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He’s Baaaack

Special to The Times

How many times has he told the story?

How many times has Tom Lasorda pointed out that this former left-handed pitcher who would make only six starts in the big leagues and who was merely another name among the 600 or so alphabetized into the old barracks at the Dodgers’ training base in Vero Beach has emerged over the years as the last one standing?

The ultimate survivor, Lasorda has often suggested, and who can argue?

Who can debate his point, especially now, at 78, amid the ever-increasing chaos and instability at Dodger Stadium, he firmly has his feet on the ground, his fingerprints on the evolving events, his face again that of an organization lacking a general manager and manager as the critical free-agent season begins.

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It’s remarkable.

After seven years of seemingly forced exile by the Fox ownership, shipped to the rookie league to give his Dodger Blue spiel to the system’s youngest players or to Japan for ambassadorial appearances with the Kintetsu Buffaloes, sent almost anywhere, the perception was, to get him out of the executive offices and the executives’ hair, the ultimate survivor has emerged at the ear, so to speak, of the new owners -- and there is no point in Lasorda’s trying to downplay his revived role.

There was no use Saturday, as Frank McCourt officially announced the firing of General Manager Paul DePodesta, for Lasorda to rant on as he did about Ken Rosenthal, the Sporting News columnist who wrote recently that Lasorda had been sniping about DePodesta while often sitting next to McCourt at games. Lasorda denied it and labeled the respected Rosenthal a liar as he emerged from his front-row seat at the news conference, but who is to say that sniping to one person doesn’t simply represent advice to another?

After all, before Lasorda aimed his invectives at Rosenthal, McCourt pretty much acknowledged that the ultimate survivor has been his primary advisor, a great help, the owner said, since he purchased the team.

“I appreciate his advice and counsel,” McCourt said. “I encourage it. I named him special advisor to the chairman last year, and it wasn’t just a title.

“I want to know what he’s thinking. This is a man with almost 60 years of baseball experience, someone who truly, truly loves the organization.

“Shame on me if I don’t reach out to Tommy and say, ‘What do you think?’ ”

If speculation turns to reality, if Orel Hershiser moves into the front office as a GM in training and Bobby Valentine becomes the manager, Lasorda’s reach will have applied a stranglehold on the organization.

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Hershiser, of course, was Lasorda’s bulldog, his pet ace, during the period in which Hershiser pitched for and Lasorda managed the Dodgers.

It was Lasorda who joined McCourt and Hershiser at an introductory dinner the other night and it seems likely, at some point, that there have been casual, if back-channel, conversations between friends, conversations in which Lasorda might have suggested to Hershiser a road map for his return to the Dodgers.

As for Valentine, he and Lasorda have been even tighter for even longer. As a young player with the Dodgers, Valentine lived with Lasorda and his wife for a time, a second son. At a news conference in Cooperstown when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, Lasorda was asked who his choice for a manager would be and he emphatically answered Valentine. Whether or not Lasorda was delivering a behind-the-back shot at Bill Russell, his former shortstop and successor as Dodger manager, for bruising his ego by not laying out a clubhouse welcome mat, it definitely underscored his ongoing regard for Valentine.

How this now plays out, who fills the vacancies, isn’t certain, but it’s almost impossible to bet against Hershiser and Valentine with Lasorda back in a seat of power.

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Has Lasorda already made that recommendation to McCourt, suggesting as well the hiring of veteran executive Pat Gillick as tutor to Hershiser?

“It’s very clear to me that Tommy will tell me exactly what he thinks,” McCourt said. “He will give me his very best advice ... and if I decide to do something else, he’ll respect that. We keep our conversations to ourselves, however.”

If the two years of chaos under Frank and Jamie McCourt have already surpassed the seven under Fox, if the firing of DePodesta with three years left on a bloated and ill-conceived contract seems bizarre timing considering that he was allowed to initiate a managerial search and finish off three days of organization meetings, the owners have at least illustrated again that they are willing to swallow their mistakes.

At some point, however, indigestion sets in.

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At some point, the McCourts need to look in the mirror and let one of the people they have hired play out a blueprint.

All we know now is that the ultimate survivor will be doing a lot of the diagraming.


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