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Lasorda Left Speechless : Baseball: Dodger manager as talkative as ever until someone mentions the lack of real players.


VERO BEACH, Fla. — The fans surround the white-haired man. They ask him to sign autographs. They ask him to pose for pictures. Some even ask him to kiss their babies.

Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda is just getting started, loving every minute.

"Listen, son, you can be whatever you want in life," he tells an 8-year-old boy. "Your dreams can be reality."

"Don't be afraid to try some Slim-fast," he tells a balding, overweight man. "Look at me. Do I look tired? Do I feel tired? I feel so good, I'm going to run out into the rain without a shirt on just to see if I can catch a cold. You know, to see if I'm really human."

The fans stand reverently in front of him, laughing at his jokes, listening to predictions of another great season, when, suddenly, there is silence.

"Tommy," yells an elderly woman from the back of the crowd, "how can we have a season when there aren't any real players?"

No one utters a word. They contemptuously look in her direction, glance back at Lasorda, and brace themselves for a response.

Lasorda stares vacantly ahead, starts to speak, stops, and walks away.

"I'm sorry," says Shirley Minnich, who drove 12 hours from Rossville, Ga., for the afternoon. "It's just that this is so frustrating, I had to say something. It affects all of us, but there's nothing we can do about it.

"It's a money game. It's all about dollar signs. And it's the fans who are hurting."

The Dodgers' spring-training camp opens today, but instead of seeing the names of Piazza, Martinez and Candiotti on the backs of Dodger uniforms, there will be the names of Tsamis, Montalvo and Correa.

The Dodgers invited each of their big league players to board their flight to Vero Beach, but when the charter landed Thursday night, no striking major league player was in sight. Instead, there are 85 minor league and replacement players jammed into their minor league clubhouse.

Dodger officials even removed the double-chained lock leading to the major league clubhouse, symbolically showing their clubhouse is open to anyone willing to report. Uniforms were hanging neatly inside the lockers, but no players showed.

"I've got a five-bedroom beach house rented out in Vero," catcher Mike Piazza said from his home. "But at this rate, who knows if I'll ever see it?

"It's disappointing not to be there right now. No question about it. Nobody wants baseball more than the players. But we've been put into a position where we've got no choice, and we'll stay out as long as it takes to get a legitimate settlement.

"I'll keep hitting and working out, but if this thing hits July, I'm shutting it down. Either that or I'll be playing softball."

Some wonder if spring training camps will be nothing more glorified than a Sunday beer league. The most experienced major league player in Dodger camp will be infielder Casey Candaele, 34, and he hasn't played a full major league season since 1992.

"I think the whole thing is a tragedy, if you ask me," said filmmaker Spike Lee, in town for the Dodgers' fantasy camp. "To play this season with replacement players will be just as bad as not playing the World Series last year. I sure wouldn't pay to see it.

"It's just not baseball."

The Dodgers argue that replacement baseball is better than none at all.

The Dodgers don't anticipate anyone crossing the imaginary picket line until the strike is settled. Truth be known, they would prefer that no one does. Club President Peter O'Malley is against the idea of replacement players, but he is not about to become a detriment to the owners' plan.

So, for at least a few more weeks, the Dodgers will treat the potential strike breakers as their own. They will wine and dine them at Dodgertown. They will tell them to be media friendly, to take pride in wearing a Dodger uniform.

The Dodgers are taking precautions with Lasorda and his coaching staff, telling them they only have to be supervisors during spring training. The minor league coaches, they said, will handle the rest.

Lasorda and his staff belong to the Major League Players Assn. They pay dues to the union, receive licensing money from the union and get their health benefits from the union.

Now, they will be working alongside players willing to break the union.

"Hey, I love the players, but they don't pay my paycheck," Lasorda said. "We taught these players, we've slept alongside these players, and we want this thing to end as much as they do.

"But I've worked 46 years for the Dodgers--they paid me when the strike went on--and my loyalty and commitment is to them. They have to understand that."

Meantime, the Dodgers must wait along with everyone else. They have no idea how long the strike will last, or whether the replacement-player concept will even work, but they have to prepare themselves for "The Scrubs of Summer."

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