossible, on the field the Rays and Dodgers had to reel through two weeks of challenges in the past two rounds just to get to this point. The Rays played 12 games in 13 days at San Diego’s Petco Park to vanquish the dreaded Yankees in the five-game American League Division Series. And then they had to ward off the Houston Astros in the AL Championship Series after the Astros clawed back from a 3-0 deficit only to go down in Game 7.
The Dodgers had their own fits with the Atlanta Braves, playing seven games in seven days, falling behind 3-1 in the National League Division Series, and then winning Game 7 from behind in dramatic fashion on homers from Kiké Hernandez and Cody Bellinger.
“One thing we’ve learned in this postseason, the team that’s first to win three games is not going to feel comfortable,” Kasten said.
The Rays have already knocked off three teams with a combined prorated player salary of $246.4 million. The Dodgers are right there in that category at a No. 2 of $107.9 million, slightly behind the Yankees payroll. The Rays are third to last in MLB at $28.3 million.
The Rays get the most for their money of any team in baseball. And that’s a good thing, Kasten said.
“Any series that has the Rays in it is a really good series to watch because they are so well constructed, so well run that they deserve everyone’s attention,” he said. “It’s a great organization and it has been for a very long time. Needless to say, I feel the same way about the Dodgers, as well.”
Kasten burst on the L.A. scene in 2012 when Guggenheim Baseball Management purchased the team from Frank McCourt for a then record $2.15 billion. His 41-year career in pro sports began in 1979, when at 27, he was named general manager of the Atlanta Hawks, the youngest GM to run an NBA team in history.
What followed was presidency of the Atlanta Braves, the Atlanta Thrashers hockey team and the Washington Nationals, after they were sold to the Lerner family by Major League Baseball.
Under his watch, the Dodgers have won eight division titles in row and led MLB in eight consecutive seasons in home attendance, not including this abbreviated 60-game season, of course. They’ve been to the NLCS five times and won three NL pennants.
But like his Braves teams that won 14 consecutive division titles from 1991 to 2005 – save for the strike season of 1994, there was little success in the World Series. Up until now, Kasten’s lone World Series ring in all his years as a baseball executive came in 1995 when the Braves defeated the Cleveland Indians. Those Braves won five pennants.
Kasten knows his general managers. He oversaw the replacing of Bobby Cox as GM with John Schuerholz, sending Cox back to the dugout before they began their 14-year run. Both men have been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
The Dodgers had won two consecutive division titles under Guggenheim when Kasten reached out to Friedman to replace Ned Colletti. Don Mattingly managed a third title and walked away from his contract, replaced by Dave Roberts.
Friedman has now developed his own family tree, and two of his Tampa Bay acolytes, Eric Neander of the Rays and James Click of the Houston Astros, have also run baseball operations this year, marking three out of the four finalists in this season’s playoffs.
Playing the Rays is just another twist in this tough season.
“Obviously, I have close personal relationships,” Friedman said after the game on Sunday night. “Some of my closest friends. But my focus is on what we’re doing here.”
Roberts, whom Friedman hired to replace Mattingly, has won the last five division titles and is in the World Series for the third time.
“It’s fascinating and not so surprising,” said Kasten, now 68. “Not only does Andrew choose good people for his personal staff, he’s also great at leading them and shaping them in their own personal careers. I’m sure there will be more of that coming.
“He and Dave have an excellent relationship and it has worked out to everyone’s benefit.”
Much like the benefit of Kasten hiring Friedman.