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T.J. Simers

He's a jolly old sort, with an appetite for life

September 24, 2006|T.J. Simers

TOM LASORDA has spent a lifetime preparing for this role, which explains why we're sitting in Paul's Kitchen in downtown Los Angeles, enough food in front of us to feed the entire Dodgers roster, but then Santa Claus must eat, you know, to keep his figure.

If the Dodgers do not win the division title, Lasorda has agreed to buy $1,000 worth of toys, dress as Santa and pass them out to the kids at Mattel Children's Hospital at UCLA.

Who better to play the part than Lasorda, his eyes -- how they twinkle. Ask anyone who has met him and they will tell you, he has a broad face and a little round belly.

They might even say he was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf, and just like me when I saw him pictured with all those mini Mickey Mouses, I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself.

I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he believes Santa Claus is alive and well, prompting him to tell the story about the time he struck the old guy out while pitching for Brooklyn. After all, there is nothing but blue snow, as you know, at the North Pole. Just ask Lasorda.

This week the L.A. icon celebrated his 79th birthday, his protege, Bobby Valentine, arranging to send 79 fruit baskets to Lasorda's home because years ago Lasorda told his players, "I'm busting my behind to make you guys better so you can make a lot of money, and you guys wouldn't even buy me a basket of fruit."

Valentine contacted 79 of Lasorda's friends, had them write messages to Lasorda -- some sappy, some funny -- then attached each one to a basket that contained more toys than fruit, which have now been donated to Mattel Children's Hospital.

"When you come to a fork in the road," wrote Yogi Berra, "use it to eat pasta."

"You taught me how to play the game and you made me love the game," wrote Billy Buckner. "You were like a father to me.... "

"Although you told me long ago in Dodgertown I would never amount to more than a batboy," wrote Brian Cashman, former Dodger batboy and now general manager of the New York Yankees, "at age 39, I already have twice as many World Series rings as you, and counting! Oh, by the way, here's your fruit basket."

Lasorda was beaming, as he spoke and chewed at the same time, the messages a confirmation he's loved by some of the people that count the most to him. It's the same thing he felt, he said, when the fans in Dodger Stadium gave him an appreciative ovation Friday night for his birthday.

He's back, all right, and although it might seem like he never left, it wasn't that long ago that the Dodgers asked him to dress in the minor league clubhouse in Vero Beach, while making the point of not including him in personnel meetings.

Bob Daly was running the Dodgers, and for five years, "he never once asked me about a player," Lasorda said, admitting, "it hurt."

The Dodgers all but banished him to Japan, Lasorda in his mid-70s making 25 trips in four years to the other side of the world. He might be full of bluster, and have as many stories as he draws breaths, but pushed to the background, the public never heard him complain. And no, he never thought about ending his Dodgers career.

"I figured it was their problem, not mine," Lasorda said. "They're the ones who should have been concerned, because I could've helped them. Why not just go home? I'll tell you why, I wanted to show everybody I still had the ability to win."

When the McCourts bought the Dodgers, they couldn't do anything right with one exception -- embracing Lasorda. He now calls them great owners, which starts an argument, although it doesn't keep him from polishing off the orange chicken.

"When they hit those four home runs the other night to tie the game, I was so happy for Frank and Jamie," Lasorda said. What did they do, he was asked, other than get the loan to buy the Dodgers? What do you say to that?

Kids, believe me, Santa Claus doesn't usually use language like that.

IT'S AMAZING how holly-jolly Lasorda has remained; in his world, the Dodgers are always going to win. Nothing publicly seems to shake him, including the death of his son, Tom Jr., 15 years ago this summer.

"I think about him every day," Lasorda said, "but I made up mind when it happened that I wouldn't bring that to the ballpark with me. I put on the happy face."

He still does, even with his wife of 56 years, Jo, undergoing treatment for breast cancer, having both knees replaced, a pair of surgeries on her back and two more on her ankles over the last six years, and all the time Lasorda waving to the fans and speaking to any group that will have him.

An Ohio church lost its boiler, and Lasorda was asked whether he could help, so he flew there and raised money to buy a new one. It's now known as "The Tommy Lasorda Boiler Room." Two nuns came to L.A. this week from Ann Arbor, Mich., to meet Lasorda, and, of course, got a dinner invitation.

"If you listen to him talk, he's not going to talk about anything that doesn't keep him up," Jo said. "I'm just so thankful he still has baseball, and can do what he loves to do, because he's not handy around the house and from what I can tell, he's even forgot how to screw in a light bulb."

He's forgot more, as the saying goes, than most folks will ever know about baseball, and so watching the Dodgers recently, deep down he probably knows he better start growing a white beard.

I know this, for his birthday he was eating ice cream cake at 3:30, Chicago-style cheesecake at 6:30 and cake again at 11:30 -- just to make sure there's no need for padding and the kids really do get a belly that shakes like a bowl full of jelly.

*

T.J. Simers can be reached at t.j.simers@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Simers, go to latimes.com/simers.

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