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Dodgers '88: A SEASON TO REMEMBER : Lasorda, Longtime Ringmaster of the Dodger Circus, Shows Critics of His Managing That He's No Clown : BLUE GRIT

October 24, 1988|SAM McMANIS | Times Staff Writer

As a sportswriter, you have to work at being detached. You spend more time with baseball players, from February to October, than with your wife. You see them in success and failure, on public display and in repose, in uniform and underwear.

At the risk of becoming emotionally bankrupt, you harden yourself, remain on the fringe and always remember to reflect rather than participate.

But when the subject is Tom Lasorda, the Dodgers' manager, objectivity disappears as quickly as pasta on his plate.

Sometimes, he is as endearing as your favorite uncle from Montana. You find yourself chuckling at those tired old stories. You've heard them 20 times before. You know you should groan in disapproval. But you can't help but laugh.

Sometimes, though, he is as infuriating as a guy smoking a cigar on an elevator. Such as the time in Plant City, Fla., this spring, when he got chicken spittle all over your shirt during one of his infamous tirades. Or when he emphatically defended Oliver North as an American hero, arguing with the inquisitors on television as if they were umpires who had blown a call.

One thing about Lasorda: He always dominates the room, but rarely receives the credit for the Dodgers' success. Maybe he never stops talking long enough for somebody to give him credit.

What Lasorda did in the 1988 World Series, however, may be one of the overlooked stories in the Dodgers' incredible victory over the Oakland Athletics.

Lasorda's managerial maneuvers and motivational manipulation, as much as anything, are reasons the Dodgers shocked the experts and won the National League West division title, the playoffs and the Series.

He nurtured. He cajoled. He seized upon all the negative comments about his team and used them to his advantage. He juggled his injury-decimated lineup, actually convincing Mickey Hatcher and Mike Davis and Rick Dempsey that they were imbued with some mystical power to impersonate injured Kirk Gibson and Mike Marshall and Mike Scioscia.

Somehow, Lasorda got 24 grown men, who should have known better, to believe they were capable of pulling off perhaps baseball's most stunning upset since the '69 Mets.

Now you know why Lasorda is paid untold thousands for his motivational speeches during the off-season.

If filibustering is all that is needed to take championships, the Dodgers would win every season. But Lasorda, despite the tag he carries of a poor tactician, also outmanaged the Mets' Davey Johnson and the A's Tony La Russa, both considered superior baseball thinkers.

Maybe now, Lasorda's managerial skills, obscured by his bombastic personality, will receive some attention. He has, after all, won 6 divisional titles, 4 National League pennants and 2 World Series championships in 12 seasons.

Lasorda, 61, soon is expected to be named National League manager of the year by a vote of 24 baseball beat writers, who cast ballots before postseason play began. He got my vote simply for guiding the Dodgers to an unexpected division crown, and the playoffs have only confirmed the vote.

Often maligned for curious strategy--who will ever forget pitching to Jack Clark with first base open in the 1985 playoffs?--Lasorda made most of the correct strategic moves this time around.

Knowing that the Dodger offense was weakened by injury, Lasorda employed an aggressive strategy. The Dodgers effectively executed hit-and-run plays, tried for the extra base whenever feasible and went against accepted baseball thinking whenever inspiration struck.

That was never more evident than in last Thursday's title-clinching victory over the A's. Davis, who had hit .196 during the season with just 2 home runs, looked toward third base coach Joe Amalfitano, probably expecting to take the 3-and-0 pitch with Hatcher on first base and the Dodgers clinging to a 2-1 lead.

Instead, Lasorda let him swing away. Davis deposited Storm Davis' pitch into the right-field seats at the Oakland Coliseum, only his fifth home run since the 1987 All-Star break.

Lasorda made mistakes, too. He replaced starter Orel Hershiser with reliever Jay Howell in the ninth inning of the playoff opener against the Mets, and the Dodgers blew a 2-1 lead and lost.

But Lasorda, often criticized about the handling of his bullpen, showed faith in Howell and it eventually paid off. After Howell gave up a game-winning home run to the A's Mark McGwire in the ninth inning of Game 3 of the Series, Lasorda pulled Howell aside and told him he would go with him again in such a situation. It happened the next night in Game 4, and Howell shut down the A's for 2 innings to earn a save.

Lasorda, it seemed, also is not doomed to repeat his mistakes. In Game 5 of the World Series, when Hershiser struggled in the eighth inning, Howell and Alejandro Pena were ready in the bullpen. But Lasorda stayed with Hershiser, perhaps baseball's best pitcher, and that non-move was rewarded, too.

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