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Jim Murray

No One Can Say the Guy Chose the Wrong Field

July 12, 1988|Jim Murray

If you had a license from God to construct yourself a baseball manager, you would probably begin with one with a big belly, short legs that were slightly bowed or pebbled with lumps so that they looked like sacks of walnuts. You would want one who had his own syntax, a voice that sounded like an oncoming train in a tunnel. It'd have to be a nice part for Vincent Gardenia.

He wouldn't have been a big star in his youth. A .500 pitcher, perhaps. A .260 hitter who made a lot of noise. He'd have to know how tough this game is. He'd never have a self-doubt or a moment's anxiety. He'd come into a room as if he were leading a parade. Everybody would be his best friend. He'd talk to shoeshine boys, parking lot attendants. He'd sell baseball. He'd be sure God was a baseball fan. He'd know that America was the greatest country in the world, otherwise how could a poor boy like him grow up to be part of the greatest organization in the world?

He'd never be at a loss for words, he'd like to eat, he'd cry at sad movies, but he'd have a temper like a top sergeant whose shoes were too tight. He'd be sentimental, cantankerous, on speaking terms with the President of the United States but, if you asked him what his foreign policy was, he'd say, "Beat Montreal!"

He'd be part-press agent, part father-figure, all man. He'd have an anecdote for every occasion, always with a moral attached. He'd tell at the drop of a hat of the time when he knocked the big league batter down the first time he faced him because that batter had refused him an autograph as a knothole kid years before. His stories would be more entertaining than true, but no reporter ever would leave his office with an empty notebook or stomach.

He wouldn't be one of those tense, secretive guys like the manager in the World Series last year who looked as if he was guarding a gang hideout and you were the Feds. He'd be selling baseball. It would be his job, and he'd come from a long line of people who did their jobs.

He'd have a lot of con in him. He'd never forget he was dealing with kids, and that he could make them pick the shell without the pea under it if he had to.

When he'd have a player who didn't want to transfer from the outfield to catcher, he'd say, "Didn't you know the great Gabby Hartnett, the greatest catcher of all time, started out in the outfield?" Gabby Hartnett started out in a catcher's mask, but a good manager is resourceful.

When a team was floundering in a 10-game losing streak, this manager would reassure them that "The 1927 Yankees, the greatest team of all time, lost 11 games in a row that year!" The 1927 Yankees didn't have 11 losing innings in a row, but that would be irrelevant.

He'd know baseball wasn't nuclear physics. It was show business. It was "Entertainment Tonight." The pictures on his wall would not be Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Stuffy McInnis, Connie Mack, John McGraw, guys sliding into second. They'd be the heavy hitters of show business, Sinatra, Rickles, Berle, Kaye.

He'd be a star in his own right. People would have his picture on their office walls.

He'd be Tommy Lasorda. He'd be Mr. Baseball, a guy with his own show. He'd get the best tables in restaurants, he'd be part of the fabric of the glitter and glitz of a town that prides itself in it. He'd never be out of character when the spotlight was on. He'd be on the dais of every black-tie dinner there was, he'd make a speech at the tap of a glass.

Some managers are worth five games a year to their franchises. Sagacious moves can account for that much success. Tommy Lasorda is worth something more--a few hundred thousand in attendance.

His predecessor, Walter Alston, was a great manager. He had to be. But he was as quiet as snowfall. He officed out of his pocket. He dressed with his coaches. He led by example. His office had a picture of his wife and grandchildren on it. He never made a headline in his life. He was patient, kindly, courtly, a gentleman of the old school. A guy you would most want to be in a foxhole--or a lifeboat--with. Dependable, matter-of-fact, as untemperamental as a butler, he knew more about the balk rule than any man who ever lived.

It's not what baseball is about. It's no secret the late owner Walter O'Malley chafed under Alston's monkish managerial policy. He was stuck with him because Alston was so good. It was hard to fire an annual pennant. So, he did the next-best thing: he gave him an annual one-year contract.

It was all well and good to be low-key in the corner of the dugout when the Dodgers were new to the town and every night was New Year's Eve and they had Koufax and Drysdale and Maury Wills and The Duke and the Davis boys and you didn't have another major league baseball team, football teams (two) and pro basketball teams (two) and a hockey team and a lot of other promotions to vie for your space in the sports sheets.

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