Top Dodger in show biz--one part fun, two parts biz
New York — Tom Lasorda is show biz all the way - a veritable walking media event - but don't let the laugh-a-minute act fool you. Underneath the patter is a very serious and dedicated baseball man.
You don't put in 32 years with one organization, finally get the job of managing the parent club, and then lead it into three World Series in five years without knowing something about the game.
But the effervescent pilot of the Los Angeles Dodgers also knows that baseball is entertainment as well as sport - and what better stage could there possibly be than the World Series? So of course he was ''on'' from the moment he stepped onto the field before the opening game.
''This is the place to be - the fall classic!'' Lasorda exulted as he made his entrace into the midst of a small army of reporters at Yankee Stadium. And for the next hour or so, you couldn't turn him off as he greeted old friends, kidded rival players and coaches, and spouted a seemingly endless stream of anecdotes and one-liners.
''New York, New York,'' he said. ''It's such a great town they had to name it twice.''
How did he like the cold weather in Montreal, where the Dodgers were forced to the five-game limit and detained an extra day by rain before beating out the Expos for the National League pennant in wintry temperatures?
''I wasn't going to worry unless it snowed in our dugout and not theirs,'' he said.
Was he surprised that third baseman Ron Cey returned to action so much sooner than expected after an arm injury?
''He's amazing,'' Lasorda said. ''They said he was talking to his arm. That was OK with me, but I would have started worrying if he told me it talked back.''
And of course there were the memories, for before his managerial career Lasorda was a pitcher for nearly 15 years in the old Brooklyn Dodgers organization.
''I pitched in this park once in the old city series in 1955,'' he recalled. ''It was what I had dreamed about ever since I was 10 years old, and there I was - the big crowds, the stadium, two on, two out, and the batter was Yogi Berra. So what happened?
''Aw, I don't want to tell you that I got Yogi Berra out,'' he said with mock seriousness. ''A great hitter like that - a Hall of Famer. That would demean him if I told you that a Humpty Dumpty like me got him out. I don't want people to hear about that!''
Lasorda has played this act before, of course, as manager of Dodger teams that lost to the Yankees in both the 1977 and '78 World Series, and the questions turned eventually to those classics.
''I remember all those great plays by Graig Nettles, but we have a game plan for this series,'' Lasorda kidded. ''We just won't hit it at him.''
Ironically, though, that's exactly what the Dodgers did in the opener, and the Yankee third baseman turned in a deja vu performance of his dazzling 1978 show to help preserve a 5-to-3 New York victory.
''I can't understand Nettles,'' Lasorda deadpanned afterward. ''The guy keeps making plays like that against us, but when I sat next to him at a baseball dinner one night he dropped his fork three times!''
But Lasorda has his serious moments, too.
''I love this game,'' he said. ''I've always loved it. I was a third-string pitcher on my high school team and I made it to the major leagues. How many guys do that?''
Well, not very many - which gives you some idea of the determination and perseverance he had even as a youngster. He turned out to be a pretty good pitcher, too (he still holds the International League record for career wins with 125), but in an era when there were fewer big league players and when his organization always had more than its share of the good ones, he only got to the big leagues briefly for parts of three seasons.
''I started thinking about managing in my last couple of years as a player,'' he said. ''I knew I wanted to stay in the game some way.''
After retiring as a player in 1960 Lasorda scouted for the Dodgers for five years, managed in the minor league system for seven, and spent four seasons as a coach. Then on Sept. 29, 1976, he was named to replace Walt Alston when the latter retired after 23 years as the Dodger manager.
The team Lasorda inherited had finished a distant second to Cincinnati in each of the previous two years and was generally expected to do so again, but he led it to pennants in 1977 and 1978, and now has made it three in five years.
''I'll always be proud of those first two teams, but I have to say I'm even more proud of this one,'' he said. ''These guys had some times that were really tough, sometimes they were really struggling, and they never quit.
''There's a lot of heart on this team. It proves what I like to say - that it's not always the strongest guy who wins the fight, the fastest guy who wins the race, or the best team that wins the game. It's the one that wants it the most.''
Judged by his long and successful career, that could serve as a pretty good assessment of Tom Lasorda, too