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'What Else Would I Do?' : Lasorda Begins His 20th Season as Manager of the Dodgers, and It's Hard to Believe That It Might Be His Last

February 18, 1996|BOB NIGHTENGALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VERO BEACH, Fla. — The 68-year-old man with bum knees, crooked fingers and a fresh scar from his hernia surgery flies cross-country, jumps into a car for two hours and gets to the Dodger fantasy camp game just in time to pitch.

He pitches the equivalent of 12 innings, permitting only three hits, but gets testy when he steps to the plate and fantasy camper Bruce Palmer strikes him out, then boasts that the strikeout will be duly reported in the book he is writing.

Palmer steps to the plate the next inning and never has a chance. He's drilled in the chest by a fastball.

"Now, put that in your bleeping book," Tom Lasorda screams.

"Man, he takes it seriously, doesn't he?" Palmer asks aloud at the local tavern that evening.

Meet Thomas Charles Lasorda, who is about to manage his 20th season for the Dodgers, with no intention of ever doing anything else.

"I laugh when I hear people say that if the Dodgers go to the World Series, Tommy may just hang them up," former Detroit manager Sparky Anderson said. "You got to be kidding. Tommy?

"I tell you what, if the Dodgers win the World Series, he's going to want to manage another five years. He ain't goin' no place."

Says Jo, Lasorda's wife of 46 years, "He never even talks about retiring. I wouldn't mind him going on as long as he can. Besides, I don't know anyone who can replace him and do what he does."

Lasorda, who has won more games than any other active manager, has led the Dodgers to seven National League West titles, four National League pennants and two World Series championships.

Yet reflecting on 20 years of Lasorda's stewardship is like standing in front of a crazy mirror in the fun house. The image differs drastically, depending on the angle of view. And it is never definitive.

He is considered a managerial genius by some for leading the Dodgers to the 1988 World Series championship with an inferior team, outmanaging Davey Johnson and Tony La Russa along the way. Others consider him little more than the Dodger mascot, who overuses pitchers and chose to pitch to Jack Clark in a crucial situation with first base open during the 1985 playoffs.

In a recent managerial survey by his peers, Lasorda ranked among the worst managers in the league. He was graded high only in motivational skills. But the survey doesn't reflect how many managers downgraded Lasorda because of his personality or out of jealousy.

Get Lasorda talking about the Dodgers and it's like passing a basketball to a shooter with no conscience.

He'll talk about God being a Dodger fan. He'll preach that the Dodgers are the greatest organization. He'll hug his players after a sacrifice bunt.

It's common for managers such as Dusty Baker of the San Francisco Giants to talk freely about Dodger personnel but when it comes specifically to Lasorda, it's best to move on to another subject. It's nothing personal, Baker says, but after playing eight years for Lasorda and now managing against him, he's sick of the preaching.

"I believe in one God in the sky," Baker said. "I don't believe in any blue Dodgers in the sky. One time, I was asked to get on my knees and say, 'I love the Dodgers.' Hey, I get on my knees for God, and that's it."

What no one seems to understand is that this is Lasorda's psych job. Some managers and players become so engrossed with Lasorda's behavior that they lose concentration.

Former pitcher Jim Gott said, "When I was with the Pirates, [Manager] Jim Leyland would work himself into a frenzy, wanting to beat Tommy. He said there was no manager he'd rather beat. Tommy revives that old rivalry.

"He'll scream at you, swear at you, do everything possible just to get a win."

Even when the Dodgers were winning last season, Lasorda was ridiculed for failing to break away from the pack in the National League West. The Dodgers were called underachievers. They finally clinched the division title on the second-to-last day of the season.

In voting for manager of the year, Lasorda's name was omitted from every ballot. The award went to Don Baylor of the Colorado Rockies, whose team had finished a game behind the Dodgers.

"Everybody talks about what a motivator I am, and they never talk about my strategy," Lasorda said. "You know why? It's because I never talk about my strategy. You'll never hear me say, 'We won the game because I did this move or did that move.' The minute I do that, I'm taking the credit. I don't win games, players win games.

"When we are naive enough to think that managers win games, that's when we're in trouble."

So no hard feelings?

"Hey, you didn't have to tell Richard Burton he was a good actor, did you?" Lasorda said.

*

Lasorda doesn't play golf. He doesn't hunt. Doesn't fish. Doesn't bowl. Doesn't go to the racetrack. Never plays tennis. Never skis.

"So if I retired, what would I do?" he says, nearly in a whisper. "I mean, what else would I do?

"Baseball is my life. I love this job. I can't imagine being without it.

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