Lasorda's place in history remains secure

July 14, 1991|By John Strege | John Strege,Orange County Register

Fourteen seasons have passed in his unlikely but not unremarkable career, and it might be said Tom Lasorda virtually has done it all. He has run the gamut, from A to Y.

It was little more than a hour before his 15th season was to begin and Lasorda was working on some Z's. The Dodgers' manager was asleep in the visitors clubhouse at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta. Lasorda asleep? A man of boundless energy, he had spent the previous 14 years in perpetual motion. He deserved a snooze.

Besides, Lasorda by now can rest assured his place in baseball history is secure. Cooperstown beckons, conceivably inside two years. As for whatever else the future holds for Lasorda, they can't take away his past, and two World Series championships, four National League pennants and six NL West titles, and

perhaps another of each come October, represent a sizable down payment on baseball immortality.

"Considering his contributions to baseball and his record, he would be an active candidate," said Edward Stack, president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

It might seem premature to consider where an active manager will fit into historical perspective, but suffice to say Lasorda has passed the middle of his tenure and the journey is winding down. In two months, he will celebrate his 64th birthday. Lasorda's predecessor, Walter Alston, retired at 64.

Lasorda has given no indication retirement is imminent, and, if there are varying degrees of a specific age, it is safe to say Lasorda is a young 63. His weight is down, his energy is up and his enthusiasm has not waned.

"I really don't know how long I'll do this," he said from his Fullerton home the other day. "I have two thoughts in my mind. One is I'm enjoying myself. I love my job, and I work awfully hard at it. And as long as Peter [O'Malley, the Dodgers' president] and Fred [Claire, the executive vice president] want me to do it, I'll do it. If they ever decide there's somebody better for the job, then I'll leave."

Future failures or successes will not appreciably alter Lasorda's place in baseball history. The All-Star break, meanwhile, is a time of reflection, and with Lasorda's Dodgers occupying first place in the NL West, it is an opportune time to begin discussing his legacy.

4 Forget his 0-4 record as a major-league pitcher.

The place to start is 1976, when Lasorda was the Dodgers' third-base coach. By then, it had become apparent that he eventually would manage in the major leagues. The question was where.

"I met with him in Denver in 1976 before we appointed our manager," said John McHale, then the Montreal Expos' general manager. "We made a proposal to him, and he was very interested in it."

Denver was a crossroads for Lasorda. Had he accepted the Expos' offer, the world might never have known Lasorda as intimately as it does today. The '77 and '78 Expos were hapless. They finished 26 and 14 games out of first in the NL East, performances that might have proven fatal to a young, unproven manager.

"We came as close to getting him as his trip back to Los Angeles, where I think he received enough assurances from Peter O'Malley that he was going to be their manager in a very short period of time," McHale said. "He definitely was our man, and we wish we'd have had him. But as it all turned out, it was the right thing for him to do."

On Sept. 29, 1976, a few days after Alston announced he was retiring, Lasorda was appointed the Dodgers' manager. And the rest, as they say, is history.

"His brother Eddie said to me once, 'What in the world did you see in Tommy?' " former Dodgers general manager Al Campanis said. "He's asking me?"

What Campanis had seen was a young man with enough determination to overcome anything but an inadequate left arm that was strong enough only to hold him back, to keep him from fulfilling his dream of pitching regularly in the major leagues. What Campanis had seen was moxie.

"He had a way about him," Campanis said. "When he was managing in the rookie league [Pocatello, 1965], he'd send letters inviting us to the Stadium Club to watch his club. He had no Stadium Club, of course."

Lasorda made them pay attention, and now, 14-plus seasons into his major-league managerial career, he is impossible to ignore, the most colorful, enduring character the game has known since Casey Stengel.

"I had no idea it would ever come to this," said Buzzie Bavasi, the Dodgers' general manager in the '50s and '60s. "He was a very good manager with the minor-league clubs. But I didn't think he had that type ability to motivate older players."

Lasorda ranks 26th on the all-time list in victories with 1,232. He ranks 27th in games managed with 2,294. He will be eligible for the Hall of Fame as early as September 1992 in the unlikely event he retires following this season. To be elected, managers must be retired five years, unless they are 65, in which case they need only to be retired for six months.

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