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Lasorda’s place in baseball lore

Special to The Times

In one of the many great stories in “I Live for This! Baseball’s Last True Believer” by Bill Plaschke with Tommy Lasorda, the young Tommy, on his way to a 13.50 ERA with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955, is summoned to the Dodgers executive office. “Tommy, if you were general manager of this team,” asked Buzzie Bavasi, “who would you cut?” Lasorda replied: “I would cut that Sandy Koufax kid.”

That’s the only bad advice Lasorda has offered in more than half a century in big league baseball. Had the Dodgers taken it, it might have cost them four World Series, the two Sandy Koufax pitched them to -- 1963 and 1965 -- and the two Lasorda managed them to -- 1981 and 1988.

It would have also cost baseball its most colorful and quoted manager since Casey Stengel. Not all of Lasorda’s statements have been quoted verbatim, such as his famous response to radio personality Paul Olden after 1970s slugger Dave Kingman hit three home runs to beat the Dodgers. “What is your opinion of Kingman’s performance?” asked Olden. Lasorda expressed his opinion in a statement that set a record for the use of bleeping.

That Lasorda never curses around his family or in public appearances is merely one indication of a character more complex than the caricature often conveyed by the media. Another, which illustrates his remarkable ability to motivate his players, is his practice of screaming at them about points of the game beforehand and letting them down gently after they made mistakes. When Steve Sax was having nightmarish throwing problems, writers asked Lasorda why he wasn’t tougher on his second baseman. “What good would it do to criticize Saxie after the bad throw?” Lasorda shrugged. Through persistence, manager and player worked the problem through.

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When persistence wasn’t enough, Lasorda found other solutions. Pushing the U.S. Olympic baseball team to the gold medal in 2000, he lied to his players about how good they were: “The only chance we had to be great was to believe we were great. At that point, the truth didn’t matter.” He used similar tactics on his bespectacled right-hander, Orel Hershiser, calling him Bulldog. Yet, “the more Hershiser heard it, the more he believed it.” He believed it enough to win the Cy Young Award.

Plaschke, a sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times and three-time Associated Press Sports Columnist of the Year, earns a quality start for outlining Lasorda’s life from a cramped three-story row house in Norristown, Pa., through his rise as an untalented but scrappy pitcher to become the symbol of the Dodgers.

There are enough quips, celebrities (Frank Sinatra stops by Carmella Lasorda’s house to taste mama’s cooking), and baseball stories to serve as an off-season transfusion for those who bleed Dodger blue.

“I Live for This!,” though, is sometimes an uneasy mix of journalism and myth-mongering. Plaschke hints at a possible problem regarding control over content when he writes in the foreword that Lasorda “is an important figure for journalists because he always generates news. But he can also be an impossible figure for journalists because he insists that such news makes him look good.” One can’t argue that Lasorda is “a man of great personality,” but one would also like to see some other witnesses to his claim that “he is also a man of great substance.” Fernando Valenzuela, for one, whom many feel Lasorda sent to early retirement through overwork.

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Loyalty is one of the primary components of Lasorda’s nature -- “Where is the loyalty to the organization where you were raised?” he said after Adrian Beltre left the Dodgers for the Seattle Mariners. “Where is the commitment?” Beltre might reply: “Where was the commitment when my contract came up?”

There is a larger and more delicate issue this book skirts. Tommy Lasorda Jr., estranged from his father, died of AIDS in 1991; he is mentioned briefly in a note from Lasorda at the end: “I would like to acknowledge the memory of my son, ‘Spunky.’ A day does not pass without my thinking of him.” Surely readers want to know exactly what Lasorda thinks about him.

Considering that Plaschke has gotten great material out of Lasorda for years, some hyperbole is expected. Lasorda may be “baseball’s best ambassador” but is he really “the most popular baseball figure in the world”? Still, it’s hard to argue with Lasorda’s own assessment of his place in baseball lore. When asked by broadcaster Vin Scully if it was hard replacing legendary manager Walter Alston, he replied, “No. I’m worried about the guy who is going to replace me.”

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Allen Barra is a sports columnist for the Wall Street Journal.


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