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Force Play?

And Just Like That, 20 Years Slipped By

July 30, 1996|Thomas Bonk

The only manager the Dodgers have had for the last 20 years passed rows and rows of empty Club Level seats as he walked far down the right-field line at Dodger Stadium. Then he turned and walked into the Stadium Club to tell the media he was stepping down.

Judging by the number of mini-cams present to record the moment, it was a momentous occasion. There were 32 of them, but that doesn't tell the whole story. There also were dozens of still photographers, radio reporters, newspaper reporters, magazine writers, technicians and cable-pullers, all gathered in one room to hear Thomas Charles Lasorda say goodbye.

When Walter Alston said he was through on Sept. 27, 1976, he made it public in what was then the Dodgers' meal room and players' lounge. He managed to do it without the benefit of a single mini-cam. Lasorda was chosen by owner Walter O'Malley and club president Peter O'Malley to be Alston's successor. Two days after Alston's decision, the Dodgers introduced their new manager to the media in the Stadium Club, the very room Lasorda walked into on a warm Monday afternoon to say he would manage the Dodgers no more.

There was polite applause as Lasorda entered the room, looking tanned and fit, but he wasn't smiling. In fact, nobody was smiling, except for Emily, Lasorda's nine-month-old granddaughter. Dressed in a white dress with tiny red cherries, strawberries and watermelons printed on it, Emily bounced happily in the lap of grandmother Jo Lasorda.

Grandfather wore a gray houndstooth sport coat, charcoal slacks, silk tie and a white shirt with a collar so starched you could have used it for a fungo bat.

Only a few curious players were in the room and they stood far to the side, behind a planter of ivy. Mike Piazza was there and so were Eric Karros and Chan Ho Park. Lasorda's immediate successor was also in the background, and Bill Russell didn't look at all comfortable with the brief mention he received from O'Malley.

Blue napkins were stretched out on a white tablecloth that covered a table with microphones. Behind the table was a blue poster with "Dodgers" on it and a list of the franchise's World Series Championships--in 1955, 1959, 1963, 1965, 1981 and 1988. Alston was the manager for the first four, Lasorda the last two.

In this same room on that September day 20 years ago, the mood was a lot different. It was upbeat, even jovial. There still were four games left in the season and Walter O'Malley joked that Lasorda was so concerned about getting off on the right foot that he was bringing Sandy Koufax out of retirement to pitch.

Alston suggested that Lasorda take over immediately, but challenged him to win them all because the results went on Alston's record.

Sitting beside Alston, Lasorda said he didn't sleep at all the night before he got the job. Once he got it, though, he had no trouble expressing his emotions. He said it was the greatest day of his life.

As a manager, Lasorda never had much of a problem expressing his emotions. He was volcanic, cherubic, sarcastic, enthusiastic, ecstatic, miserable. He never checked his temperament at the dugout.

But there he was Monday sitting behind that table with the microphones and saying he was stepping aside. He said he was doing it so he could enjoy the rest of his life with his family, so he could see little Emily go to school.

All he had to do was give up the only job he ever wanted. It was a difficult decision to make, but Lasorda thought about Don Drysdale and Don McMahon and John McSherry, who all had heart attacks and died. Lasorda decided not to put that uniform on again.

All he had to do was make it official. The first time Lasorda's voice cracked with emotion was when he said he was stepping down. It also happened when he thanked Peter O'Malley, when he thanked Al Campanis, when he talked about his family and when he thanked O'Malley again.

Lasorda said he felt he was the luckiest man in the world. He didn't look as if he felt very lucky. Executive vice president Fred Claire remembered Lasorda's first day as manager and said those 20 years seemed more like 20 minutes. O'Malley said the one word that summed up Lasorda was enthusiasm. Then Lasorda got a hug. He didn't look as if he felt very enthusiastic, either.

As the mini-cams rolled, the cameras clicked and the flashes from the strobe lights lit up the room, Lasorda quoted Einstein, counted his memories and talked about his tombstone. Lasorda has one already and on it are these words: Dodger Stadium was his address, but every ballpark was his home.

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