'What Else Would I Do?' : Lasorda Begins His 20th Season as Manager of the Dodgers, and It's Hard to Believe That It Might Be His Last

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 68-year-old man with bum knees, crooked fingers and a fresh scar from his hernia surgery flies cross-country, jumps into a car for two hours and gets to the Dodger fantasy camp game just in time to pitch.

He pitches the equivalent of 12 innings, permitting only three hits, but gets testy when he steps to the plate and fantasy camper Bruce Palmer strikes him out, then boasts that the strikeout will be duly reported in the book he is writing.

Palmer steps to the plate the next inning and never has a chance. He's drilled in the chest by a fastball.

"Now, put that in your bleeping book," Tom Lasorda screams.

"Man, he takes it seriously, doesn't he?" Palmer asks aloud at the local tavern that evening.

Meet Thomas Charles Lasorda, who is about to manage his 20th season for the Dodgers, with no intention of ever doing anything else.

"I laugh when I hear people say that if the Dodgers go to the World Series, Tommy may just hang them up," former Detroit manager Sparky Anderson said. "You got to be kidding. Tommy?

"I tell you what, if the Dodgers win the World Series, he's going to want to manage another five years. He ain't goin' no place."

Says Jo, Lasorda's wife of 46 years, "He never even talks about retiring. I wouldn't mind him going on as long as he can. Besides, I don't know anyone who can replace him and do what he does."

Lasorda, who has won more games than any other active manager, has led the Dodgers to seven National League West titles, four National League pennants and two World Series championships.

Yet reflecting on 20 years of Lasorda's stewardship is like standing in front of a crazy mirror in the fun house. The image differs drastically, depending on the angle of view. And it is never definitive.

He is considered a managerial genius by some for leading the Dodgers to the 1988 World Series championship with an inferior team, outmanaging Davey Johnson and Tony La Russa along the way. Others consider him little more than the Dodger mascot, who overuses pitchers and chose to pitch to Jack Clark in a crucial situation with first base open during the 1985 playoffs.

In a recent managerial survey by his peers, Lasorda ranked among the worst managers in the league. He was graded high only in motivational skills. But the survey doesn't reflect how many managers downgraded Lasorda because of his personality or out of jealousy.

Get Lasorda talking about the Dodgers and it's like passing a basketball to a shooter with no conscience.

He'll talk about God being a Dodger fan. He'll preach that the Dodgers are the greatest organization. He'll hug his players after a sacrifice bunt.

It's common for managers such as Dusty Baker of the San Francisco Giants to talk freely about Dodger personnel but when it comes specifically to Lasorda, it's best to move on to another subject. It's nothing personal, Baker says, but after playing eight years for Lasorda and now managing against him, he's sick of the preaching.

"I believe in one God in the sky," Baker said. "I don't believe in any blue Dodgers in the sky. One time, I was asked to get on my knees and say, 'I love the Dodgers.' Hey, I get on my knees for God, and that's it."

What no one seems to understand is that this is Lasorda's psych job. Some managers and players become so engrossed with Lasorda's behavior that they lose concentration.

Former pitcher Jim Gott said, "When I was with the Pirates, [Manager] Jim Leyland would work himself into a frenzy, wanting to beat Tommy. He said there was no manager he'd rather beat. Tommy revives that old rivalry.

"He'll scream at you, swear at you, do everything possible just to get a win."

Even when the Dodgers were winning last season, Lasorda was ridiculed for failing to break away from the pack in the National League West. The Dodgers were called underachievers. They finally clinched the division title on the second-to-last day of the season.

In voting for manager of the year, Lasorda's name was omitted from every ballot. The award went to Don Baylor of the Colorado Rockies, whose team had finished a game behind the Dodgers.

"Everybody talks about what a motivator I am, and they never talk about my strategy," Lasorda said. "You know why? It's because I never talk about my strategy. You'll never hear me say, 'We won the game because I did this move or did that move.' The minute I do that, I'm taking the credit. I don't win games, players win games.

"When we are naive enough to think that managers win games, that's when we're in trouble."

So no hard feelings?

"Hey, you didn't have to tell Richard Burton he was a good actor, did you?" Lasorda said.

*

Lasorda doesn't play golf. He doesn't hunt. Doesn't fish. Doesn't bowl. Doesn't go to the racetrack. Never plays tennis. Never skis.

"So if I retired, what would I do?" he says, nearly in a whisper. "I mean, what else would I do?

"Baseball is my life. I love this job. I can't imagine being without it.

"I remember Earl Weaver [former manager of the Baltimore Orioles] once told me, 'You love to manage? I can't stand it.' I don't understand that. How can you quit doing something you love to do?

