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Rebirth of the Blues : Two Pivotal Days in June With the New Dodgers

July 31, 1988|DAVID ISRAEL | David Israel, formerly a syndicated sports columnist, is a writer and television producer living in Los Angeles.

IT IS HALF PAST 2 ON A sultry Wednesday afternoon in June. Up the corridor, down the ramp and out on the playing field of Dodger Stadium, you might have to squint through the glistening sunshine to watch the tall palm trees beyond the outfield fence sway to the unheard rhythm of a gentle breeze. Out there, where the perfectly realized geometry of the 19th-Century baseball diamond is framed by the 20th-Century engineering marvel that is sport's pre-eminent arena, there is nothing for a man to do but count his blessings, toast his good fortune and celebrate the virtue of a workplace so beguiling and alluring. If baseball, as so many have said, is a romance rather than an occupation, this is the place where it seduces you absolutely.

But up that ramp and down that corridor Tommy Lasorda, manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, is not singing any silly little love songs. Bathed in the fluorescent light of the cinder-block bunker that is his office beneath the grandstand, Lasorda flips through the day's mail. Somewhere, perhaps in Dodger heaven, a solitary guitarist picks out the chords and wails the melancholy lyrics of the subterranean homestand blues.

"The last two nights," Lasorda says, "I felt lousy."

The angst is whittled in his face. The circles around his eyes, which reveal Lasorda's emotional state much the same way the rings of a trunk reveal a tree's age, have begun to overtake his face. They are darker, deeper, even somehow ominous. The ordinarily easy smile comes reluctantly today, as well. That is because there is a direct correlation between the way the Dodgers play baseball and the way Tommy Lasorda feels. And the past two nights the Dodgers played baseball like men in love rather than men at work. Although being enthralled by the rapture of merely playing baseball has a great deal to recommend it, it is no way to win games and succeed in a pennant race. Which is precisely the point Lasorda needs to convey to his team today.

For the Dodgers are at a crossroads on this Wednesday in June. The games tonight and tomorrow afternoon against the Houston Astros will be their crucible. These games may well serve to define the team for the rest of the season and perhaps into the next decade. Months from now, perhaps even years, you will be able to look back on these two games as a turning point for the team and, quite possibly, the franchise. After a sudden, unexpected and unbroken fall from grace the past two summers, Los Angeles had just as suddenly, just as unexpectedly, ascended to the top of the National League's Western Division standings.

Yet right now, at half past 2 in the afternoon, it appears that the Dodgers are poised on the precipice of failure, about to float ever so gently downward like a hot-dog wrapper discarded by a disgusted fan in the upper deck, rocking slightly, occasionally riding a thermal up a few feet, but certain to continue its descent. Gravity always prevails.

Forty-eight hours ago, the Dodgers were in first place in their division by 2 1/2 games. They had taken two of three games from the Cincinnati Reds, and they were bracing for their first meeting of the season with the Astros, the team with which they had been battling for first place for the past two months. Then, on successive evenings, they were beaten by Houston, 10-4 and 5-2. Their lead was narrowed to half a game. Another loss and the Dodgers fall out of first place, a position in the standings they have occupied for 45 days. With another loss would come self-doubt, the constant groping for explanations of what went wrong. With tonight's game, the Dodgers will have concluded only the first third of their 162-game season, yet it is clear that the pennant race starts not on a sweltering afternoon in August, not on a cool September night in San Francisco, but here and now. With these two games we would learn if, in fact, the Dodgers have been rehabilitated or if they are destined to fail as they did in 1986 and 1987, when they posted identical 73-89 records and finished a combined 40 games out of first place.

As he goes about his pregame business, Lasorda masks his concern. That, he will tell you, is an important part of the job. Rancor is reserved for umpires, reporters' questions that are perceived to be foolish and private moments with ballplayers. There is an art to dodging pointed inquiries, and in 12 summers as manager in Los Angeles, Lasorda has perfected it.

A few years ago, the Dodgers lost a game to Philadelphia when one of their outfielders, an outfielder paid a great deal of money precisely because he could make such plays routinely, shied away from a catchable fly ball near the wall, ducked, covered his head with his glove and allowed the ball to carom off the wall and away from him without a chase.

After the game, Lasorda was overcome by curiosity.

"What the hell happened on that play?" he asked the outfielder.

"I thought the ball was going to bounce off the wall and hit me in the head," the outfielder said.

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