Dodgers '88: A SEASON TO REMEMBER : Lasorda, Longtime Ringmaster of the Dodger Circus, Shows Critics of His Managing That He's No Clown : BLUE GRIT

Times Staff Writer

As a sportswriter, you have to work at being detached. You spend more time with baseball players, from February to October, than with your wife. You see them in success and failure, on public display and in repose, in uniform and underwear.

At the risk of becoming emotionally bankrupt, you harden yourself, remain on the fringe and always remember to reflect rather than participate.

But when the subject is Tom Lasorda, the Dodgers' manager, objectivity disappears as quickly as pasta on his plate.

Sometimes, he is as endearing as your favorite uncle from Montana. You find yourself chuckling at those tired old stories. You've heard them 20 times before. You know you should groan in disapproval. But you can't help but laugh.

Sometimes, though, he is as infuriating as a guy smoking a cigar on an elevator. Such as the time in Plant City, Fla., this spring, when he got chicken spittle all over your shirt during one of his infamous tirades. Or when he emphatically defended Oliver North as an American hero, arguing with the inquisitors on television as if they were umpires who had blown a call.

One thing about Lasorda: He always dominates the room, but rarely receives the credit for the Dodgers' success. Maybe he never stops talking long enough for somebody to give him credit.

What Lasorda did in the 1988 World Series, however, may be one of the overlooked stories in the Dodgers' incredible victory over the Oakland Athletics.

Lasorda's managerial maneuvers and motivational manipulation, as much as anything, are reasons the Dodgers shocked the experts and won the National League West division title, the playoffs and the Series.

He nurtured. He cajoled. He seized upon all the negative comments about his team and used them to his advantage. He juggled his injury-decimated lineup, actually convincing Mickey Hatcher and Mike Davis and Rick Dempsey that they were imbued with some mystical power to impersonate injured Kirk Gibson and Mike Marshall and Mike Scioscia.

Somehow, Lasorda got 24 grown men, who should have known better, to believe they were capable of pulling off perhaps baseball's most stunning upset since the '69 Mets.

Now you know why Lasorda is paid untold thousands for his motivational speeches during the off-season.

If filibustering is all that is needed to take championships, the Dodgers would win every season. But Lasorda, despite the tag he carries of a poor tactician, also outmanaged the Mets' Davey Johnson and the A's Tony La Russa, both considered superior baseball thinkers.

Maybe now, Lasorda's managerial skills, obscured by his bombastic personality, will receive some attention. He has, after all, won 6 divisional titles, 4 National League pennants and 2 World Series championships in 12 seasons.

Lasorda, 61, soon is expected to be named National League manager of the year by a vote of 24 baseball beat writers, who cast ballots before postseason play began. He got my vote simply for guiding the Dodgers to an unexpected division crown, and the playoffs have only confirmed the vote.

Often maligned for curious strategy--who will ever forget pitching to Jack Clark with first base open in the 1985 playoffs?--Lasorda made most of the correct strategic moves this time around.

Knowing that the Dodger offense was weakened by injury, Lasorda employed an aggressive strategy. The Dodgers effectively executed hit-and-run plays, tried for the extra base whenever feasible and went against accepted baseball thinking whenever inspiration struck.

That was never more evident than in last Thursday's title-clinching victory over the A's. Davis, who had hit .196 during the season with just 2 home runs, looked toward third base coach Joe Amalfitano, probably expecting to take the 3-and-0 pitch with Hatcher on first base and the Dodgers clinging to a 2-1 lead.

Instead, Lasorda let him swing away. Davis deposited Storm Davis' pitch into the right-field seats at the Oakland Coliseum, only his fifth home run since the 1987 All-Star break.

Lasorda made mistakes, too. He replaced starter Orel Hershiser with reliever Jay Howell in the ninth inning of the playoff opener against the Mets, and the Dodgers blew a 2-1 lead and lost.

But Lasorda, often criticized about the handling of his bullpen, showed faith in Howell and it eventually paid off. After Howell gave up a game-winning home run to the A's Mark McGwire in the ninth inning of Game 3 of the Series, Lasorda pulled Howell aside and told him he would go with him again in such a situation. It happened the next night in Game 4, and Howell shut down the A's for 2 innings to earn a save.

Lasorda, it seemed, also is not doomed to repeat his mistakes. In Game 5 of the World Series, when Hershiser struggled in the eighth inning, Howell and Alejandro Pena were ready in the bullpen. But Lasorda stayed with Hershiser, perhaps baseball's best pitcher, and that non-move was rewarded, too.

Maybe Lasorda's managerial skills are overlooked because he has become little more than a parody of himself in the eyes of many in the national media.

But what Lasorda pulled off in the playoffs and Series, using everything from a David Cone newspaper column to broadcaster Bob Costas' throwaway remark as motivational fodder, validates his schtick.

However, on the morning after the Dodgers' triumph, amid all the stories chronicling the achievement, the only mention one San Francisco newspaper made of Lasorda was to note how he enjoyed the Bay Area restaurants.

You cringed when you read it, because you realized, perhaps for the first time, that there is more to Lasorda than pasta and schmoozing.

You think back to how Lasorda expertly handled the difficult ego adjustment of Gibson's arrival, soothing his new star while not ignoring his veteran players in the wake of the infamous eye-black practical joke.

You recall how he coddled and cajoled Pedro Guerrero into believing he really could play third base, instead of simply demanding he move there so that the Dodgers could field what he thought was the best possible lineup.

You remember how he stood, au naturel , in a whirlpool bath in Vero Beach, Fla., on the first day of spring training and gave reticent and insecure infielder Jeff Hamilton his A speech about how he would be transformed into another Steve Garvey.

On Thursday night, when you have fewer than 90 minutes to write 2,000 words on the Dodgers' title-clinching victory, your mind is not on Lasorda or any of those nuances.

But you cannot escape him. You are writing and Lasorda's voice is being piped into the press box from an interview room below, an intrusion on your train of thought. He is giving the same don't-go-to-Lourdes, come-see-the-Dodgers speech.

The pitch and timbre of his voice rising, Lasorda exclaimed: "If you believe it, you can achieve it."

Writers from around the nation, weary of Lasorda's slogans, groaned. They wanted the volume muted. They wanted Lasorda off the platform, so they could get to work.

But you smiled. You knew he deserved the stage. He believed it, and the Dodgers achieved it.

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