Safe or Out? : O'Malley Has to Make the Call on Lasorda, Who Has Given His Life to the Organization

For his 68th birthday, on Sept. 22, his coaches approached Tom Lasorda and presented him with a leather attache case, the kind businessmen dressed in suits carry to work every day. Not everyone can picture the Dodger manager this way. Millions have never seen him in long pants.

The briefcase being just the size to fit a laptop computer, Lasorda's automatic anecdotal light bulb illuminated, and, volume rising, ever the toastmaster, he said: "Hey, let me tell you what I tell people! I was the first guy ever to put a computer in the dugout.

"We got all the information on all the players in the National League and we put it into the computer. And, whenever we got into a jam, I would ask the computer what to do. And invariably the computer would give me the same answer.

"It said: 'Fire the manager!' "

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Baseball managers get fired at the drop of a cap. Some of them last months, even weeks. But the Dodgers are different. They change managers about as often as they change cities. They have had two in 42 years: Walter Alston and Tom Lasorda. Once asked if he could equal Alston's 23-year career, Lasorda slapped his forehead in mock disbelief, then said he would be thrilled to live 23 more years.

A few weeks into next spring, provided he makes it through the next few days, Lasorda will manage his 3,000th major league game, all for the same team. Managing has been his life. So has baseball. His favorite line is: "I wish we could play 364 days a year, and have Christmas off."

Jo Lasorda once told her husband, or so another of his stories goes, "You love baseball more than you love me."

"Yes," Lasorda would agree, "but I love you more than basketball or football."

Like many in any line of work, a baseball manager has difficulty conceiving himself doing something else. Lasorda's allegiance to the Dodger organization is such that he will abide by Peter O'Malley's decision, whatever it is. Yet there is a part of him that would rather manage some other team than act for the Dodgers in a token role, as consultant or such.

With a week remaining in the season, Lasorda's past and future raced before his eyes, standing on the diamond of Dodger Stadium.

"See that word Dodgers up there?" he asked, pointing high above home plate, beyond the upper deck. "I first came here for a game in 1963, and I sat so high, I could give the blimp pilot a high-five. I sat there and I told my wife: 'One day I will be in that dugout, as manager of the Dodgers.' And 14 years later, I was managing against the Yankees in the World Series.

"And now I stand here, and you know what I'm wonderin'?

"Where will I be, one week from today?"

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From the first weekend of September, when after an afternoon game against Montreal he changed clothes into a samurai kimono to film a spot for Japanese TV, to the present, with his team having been eliminated from the playoffs by the Cincinnati Reds in an equally unlikely fashion, the last month has been seen by many as Lasorda's last stand, potentially as his Waterloo. After 19 years as manager, safe or out?

Lasorda sensed something was up.

"Some guys are saying I'm too old," he said at one point.

He had just been asked if his job was in danger. A Japanese journalist apologized for asking such a stupid question.

"No, no, no, no," Lasorda reassured him. "It's not a stupid question. No."

Later, by winning the division title with a strong finish on the same week he became a grandfather, Lasorda's return seemed considerably more secure. Even amid the team's postseason debris, several Dodger players insisted, in the bright lights of TV cameras, that it was they, not their manager, who were at fault.

Off the record, however, another player in the Riverfront Stadium clubhouse confided to a reporter: "This guy killed us again. It's happened over and over."

Not everyone in the organization thinks Lasorda should stay in the dugout, but saying so publicly could be career suicide.

In a team concept, criticizing someone wearing the same uniform just isn't done. Lasorda naturally could dare anyone critical of him to step forward, the way his mentor Alston once did by challenging the entire team to a fight. But of course Lasorda himself becomes much more outspoken about certain Dodger players after they are no longer Dodgers. This is the nature of sport, of life. It is no different for men who carry briefcases.

During the flap over Mike Busch, the union-busting infielder, Lasorda didn't go public with his disagreement with Dodger players, but said to their faces: "You're supposed to care more about the name on the front of your shirts than the name on the back of your shirts." Many of them, in turn, deeply resented Lasorda's open-armed embrace of strike-breakers in spring camp. The more the season dragged on, the more insiders as well as outsiders wondered whether a long career would continue much longer.

"What do you hear about Lasorda?" a Dodger scout approached a writer to ask in mid-September, out of the blue.

It got to be a hot topic. When O'Malley, who owns the team, was consulted in late September regarding Lasorda's status, he declined to comment. Fred Claire, who as vice president oversees the team in a more hands-on manner, was asked about this frequently, yet he too chose to wait for the season to be over to resolve the situation. The season is over.

Mike Piazza, not only Lasorda's catcher but his cousin's son, spoke plainly: "I don't see a successor right now, a guy that they have put in a role to 'inherit' the position, I guess you'd call it. So, until they figure that out, I don't see Tommy going anywhere."

The part about no obvious successor could be news to Bill Russell, bench coach and manager's apprentice for many a summer. Asked who should succeed him eventually, Lasorda mentions only Russell. He managed a 17-year-old Russell in the Dodger farm system, in Ogden, Utah, in 1966. He says he taught Russell's baby daughter her first word: "Dodger."

Various sources indicate, though, that the Dodgers would canvass many candidates, among them old "members of the family" including Russell, batting coach Reggie Smith, Albuquerque farm club Manager Rick Dempsey, Baltimore Oriole Manager Phil Regan and San Diego Padre coach Davey Lopes, as well as giving consideration for the first time to an exceptional "outsider," along the lines of a Davey Johnson or Tony La Russa.

