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Lasorda Shows His Mettle by Coaxing Another Title

September 28, 2000|BILL PLASCHKE

SYDNEY, Australia — He's back.

Arms raised, eyes dripping, baloney flying.

Hide the Ragu. Deadbolt the manager's office. Dig out the hip waders.

Good morning, Los Angeles, and are you sitting down?

Tom Lasorda is back, with new passions, new legends, a few new pounds, and a brand-new Olympic gold medal.

Well, not exactly that last part.

The fulfillment of Lasorda's absurd promise to lead the patchwork U.S. baseball team to a gold medal Wednesday is ironic in that he didn't get one.

Come to find out, no Olympic coaches, managers or trainers are given medals.

So while his odd mix stood strikingly reverent on the highest podium along the first base line after its stunning 4-0 victory over forever-world champion Cuba, Lasorda was confined to a spot in front of the dugout.

Just as well.

That way, his players didn't have to see a 73-year-old man cry.

"All I've done in my career, this is the greatest moment in my life," Lasorda said. "When the Dodgers won, the people in Los Angeles were happy. But tonight, the entire country is happy."

Cover your ears. Board up the manager's office. Somebody call Dave Kingman.

Lasorda is back, and looking more Lasorda than ever.

After the U.S. beat Cuba for only the fourth time in 29 battles--and for the first time in any sort of championship--the fans here chanted.

"Tom-my, Tom-my, Tom-my."

His players marveled.

"What he did for the Dodgers in 1988 against Oakland, he did that same thing for us," outfielder Ernie Young said. "He made us believe.'

The losing Cubans shook his hand. The Olympic officials hugged him. The security guards asked for his autograph.

About the only people who were not impressed with the United States' biggest international baseball victory were the ones who still sign Lasorda's paycheck.

The Dodgers didn't show.

Their former owner, Peter O'Malley, showed. Rod Dedeaux of USC showed. Even major league baseball sent a security guy, perhaps to make sure Lasorda wasn't attacked by someone allergic to Iwo Jima references.

But no Dodgers.

Hmmm. Must be busy planning for the playoffs . . . oops.

Love Lasorda or hate him, you must respect the impact he has had on these Games and this team.

The clueless Dodgers obviously don't.

What, are they worried he will use this latest coup as a campaign platform for this winter's Dodger managerial election?

Forget it.

At least that's what Lasorda is saying this Australian minute, which is yesterday at Dodger Stadium, which means it is already old news, but here it is anyway.

"I am retired, I don't care how many times they ask me, my name is on a Hall of Fame plaque and I am never going to manage in the major leagues again," Lasorda said.

If it were Kevin Malone managing this team, one suspects Bob Daly would have ordered someone here quicker than you can say "mathematically eliminated."

But it was just Tommy, doing what Tommy always did, even when he wasn't really doing much anymore.

"He kept us loose, kept us pumped up," catcher Pat Borders said. "You can't compete with his mouth."

Or, still, his knack of turning losers to winners.

He met the team--consisting entirely of players that big league teams couldn't use in September--only a month ago.

He dredged up a starting lineup containing two serious major league prospects.

Yet of their eight tournament victories, two came on walk-off homers in the bottom of the final inning.

Another occurred after a grand slam in the eighth.

Another with two tiebreaking runs in the eighth.

In Wednesday's finale, the U.S. team scored three runs in the fifth after Lasorda loosened up the Cuban fielders with a bunt and a hit-and-run.

Dust off photos of anonymous Italian singers. Completely remove the manager's office. Hire a translator.

Lasorda is back, and the cliches spring forth like geysers.

"This whole tournament, everybody picked everybody else up," outfielder Mike Neill said. "That was our theme."

Together, they also temporarily restored Lasorda's image to that of the days before he resigned because of health reasons in 1996.

For all of his bluster, it seems the guy can apparently still get people ready to play.

"Today, the first pitcher for Cuba threw 93 miles an hour, the next pitcher threw 97, and the last pitcher threw 100!" Lasorda screamed at a postgame news conference. "And yet these guys beat them!"

The players seated around him howled.

"I'm ready to go out and play again," Borders said.

Lasorda began the tournament by telling his players, "You guys are going to make history."

Yet after his rhetoric about beating the Cubans on behalf of all Miami exiles so jolted his players, several lost their focus and behaved badly in a 6-1 defeat last weekend.

They needed to act more professionally if they were to have a chance in Wednesday's rematch. Lasorda pleaded for this change. They listened.

He then chose the correct starting pitcher in future Milwaukee Brewer starter Ben Sheets, who shut down Cuba on three hits.

Lasorda's final job was to pass along a few signs and cheer like it was 1988. He's still good at that.

"This was better than 1988," Lasorda said. "This means more."

Ignore half of what you hear. Smile at the other half. Sigh if you must.

Like it or not, Tom Lasorda is back, maybe for a month, maybe for six months, however long this golden jolt lasts.

He was so excited when officials at the medal ceremony raised our flag Wednesday, he suddenly removed his hand from his heart and pointed toward it.

It was sort of nice. But let him tell you.


Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address:

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