Santa, er, Lasorda, brings cheer to kids in hospital
Robert is 13, lying on his back in a room on the third floor of Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA. He’s a victim of “bad luck,” his doctor says, the only explanation mankind apparently can come up with to explain his lymphoma.
He is dealing with the most intense dosage of chemotherapy the experts can deliver, and has been doing so for some time now.
There are patches of hair here and there on his young head, a curtain drawn to separate his space from the next sick child, his mother at his side and Tom Lasorda standing at the end of his bed, holding the youngster’s big toe and shaking it back and forth while exhorting the youngster to proclaim his love for the Dodgers.
“I’m going to send you a Dodger T-shirt, you put that shirt on, and you’re going to feel better, you’re going to feel stronger, you’re going to love the Dodgers,” he’s almost shouting, and the kid can’t lift his head, but he’s grinning.
IT BEGINS with a wager. The Dodgers are seven games out of first place and still playing Kenny Lofton every day, and Lasorda insists the Dodgers are going to win the division.
“And if they do,” he says, “I get to write your column for a day.”
And if they don’t, he agrees, he will buy $1,000 in toys and play Santa Claus at the kids’ Christmas party. If only Lasorda lived on 34th Street, because Lasorda writing out a check would really be the “Miracle on 34th Street.”
The Dodgers finish second because of tiebreakers, but instead of talking his way out of it, Lasorda says, “ho, ho, ho.”
TWO HOURS before Santa’s official arrival Tuesday night at the John Wooden Center, Lasorda stops by the pediatric cancer ward to visit those too ill to party. He shakes hands with the extraordinary Dr. Kathleen Sakamoto, and immediately launches into a story.
“So this guy goes to the hospital, the doctor tells him there’s nothing wrong with him, he leaves and drops dead,” Lasorda says, everyone standing just outside the hallway leading to the rooms of some of the sickest kids in Southern California. “They tell the doctor the man is dead and he says, ‘Turn him over so it looks like he’s just arriving.’ ”
As uplifting introductions go, it could use some work, but Lasorda is laughing. And now he’s moving from room to room, oblivious to the machines and the gloomy mood at times hanging in the air.
“Who do you love?” he says to a 3-year-old attached to tubes and who has no idea why the old man is talking to him. “Dodgers. Dodgers. Say ‘Dodgers.’ You can do it.”
He passes a nurse’s station and begins singing, “Here comes Santa Claus,” and then darts into a room without any clearance, any warning or any idea who might be inside.
“Who do you love?” he says. “Dodgers. Dodgers. Say ‘Dodgers.’ ”
DR. NOAH FEDERMAN is talking about the day when a youngster and his family learn life will never be the same, the day they are told they will be dealing with something like cancer or leukemia.
“You have 13 and 14-year-old kids who believe they are invincible and all of a sudden it’s the end of the world for them,” he says.
A moment later, Steve Soboroff, who donated a lot of money here in the name of the Clippers, emerges from a youngster’s room and it’s obvious that, emotionally, he is spent.
“I have five children and I can’t ...” he says, and no, he can’t continue -- until Lasorda walks by whistling, looking for the next patient to brow-beat into believing in the Dodgers.
Does any of this blubber and blarney make a difference, someone wants to know, and Federman mentions Mario.
“No one could get the kid to say a word and Eric Gagne visits him two years ago, shows him the secret to his changeup, sends him a jersey and the kid just lights up,” Federman says. “He was so sick, and now he’s running around like any other teenager getting in trouble. Yeah, I believe it makes a difference.
“There are more positive results than you’d think ... you’ll see kids running up and down the hall as soon as they start feeling better.”
A few feet away the voice is unmistakable. It’s some other poor kid’s turn to smile. “Who do you love? Come on, you can say it....”
THE MAN has a broad face and a little round belly, a right jolly old soul, and yeah, everyone is laughing as he puts on his Santa suit -- despite themselves.
He’s trying to suck in all that pasta buildup with his assistant, Colin Gunderson, playing the role of elf, and trying to tighten Santa’s black belt. It’s sweaty hot and Lasorda is putting on fur, then a wig, making him the obvious choice to play Martha Washington if they make the movie.
Two-hundred kids, all contending with cancer the past year, greet Santa when he takes his throne. It’s obvious Santa likes sitting on a throne.
The line seems endless, but Santa takes his time with each kid, while a backup Santa sits in a back room ready to relieve. Half an hour goes by, an hour, and Lasorda refuses to leave.
“A couple of kids came to me,” he says later, “and I just wanted to cry, but gosh, I was having fun out there.”
All kinds of donors have helped to make the party better for the kids and cover the $20,000 fee for renting the place. There are games and music, and bags loaded with gifts for each child.
Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti stops by and says, “I think I’m going to sit on Santa’s lap and ask for a power hitter.” Once again doing more than Bill Stoneman.
Actress Alyssa Milano sits on Santa’s lap, and when she leaves, Santa stands and begins dancing. Santa deserves a gift once in a while, too.
An announcement is made that Santa will take a break, but Lasorda ignores it. He reaches for another kid, at a time when most 79-year-olds might’ve been reaching for the Motrin.
Two hours later every kid in the room has had time with Santa, and the backup Santa remains in full costume on a bench in the back, the call to the bullpen never coming.
It’s been the performance of a lifetime -- for those fortunate to witness what one happy night can mean to some kids and parents -- and Santa is dripping with sweat, exhausted and hunched over while sitting half out of costume. All that’s left for Santa now are a couple of cold pieces of pizza and hot dogs.
In a matter of seconds they are gone, Santa already making sure that when it comes to shaking his belly next year, he’s in shape to do so.
T.J. Simers can be reached at
email@example.com. To read previous columns by Simers, go to latimes.com/simers.