Making fast progress, moreover, is Mike Scioscia, the former Dodger catcher who has been doing some scouting and coaching. According to Claire, Scioscia laughs off the idea of doing more and says: "Don't rush me." Yet he is clearly a comer.

"Mike will manage at this level," Claire says. "If not for us, then definitely for someone."

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Lasorda's record speaks for itself. The question is, is he as good a manager today as he once was? Has the game changed? Has he changed? Shouldn't the Dodgers have done better in the 1990s, considering all the great rookies who have come along? Is age a factor, or is it age discrimination even to suggest such a thing?

Steve Garvey, one of Lasorda's most valued players, looked at it realistically, late last month. "There always comes a point where time and trends catch up to anybody and everybody. I think if Tom wins this year, it may merit another season. But, you know, we're looking at coming down the 18th fairway here."

Lasorda is no spring-training chicken any more. He keeps long hours. He makes time for everybody; that is his special gift. But it also takes a toll. He naps in his office. He was sound asleep in San Diego recently, sitting up. This doesn't make him a poor manager. But it is hard, demanding work, and Lasorda has been working for the Dodgers now, as player, coach, scout and manager, for 50 years.

Accusations that he sleeps on the job itself, though, make Lasorda furious.

"I never fell asleep on the bench in my life. It's never, ever happened. How can you fall asleep on the bench? I've never even missed a pitch in my life."

Is he still on top of the game? This is less easy to answer.

Former players have all sorts of gripes, that he isn't good with pitchers, or with young players in general, though such complaints are common on any team. The lost art of the hit-and-run is mentioned frequently. A scout for an opponent, after turning in his report before a recent series, was asked why no Dodger hit-and-run plays were charted. "If I'd seen one," the scout replied, "I'd have charted it."

Dozens of players amended any critique of Lasorda with a nod to his experience, success and, inevitably, his sociability.

Night after night, it is Lasorda who pumps the hands of teachers, cops, Little Leaguers, whoever is being honored. Lasorda who autographs baseballs and flips them from dugout to stands. Lasorda who drops in on a 12-year-old in the hospital, shot in a random act of violence.

Todd Benzinger, who spent only one season as a Dodger, said, "Look, Tommy could probably be criticized in a lot of ways, but as one of his former players, when your 6-year-old daughter's favorite uncle is still 'Uncle Tommy,' what are you going to do? In a game filled with all sorts of bull, Tommy was very real with his players and their families. And that's something you never forget."

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A nine-game home stand begins, one that could tip the scales for Lasorda. He stands, hand over heart, for a national anthem performed in center field by a white-bearded singer, Dan Lasagna, a name too good to be true.

Food is a subject closely associated with Lasorda, whether fattening or fasting. Even his first baseman, Eric Karros, tells Jay Leno on television: "That Slim-Fast, it stays in your system, you know? So, on the bench, sometimes you don't want to be sitting next to Tommy, if you know what I mean."

On a day when Lasorda is serving sushi at the movable feast that is his office, pitcher Hideo Nomo pops in, sees the spread and chooses the pasta instead. The manager's day is made. Age hasn't mellowed him. His temper still flares, often real, but other times simply for effect. Lasorda has always been a master at disguising true intent. Peter O'Malley once came to visit him at Ogden, expressing concern at the number of fights on the field. Lasorda assured him that he always was first to yell: "Break it up!" But a player later told O'Malley that when Lasorda yelled, "Break it up!" that was code for: "Keep fighting!"

His is a huge personality, spiced with profanity. Loud, blue profanity.

"You know, I've been married 45 years and I have never used one word of profanity in front of my wife or children," Lasorda says. "I've spoken before thousands of sports banquets, boards of major corporations, never used one word of profanity. But on the baseball field, I am the world's worst.

"I read a thing once, they named the three people who used profanity the most in the history of this country. You know who the three people were? President George Washington, General George Patton and Tom Lasorda. I'm bad. Terrible.

"Billy Buckner once hit a home run off [Mike] Garman, and I start screaming, 'You know that . . . Buckner, that . . . he wants to beat your . . . because you got . . . Dodgers on the . . . front of your . . . uniform!' And Don Sutton jumps up and says, 'That's it! You just broke the all-time record!' They had it counted, I used the word . . . 144 times. We had a team meeting once and I didn't swear and they all applauded. They applauded!"

Lasorda says he has had requests from all over the world for a tape of his X-rated reaction to being asked about Dave Kingman's three-homer game against the Dodgers.

"Oh, I was so mad that night. If there was a . . . security guard there that night with a gun, and I'd have seen Garman, my pitcher, I'd have . . . killed him. And I'd have gone in front of a judge and the judge would have said, 'I don't blame you.' "

*

Fifty years ago, Tom Lasorda made his debut as a Dodger minor leaguer. Forty years ago, he made his only start for the Dodgers, striking out Stan Musial and heaving three wild pitches in one inning.

Thirty years ago, Lasorda managed his first team, in Pocatello, Ida. Twenty years ago, that was his last year as a coach. Ten years ago, he won the division with a record of 95-67, then pitched to Jack Clark and saw the season abruptly end.

At a raffle recently, Lasorda gave away a new Toyota, then grabbed a microphone and shouted to the crowd: "We've had a lot of good times together! And we've had a lot of bad times! But the good times have far exceeded the bad!" He has managed 2,962 Dodger games and could tell each of these people a story about each and every one of them.

The 2,962nd took place Friday night in Cincinnati. The Dodgers lost it, 10-1. Was this the last of Tom Lasorda, good times and bad?

"I wish I knew," he said. "I wish I knew."

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