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At Lunch, a Tear for Tommy

July 30, 1996|SHAWN HUBLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was right there in living color on the lunch counter TV, the dusty one with the manual dial and the tin rabbit ears. An era was ending, the announcer promised, and the patrons of Paul's Kitchen could watch it, live, at 2 p.m. The patrons were having none of it. To hell with what they claimed on the news, they told each other, stubbornly slurping their won ton soup. Tommy Lasorda was not going to quit running the Dodgers. Tommy was the Dodgers, just like this seedy downtown Chinese restaurant had been his lunchtime hangout since '73.

"I'll believe it when I see it," said Larry Turgeon, a school district bureaucrat and die-hard fan, reaching across the brown Formica tabletop for his check.

"My husband thinks they're forcing him out," confided Camellia Brooks, a regular who works at the wholesale produce market across the street. "But he's been there for so long . . . "

Outside the dugout, there probably are no greater Dodger fans than the regulars at Paul's Kitchen, some of whom have bumped into Lasorda weekly over the years. So it was hard to take when the news broke Monday that the manager would retire after 20 seasons, surrendering to his bad heart.

For two decades, this place had been like Lasorda's clubhouse. Autographed photos of past and present Dodgers line the cracked wall. Lasorda's is front and center, the only glossy that's not black and white.

Three autographed bats, including one from the 1981 World Series win over the New York Yankees, hold positions of honor next to two autographed balls. The menu proudly offers a Tommy Lasorda Special Dinner for $8.30 a head that clearly dates from before the icon's heart problems and Slim Fast stint--won ton soup, egg rolls, chashu, spareribs, asparagus with beef, sweet-and-sour shrimp, special fried rice, tea and dessert.

"Everybody knew that if you got here around 2 in the afternoon when the team was in town, you could find Lasorda and a dozen of his people in the back," said Dave Honigsberg, 53, a salesman from Long Beach.

Jimmy Lum, the 65-year-old waiter who always took special care of Lasorda, said that "he would pull two big tables together, and everybody sit down--whole bunch of guys, reporters, everybody, lots of fun. He always like the spicy food. 'Jimmy, I want spicy! More spicy!' That's where he got in trouble, I think."

Larry Wong, the restaurant's longtime owner, said Lasorda became an instant regular after a friend brought the then-coach in for lunch one day 23 years ago. Paul's was one of the few places near Dodger Stadium open late enough to serve a postgame meal, but Lasorda also adored the old-fashioned Cantonese food.

Wong said Lasorda became not only a regular, but a friend, and a local celebrity in his out-of-the-way greasy spoon. He said he had to put the Lasorda Special on the menu because everybody was so eager to know the manager's favorite dish.

He took to keeping a stash of 8-by-10 glossies under the cash register for Lasorda to autograph. And autograph the manager did. He was still shaking hands and signing photos when Wong--who is six months younger than Lasorda--finally retired himself, passing the restaurant on to his partner and nephew seven years ago.

On Monday, as they jammed the tables, scarcely a lunchtime diner was without a Lasorda memory--a kind word, a shared laugh, a pep talk for the kids.

Bob Klein remembered the day he left a $5 tip on his table, and then turned from the cash register to see Lasorda goofing, pretending to pocket the cash.

"He said, 'Hey! I need it!' " laughed Klein, a vice president at a thread manufacturer down the street from Paul's. "I said, 'Tommy, you need it, you got it! Anything you want!'

"But lemme tell you something," Klein said, sobering. "He was never too much of a big shot to say hello. Tommy Lasorda made everybody feel important, which you can't say for many people in baseball anymore. The sport needs more people like him."

It was 1:30 p.m. Klein paid for his meal and left, half an hour before the anticipated announcement that the Dodgers had yet to publicly confirm.

As Klein walked out, Larry Duenas, a school bus driver from Bell, strolled in with his wife and kids and sat in Klein's booth.

Six years ago, Duenas said, he had walked into Paul's--a favorite restaurant of his since his teens--with his son, Larry Jr., who was 5. They looked up, he said, and there stood Lasorda. He leaned down and asked the little boy who was his favorite team.

The Dodgers, the kid replied. But Lasorda wanted to know more. How much did he like the Dodgers? Did he love them? I love the Dodgers, the little boy laughed.

And Lasorda called for a photo from under the cash register, which he autographed. Duenas can still recite the words by heart.

"He wrote, 'To Larry Jr. A future Dodger. Tommy Lasorda,' " the 39-year-old father recalled. "My son still has that picture in his room."

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