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JIM MURRAY

He's Still Big Dodger in Dugout

October 15, 1995|Jim Murray

News Item: "Manager Tommy Lasorda Hired for Another Year at Dodger Helm."

What would baseball be without Tommy Lasorda? You don't want to know. A meal without wine, a day without sunshine, a dance with your sister. Any cliche you want. A life without song.

Not to see that wonderful character bounding out of the dugout, belly first, fist pumping, bowlegs churning, throat yelling on his way to the umpire to straighten him out and tell it like it should be one more time? Never!

Who will speak for baseball when Tommy's gone? One of those tight-lipped, monosyllabic bores who manage those Midwestern teams or sit glaring from the corner of the dugout as if they were watching the fall of France? Gimme a break!

I've been lucky I've had Thomas Charles, pride of the Abruzzi and Norristown, Pa., Lasordas to deal with all these years. You never come away with an empty notebook. Tommy loves baseball and has a keen eye for the drama of it. Nobody understands it the way he does.

He is lovable to the fans. A cartoon character. Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra rolled into one. Ring Lardner would have loved him. Every guy with a deadline always does. Disney would have drawn and animated him.

He can handle men. He has a strong sense of right and wrong and even a locker room full of millionaires don't faze Lasorda. He was a left-handed pitcher who didn't like you crowding the plate and he manages the same way. Get out of line and the ball, figuratively, is whizzing by your ear.

He didn't have much of a pitching career but those are the guys who figure out what the game is all about. Not the guys who figure you can solve everything with a home run. Guys who know the game is a struggle make the best managers.

He was type-cast for the job. He was to his role what Clark Gable was to Rhett Butler or Tracy to Dr. Jekyll.

A manager has to be part father figure, part sidekick and all man. Lasorda slid home safely on all counts.

Baseball is the last stand of another America in this century. It's as American as the pumpkin. Or stud poker. A game where you always have a hole card.

It's a game played by little boys in big men's bodies. It's corporate America. It's also sandlot America. It's a link with our past in a way no other sport is. Its critics say it's too slow. What are they in a hurry about? If you're in a hurry, go to an airport. Baseball is to savor, to make last, like a pheasant dinner in a Paris restaurant.

Lasorda revels in it. It's not just a time clock to punch for him. He's never too busy to promote baseball. I caught him one time on his way to Nova Scotia to make a speech extolling the grand old game.

The game is Ruth pointing, Ty Cobb coming in with spikes high, Willie Mays' cap flying off as he pulls in a triple--or what should be a triple. There was no such thing when Willie was out there.

But it's also Connie Mack standing in a dugout in a celluloid collar and tie wig-wagging a program at his outfielders where to play and it's John McGraw, feisty, glowering, willing his team to the pennant.

It's kids playing in a corner lot with rocks for bases and it's the Dodgers playing in the seventh game of the World Series in sold-out Yankee Stadium.

It's the citadel of the second guess and Tommy has been prey to his share of them. Why didn't he walk Jack Clark before his home run in 1985? On the other hand, who put Kirk Gibson up there in the ninth inning against Dennis Eckersley's slider when Gibson could hardly walk? Lasorda, who knew Gibson got rich on sliders.

It was all part of great, good fun. Old? Tommy will never get old. He doesn't know how. And Casey Stengel was managing till he was 75 and Connie Mack till he was 88. There's no heavy lifting involved. You just have to know when to bunt. And how to recognize a great talent from the window of a moving train. And who to put in the lineup.

God is a Dodger fan, Lasorda will tell you. He plans to bring an autographed baseball to heaven for Him. So he'll get a good table. When the Dodgers are home, the best Italian restaurant in town is Tommy's locker room.

Tommy is full of harmless hokum like that. But not when it comes to his country. Tommy will tell you the world is lucky there's a United States of America in it and if you don't think so, the conversation is over.

He's never said "No comment" or "That's off the record" in his life. Tommy is on the record and full of comment. Sometimes, it's X-rated.

Baseball needs a lot of things this Year of Our Lord. And one of the things it needs is a Tommy Lasorda in a dugout. Not sign him to a new contract? Are you kidding? Might as well do away with the infield fly rule. It's guys like T. Lasorda who have made baseball what it is.

Dodger Stadium without Tommy Lasorda?

You can have it!

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