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THE INSIDE TRACK | SUNDAY SCENE / BILL PLASCHKE

Turning a Heart Attack Into a Great Opportunity

July 07, 1996|BILL PLASCHKE

Everybody is wondering, but everybody is afraid to ask. Afraid the words will sound ugly and insensitive. Afraid that Tom Lasorda will hear them and turn white again.

As if Lasorda hasn't wondered it himself:

Will Lasorda's recent heart attack finally give longtime critics an excuse to push for his ouster?

And . . .

Will benevolent Dodger owner Peter O'Malley, who would probably never remove Lasorda if he were healthy, listen to those critics?

Finally . . .

If not for Lasorda's illness, would Bill Russell have ever received a chance to show that he can be the next Dodger manager?

The answers are yes, yes and no way.

Providing Lasorda recovers as expected, this nightmare has no losers, only opportunities.

Lasorda has an opportunity to heed a YIELD sign and extend his life. Speeding through our days, most of us never get that chance.

Baseball needs a goodwill ambassador more than it needs another manager with a garage full of championships. As baseball's most popular figure of the last two decades, Lasorda has the opportunity to be that man, leading the sport into the 21st Century the way some New York suit never can.

O'Malley has an opportunity to enhance his reputation as the most decent owner in professional sports.

And Russell, with his tough, stoic style, has an opportunity to become the next Walter Alston.

Not that anyone wanted it to come to this.

I momentarily lost my breath upon hearing of Lasorda's hospitalization two weeks ago. I dropped to a chair, heard a strange voice saying, "Oh no."

I was not the only one.

For 20 years, Lasorda has represented much of what is good about this community.

He has been cheerful when outsiders couldn't understand why. He has been indignant when others might have cowered. He has persevered when many would have quit.

On his nightly stage at the end of the Dodger bench, he has behaved the way we like to think we would behave if we had his job. Embracing the good times, cursing the bad, stalking down those who would do his team harm.

Even a couple of years ago when television cameras caught Lasorda snoozing in the dugout after taking medication, the public outcry was minimal. We all know that sometimes, the Dodgers are just plain boring.

Lasorda's importance has nothing to do with wins and losses, and everything to do with people and how he makes them feel about themselves.

Critics claim the media have "protected" Lasorda, failing to criticize him despite only one World Series appearance in the last 14 years.

Wrong. It is the fans who have "protected" Lasorda, streaming to Dodger Stadium in record numbers during that time because they realize his impact is bigger than the bottom line.

It is an impact that should not be allowed to die in a dugout.

Which is exactly what could have happened, even if he never suffered a heart attack.

The Dodgers will not comment on it, but who are we kidding? If this richly talented team did not advance to at least the National League championship series this year, O'Malley may finally have to consider a change.

Lasorda will not retire--even as a player, he forced the Dodgers to release him. So it might have been an ugly change.

Now, it will be simple, perhaps even triumphant.

Lasorda returns to the team at the end of this month, leads the team to the playoffs, receives his 20-year watch and retires under doctor's orders.

"I never walked away from anything," Lasorda can growl. "Them doctors gave me no choice."

"Tommy could have managed this team the rest of his life," O'Malley can honestly say. "But nature had other ideas."

Lasorda moves into the new job of special assistant to the president and spends the rest of his days spreading the Dodger gospel. One of the most recognizable figures in sports remains in the public eye, entertaining and inspiring until he's 89.

By then, Bill Russell will have just finished his 20th season.

Forget what you read about Mike Scioscia, former catcher and current minor league instructor, being the heir apparent. The Dodgers require that all their generals spend time in swamps, and Scioscia, 37, has yet to manage in Albuquerque.

After showing both leadership and smarts during the last two weeks, the only way Russell doesn't get the job is if O'Malley decides on somebody like Sparky Anderson for a couple of years until Scioscia is ready.

But Russell has already proved he is the best, and only, choice.

Lasorda should be proud to see him playing aggressively from the bench, acting humanely in the clubhouse, stepping aside and letting the players be the stars.

Ironically, had Lasorda retired before his protege had this chance, Russell would have had no chance. The perception was that he was not merely bench coach, but straight man. Almost overnight, that perception has changed.

Lasorda has always grabbed reality by the lapels. In regards to the Dodger manager, it is time this community does the same thing.

We can all love Lasorda. Let's just don't love him to death.

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