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Census and Sensibility

ALMOST every day during the New York Yankees' magical 1998 season, the same scene played itself out in the office of team manager Joe Torre. Around 3 P.M., Torre would sit in his clubhouse nook for an hour and talk baseball, from players to situations to strategies, with a few of his advisers: his brother, Frank, a former major league first baseman; Don Zimmer, the rumple-faced coach spending his 50th year in professional baseball; and Frank Dolson, C '54.
   One might be tempted to ask, "Which one of these does not belong?" But check with anyone in the Yankee hierarchy, from Torre all the way to team czar George Steinbrenner, and he'll vouch for the presence of Dolson, the retired Philadelphia Inquirer sports columnist, who this spring training begins his third season working for the Bronx Bombers as a scout. The 68-year-old attends 130 to 140 Yankee games per year, evaluates the minor league system's top young prospects, and generally lends his own angle of expertise after his own half-century of watching and reporting about baseball. Maddeningly modest and self-deprecating, Dolson -- whose role isn't expected to diminish if Steinbrenner sells the team to Cablevision, a winter-long rumor swirling around New York -- downplays his contribution to the success of the Yankees, who won the 1998 World Series and established themselves as one of baseball's all-time best teams.
   His bosses gladly fill in the blanks. "It's nice to have him in my office to kick around ideas and talk to someone who knows as much as Frank does," Torre says. "I'm glad he's connected with us. He has a lot to offer the club with his opinions and observations." Adds Steinbrenner, who hired Dolson after a friendship dating back to the 1960s, "He's been a tremendous help to us. He's been helpful to me. I love to speak with him about the team, especially on road trips, to see what he's thinking."
   Most people assume a baseball scout would spend his days scouring dusty high-school diamonds in search of a young Mickey Mantle or searching for the next Bob Feller throwing a baseball against his barn door. But Dolson serves mainly as a "major league" or "advance" scout, some-one who evaluates big-league players belonging to his own organization, and others whom the club might face or want to obtain in trade.
   Dolson might notice a hitch in the swing of Yankee slugger Paul O'Neill, or detect a pattern in which reliever Jeff Nelson is having trouble with left-handed hitters. He'll contribute those opinions to lineup discussions and trade talks, or even when Steinbrenner phones him at his home in Merion, Pa., which he did in 1994 when the Yankees were considering a swap for Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Terry Mulholland.
   "I told him, 'I'd jump on it. He can't help but win 15 games,'" Dolson says with a laugh. "But the ground balls I promised turned into home runs." (Mulholland flopped with the Yankees; Dolson offered the story only because it made him look foolish.) His advice usually has been far more helpful than not, as Yankees general manager Brian Cashman attests. "Last year he was influential in us not acquiring someone," Cashman says. "Frank helped steer us away. And it was the right call."
   Dolson grew up in Jackson Heights, N.Y., a rabid Yankee fan. He maintained his allegiance throughout his years at Penn and with the Inquirer, for which he served as a reporter, a widely-read and respected sports columnist, and ultimately sports editor from his graduation until his retirement in June 1995 (with the exception of a brief stint at The Philadelphia Bulletin during the 1970s). On most of his summer off-days, he would drive two hours from Merion to watch games at Yankee Stadium.
   His fanaticism endeared him to Steinbrenner, whom Dolson first met at the annual Penn Relays even before "the Boss" bought the Yankees (Steinbrenner has been a fan and benefactor of the relays since competing as a hurdler for Williams College in the early 1950s). The two remained friends even while Dolson covered Steinbrenner's antics in the Bronx, and soon after Dolson's retirement, the owner asked him to join the organization. Dolson half-jokingly told Steinbrenner, "The quickest way to end our friendship is for me to work for you." But he still jumped at the dream job of getting paid to watch his favorite team. "I'm glad I don't have to sit with him during the game," Torre says. "He's a psycho."
   Torre can't recall any time when a former writer was asked to join a major league team in a scouting capacity, but says he's glad Steinbrenner brought Dolson aboard. "He's as dedicated as the players are to us winning," Torre says. Dedicated, indeed. After watching upwards of 4,000 games in his life, Dolson still relishes the idea of adding to the total by coming to the ballpark every day.
   "It's fun. Being on the inside is nice," Dolson says. "If I'd known I could do this, I'd have left the Inquirer 10 years ago."

Alan Schwarz, C'90, is a columnist for Baseball America magazine.

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