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Heartburn Lingers On for Lasorda After Loss

October 20, 1985|STEVE JACOBSON | Newsday

What Tom Lasorda wanted was red clam sauce and second helpings. What he had was red eyes and second-guesses.

It's ironic that the season in which Lasorda demonstrated he was something more than an overeating buffoon ended with a decision that will shadow the rest of his career. He should have walked Jack Clark.

Besides Tom Niedenfuer going down in the Little Book of Baseball Tragedy, Lasorda's decision will rank with Charlie Dressen's decision to bring in Ralph Branca rather than Carl Erskine to pitch to Bobby Thomson. Maybe the paths of history would have turned. And maybe they would have turned out the same history.

Near tears, Lasorda was saying that the Dodgers had a wonderful year, and he was right. That should be recognized even after Clark's home run.

Lasorda is best known for the photo gallery in his office -- the Sinatra Wall and the Rickles Wall and all that. He is working in Star Country, and nobody is anybody unless he can drop a good name in conversation. Lasorda gets in the papers for selecting his 10 favorite Sinatra pictures. And--hoo, boy--he omits "From Here to Eternity." When he was reprimanded he grew defensive. His No. 1 was "The Manchurian Candidate," which he pointed out was the Great Man's favorite.

He tells of his own self-control in terms of smoking, drinking and eating. He said he once held a pack of cigarettes at arm's length and asked: "Are you stronger than me?" And answered himself: "No, I'm stronger than smoking." And he stopped smoking.

He held a glass of vodka out, same way, and answered . . . "I'm stronger than drink."

Then he held up a plate of linguine and asked: "Are you stronger than me?"

"Yes," he answered, "you're stronger than I am."

And that is why to this day food is served in his office when the Dodgers win, and on any night, he might be accused of driving under the influence of linguine.

His managing has progressed from the years when his style was pretentious hugging and motivation was an invocation of the Great Dodger in the Sky. There is less of that now. There is less baloney when he knows his listener knows he's full of baloney. He is rarely boring.

He did revise the Dodgers in June and turned the whole course of this season and probably the next several seasons. He found a new shortstop, Mariano Duncan; he found a place in left field where his best hitter, Pedro Guerrero, wouldn't hurt so much on defense; he pieced together a bullpen.

Then he let Niedenfuer pitch to Clark. Remember, he had a 5-4 lead in the top of the ninth. Tommy Herr had just grounded out, advancing runners to second and third with two out. Niedenfuer is right-handed and Clark bats right-handed.

Niedenfuer had been the losing pitcher in the fifth game when Ozzie Smith--of all people--hit a home run. Niedenfuer pitched 106 innings in 64 appearances this season and he was in his third inning; his first inning had been a draining ordeal in itself.

Herr and Clark are the Cardinals' best run-producers, Clark their best home-run threat. A single would put the Cardinals in front.

The next batter was Andy Van Slyke, who bats lefthanded but hit .259. Lasorda could have walked Clark and had Niedenfuer pitch to Van Slyke with the bases full or brought in lefty Jerry Reuss. Lasorda remembered that Niedenfuer had fanned Clark with a man on third and one out in the seventh.

The worst thing Lasorda could have done was direct Niedenfuer to pitch carefully to Clark.

"They'd pitched around Jack all series; it was obvious they were saying, 'Let's not let Clark beat us,' " Herr said. "Then, with the game on the line, they switched."

From his standpoint, he preferred Clark, a veteran and a home-run threat, in that situation over an anxious young hitter. "I made out and I was thinking, 'Andy's got to do it,' " Herr said.

He sat down in the dugout next to Vince Coleman, saw catcher Mike Scioscia's fingers signaling for a pitch and noted to Coleman that Clark was going to win it for them.

"The thing about it is if we walk Clark, we've got no room," Lasorda explained later. "If we walk him and Niedenfuer falls behind, we got to lay it in there. If we pitch to Clark, Niedenfuer's got an open base; he can say, 'Clark's got to hit my pitch.' "

Niedenfuer thought that since he'd struck out Clark with sliders, he'd be looking for more of them and Niedenfuer would sneak a fastball past. The thinking was to get ahead and then "nibble" on Clark or, if they fell behind on the count, then put him on.

He started Clark with a fastball, which Clark thought was something like trying to sneak a lamb chop past a wolf. "Every at-bat of my life I've looked for a fastball," Clark said. "If I get one, I try not to miss it."

He didn't. Nobody had to watch it go out. Guerrero slammed his glove to the grass before the ball left the park. "The only thing that would have kept it in the park," Niedenfuer said, "was if it hit the Goodyear blimp."

It was the manager's decision to pitch to Clark, Niedenfuer said, and he wouldn't begin to consider any other choice.

"After he hits the home run everybody knows we should of walked him," Lasorda said afterward, appealing for understanding. "If he'd flied out, if an outfielder had to leap over the fence and caught that ball, not one person would have said we should have walked Clark. Because he hit a home run. . . . "

He didn't walk Jack Clark. It will take a long time for the heartburn to pass.

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