"If ever a time I managed and felt I kept the team back, hey, then it would be a different story. But I still feel like I can handle the assignment. I still feel I can get players to give their maximum effort."

Still, there are those who hope this is Lasorda's final year. Buzzie Bavasi, former Dodger general manager, believes that Lasorda would assure a Hall of Fame candidacy if he retired after this season. Anderson wants Lasorda to leave on his own terms, instead of being forced out. Jack McKeon, former manager and general manager, says Lasorda should resign immediately after the season and accept a higher calling.

"If baseball was smart, they'd make him commissioner and he'd take care of this game," McKeon said. "Tommy has done more for baseball than any man in this game--John McGraw, Connie Mack, any of them. He's the greatest ambassador this game has ever seen.

"I truly hope this is his last year, and I think it will be, and that they win it all. Maybe then he'll get the credit he deserves. You hear these people talk about Felipe Alou, Bucky Showalter. . . . Hey, what the hell have they ever done?

"Now, you have all of these people who are jealous of Tommy's success, and guys saying that Tommy's a phony, but they don't know. Sometimes, he'll drive me to drink with all of that Dodger blue bull, but that's Tommy. That's the real him. I remember the time he called my house, my sister-in-law answered, and he spent 30 minutes on the phone with her, saying she should root for the Dodgers and not the Padres.

"That's Tommy."

Said Anderson: "I gave him the nickname, 'Walking Ego,' but I love the man. We didn't agree on everything, and we certainly had our differences last year with replacement baseball, but Tommy's never changed. He's full of baloney, but he was full of baloney in the minors too."

It was the replacement-player issue during the strike last spring that brought about Lasorda's most uncomfortable season. He hugged his replacement players as if they were his own during spring training, infuriating the real major leaguers. Then, when the strike was over and replacement player Mike Busch was called up in August and his clubhouse became a sea of hostility, Lasorda remained mum, angering management.

Lasorda secured his job for the 1996 season when the Dodgers won 17 of their last 25 games en route to the division title, but they were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Cincinnati Reds.

"I was surprised he came back, especially with all of the criticism he was taking," Bavasi said. "The club never really backed him. But you ask me, I think last year was his best managing job. It was remarkable.

"Maybe I shouldn't say this, but I wrote to [President] Peter [O'Malley] and said, 'This isn't fair. You didn't get him the men he needed. You've got the worst infield I've seen since the 1936 Dodgers.'

"This year is different. He has the men he wanted. He's got no excuses. If he doesn't do it this year, he may not have another chance."

His image took a beating when he occasionally was caught napping on the bench. Lasorda confessed that it had happened once during a game on ESPN, blaming his fatigue on medication he was taking for his arthritic knees.

When an ESPN commentator ridiculed Lasorda that night on SportsCenter, Lasorda telephoned an executive at ESPN. The executive apologized, promising it would never happen again.

Lasorda, one of the few managers who never misses an early workout, chose to rectify the situation by taking short naps in the afternoon.

"When you come to the Dodgers, you're taught three things," pitcher Tom Candiotti said. "Never embarrass the Dodgers, never talk bad about ownership, and whatever you do, never, ever, ridicule the manager.

"Tommy can wear on you, and last September, he was really losing it, screaming about everything that happened. But you know, as much as we tend to complain about him, he does treat us pretty well.

"I mean, when has he ever ripped one of us in the paper? It's never happened."

The players openly kid Lasorda about his never wanting to be left alone on the road, his hunger for money, his garage full of the TVs and stereos he has received as gifts.

Yet, while Lasorda nearly doubles his salary, earning about $1 million each winter in speaking engagements, Anderson will tell you that no one donates more money to the alumni baseball association. The public relations office will tell you about the hundreds of visits he makes each season to hospitalized children. Banquet circuit habitues will tell you that Lasorda might have the best joke delivery in the country.

Love him or hate him, the man thrives in a business that fires managers as a matter of course.

"We don't always agree on everything, and we have different styles and personalities," said Fred Claire, Dodger executive vice president. "But people fail to understand our personal relationship. There is nothing I wouldn't do to help him, and likewise.

"Baseball has given a lot to Tommy, but Tommy has given so much more. He truly is one of a kind."

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Fast Facts on Lasorda

* Years with Dodgers: 47.

* Years as manager: Entering 20th season.

* Named manager: Sept. 29, 1976, to replace Walter Alston, who retired after managing Dodgers for 23 years.

* Record: 1,558-1,404 (14th on all-time victories list).

* Division titles: 7.

* World Series appearances: 4.

* World Series titles: 2 (1981, 1988).

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