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Force Play?

Signs Indicate Lasorda Really Wanted to Stay

July 30, 1996|BOB NIGHTENGALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tom Lasorda walked slowly, almost as if each step Monday were more painful than the last, into the Dodger Stadium club where he would make perhaps the most difficult announcement of his life.

Lasorda stopped and kissed Al Campanis, the former Dodger general manager whom he respects perhaps more than anyone in baseball, strolled to the dais, and in a shaky voice, said that he is retiring after 20 years as Dodger manager.

"For me to get into a uniform again, as excitable as I am, I could not go down there and not be the way I've always been," Lasorda said, his voice quavering.

"For me to be concerned about my heart. . . . I decided that it's best [for] me and the organization to step down as manager of the Dodgers."

Bill Russell, who has filled in for Lasorda the last five weeks, was appointed manager for the rest of the season. Lasorda, will become a vice president, answering only to President Peter O'Malley and Fred Claire, executive vice president.

Lasorda insisted the decision was his: "Peter told me, 'That uniform is waiting for you. If you want to manage this ballclub, you can put the uniform on Tuesday.' "

Yet, friends and family members say Lasorda was strongly urged by O'Malley and the Dodgers to retire. That Lasorda wanted to continue managing for the rest of the season and told O'Malley and Claire of his desire during a 90-minute meeting Friday at Dodger Stadium. One source close to Lasorda, who talked with him during the weekend, said Lasorda suggested a possible extension through 1997.

Lasorda, the source said, instead was told that it would be in his best interest to retire. There was no need to be a hero, they said. Spend some time with the family, they suggested. Relax. Besides, what if he again suffered heart problems, how would that make the Dodger organization look?

Lasorda, who said repeatedly Friday night in telephone interviews that he wanted to return to his job, realized Saturday morning he wasn't going to keep it. He walked around his Fullerton neighborhood, listening to the Dodger game on radio and decided he would relent.

He then began making telephone calls, telling friends of his decision. One of the first calls he made was to his longtime friend, Buzzie Bavasi, former Dodger general manager. Bavasi said he got the call in his La Jolla home at about 10 p.m. He listened to Lasorda, was pleased to hear he was retiring, but hung up the phone saddened by how the decision had evolved.

"The only thing that bothers me in all of this," Bavasi said, "is the way they handled it. They never said to him, 'This job is yours if you want it.'

"Somebody should have said that.

"The Dodgers owed him that.

"I felt Tommy was hurt by that, really. It's tough to hurt Tommy's pride, but he's hurting."

Bavasi, and several others Lasorda telephoned Saturday and Sunday, were told that Lasorda is retiring to be close with his family. He wants to get to know his infant granddaughter. And he was frightened at the possibility of having heart problems while flying.

"Tommy told me he's 68 years old and doesn't have anything to look forward to," Bavasi said. "He said, 'Why do I have to put up with this stuff anymore? I've done everything I've wanted to do.'

"That doesn't sound like Tommy. It sounds like somebody wrote it for him. That bothers me.

"I don't believe Tommy owes the Dodgers anything, but the Dodgers owe him a lot.

"You know that if Tommy had his druthers, he'd be back on the bench tomorrow."

Lasorda, who will be 69 in September, did not rule out a return to managing.

"I'll never say never," Lasorda said after being asked whether he had managed his last game. "I'll do whatever Peter [O'Malley] wants. If he wants me to go back on that field again and manage, I'll do it."

So is Lasorda following O'Malley's wishes now?

"It was Tommy's call, it was totally Tommy's decision," O'Malley said. "I told him, 'Tommy, this is your call. You think about it. Take all of the time you need. I didn't want to influence him one way at all.

"I think even though he was saying he wanted to manage again, he was wrestling with it. When he was saying he wanted to return, there must have been some doubt in his mind. There had to be some concern about his health."

Lasorda, who suffered a heart attack within 24 hours of the time he was hospitalized June 24, has fully recovered, his physician, Dr. Michael Mellman, believes. Mellman said Lasorda is in much better shape now than when he was admitted. Lasorda has lost almost 20 pounds and his cholesterol has been reduced from 252 to 175.

"Tommy is in excellent medical condition," Mellman said. "Tommy is healthy. The risk now is less than before he had the problem. For Tommy, I think basically the ability to manage is a reliever of stress rather than a causer."

Perhaps this is also why Lasorda told a friend that he would consider managing even another team, if the situation arises. If the Dodgers decide they don't want to retain Russell at the season's conclusion, he would gladly return.

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