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MIKE DOWNEY

Safe or Out? : O'Malley Has to Make the Call on Lasorda, Who Has Given His Life to the Organization

October 08, 1995|Mike Downey

For his 68th birthday, on Sept. 22, his coaches approached Tom Lasorda and presented him with a leather attache case, the kind businessmen dressed in suits carry to work every day. Not everyone can picture the Dodger manager this way. Millions have never seen him in long pants.

The briefcase being just the size to fit a laptop computer, Lasorda's automatic anecdotal light bulb illuminated, and, volume rising, ever the toastmaster, he said: "Hey, let me tell you what I tell people! I was the first guy ever to put a computer in the dugout.

"We got all the information on all the players in the National League and we put it into the computer. And, whenever we got into a jam, I would ask the computer what to do. And invariably the computer would give me the same answer.

"It said: 'Fire the manager!' "

*

Baseball managers get fired at the drop of a cap. Some of them last months, even weeks. But the Dodgers are different. They change managers about as often as they change cities. They have had two in 42 years: Walter Alston and Tom Lasorda. Once asked if he could equal Alston's 23-year career, Lasorda slapped his forehead in mock disbelief, then said he would be thrilled to live 23 more years.

A few weeks into next spring, provided he makes it through the next few days, Lasorda will manage his 3,000th major league game, all for the same team. Managing has been his life. So has baseball. His favorite line is: "I wish we could play 364 days a year, and have Christmas off."

Jo Lasorda once told her husband, or so another of his stories goes, "You love baseball more than you love me."

"Yes," Lasorda would agree, "but I love you more than basketball or football."

Like many in any line of work, a baseball manager has difficulty conceiving himself doing something else. Lasorda's allegiance to the Dodger organization is such that he will abide by Peter O'Malley's decision, whatever it is. Yet there is a part of him that would rather manage some other team than act for the Dodgers in a token role, as consultant or such.

With a week remaining in the season, Lasorda's past and future raced before his eyes, standing on the diamond of Dodger Stadium.

"See that word Dodgers up there?" he asked, pointing high above home plate, beyond the upper deck. "I first came here for a game in 1963, and I sat so high, I could give the blimp pilot a high-five. I sat there and I told my wife: 'One day I will be in that dugout, as manager of the Dodgers.' And 14 years later, I was managing against the Yankees in the World Series.

"And now I stand here, and you know what I'm wonderin'?

"Where will I be, one week from today?"

*

From the first weekend of September, when after an afternoon game against Montreal he changed clothes into a samurai kimono to film a spot for Japanese TV, to the present, with his team having been eliminated from the playoffs by the Cincinnati Reds in an equally unlikely fashion, the last month has been seen by many as Lasorda's last stand, potentially as his Waterloo. After 19 years as manager, safe or out?

Lasorda sensed something was up.

"Some guys are saying I'm too old," he said at one point.

He had just been asked if his job was in danger. A Japanese journalist apologized for asking such a stupid question.

"No, no, no, no," Lasorda reassured him. "It's not a stupid question. No."

Later, by winning the division title with a strong finish on the same week he became a grandfather, Lasorda's return seemed considerably more secure. Even amid the team's postseason debris, several Dodger players insisted, in the bright lights of TV cameras, that it was they, not their manager, who were at fault.

Off the record, however, another player in the Riverfront Stadium clubhouse confided to a reporter: "This guy killed us again. It's happened over and over."

Not everyone in the organization thinks Lasorda should stay in the dugout, but saying so publicly could be career suicide.

In a team concept, criticizing someone wearing the same uniform just isn't done. Lasorda naturally could dare anyone critical of him to step forward, the way his mentor Alston once did by challenging the entire team to a fight. But of course Lasorda himself becomes much more outspoken about certain Dodger players after they are no longer Dodgers. This is the nature of sport, of life. It is no different for men who carry briefcases.

During the flap over Mike Busch, the union-busting infielder, Lasorda didn't go public with his disagreement with Dodger players, but said to their faces: "You're supposed to care more about the name on the front of your shirts than the name on the back of your shirts." Many of them, in turn, deeply resented Lasorda's open-armed embrace of strike-breakers in spring camp. The more the season dragged on, the more insiders as well as outsiders wondered whether a long career would continue much longer.

"What do you hear about Lasorda?" a Dodger scout approached a writer to ask in mid-September, out of the blue.

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