SYDNEY, Australia - The baseball competition in the 2000 Summer Olympics is a hoot. And the biggest hoot is Tom Lasorda, back in the dugout at age 72 and blowing enough smoke to blot out the sun.
Aussie baseball crowds cheer the loudest for foul balls and get play-by-play over the public address system from an announcer who says, "It's the top of the fourth innings, mates." About a third of the fans know to rise after the top of the seventh and sing "Tike My Ewt to the Bull-Gime." (Local pronunciation.) A slaughter rule keeps the blowouts from getting too far out of hand.
Cuba, Japan and Lasorda's merry band of U.S. minor-leaguers are the medal favorites, and the Americans ran their record to 2-0 last night with an 11-1 win over overmatched South Africa at a makeshift suburban park with maybe 1,000 seats, too small even for a spring training game. The big surprise was that Lasorda didn't dedicate the win to the anti-apartheid movement.
The Hall of Fame manager has already loosed enough chest-pounding hooey and patriotic jabber to last until the Olympic Park flame is extinguished, and the Sydney Games are just getting started. If they gave out medals for hot air, he'd have one locked up.
The Olympic baseball stage? "Bigger than major-league baseball, bigger than the World Series," Lasorda said.
His team of no-names? "If you don't love these guys, you don't love Christmas," he said.
Saturday's game with Cuba? "We want to beat those guys for all those Cubans [exiles] living in Miami and the rest of the U.S."
Why? Why not?
And Thursday's game against Italy on Lasorda's 73rd birthday?
"Isn't that ironic?" he said. "Italy, the country that gave my father life. The father who brought me and my four brothers into this world and sat around the kitchen table and told us in his broken English how proud we should be of being Americans. We'll give Italy a present that night for my birthday. We'll score 20 runs on 'em."
OK, so he isn't an international sportsman. But it's all just good-natured and harmless fun, a schlocky, show-bizzy throwback amid the speedy hum of an Internet-powered Olympics. He's signing autographs, posing for pictures, doing everything but juggling balls and singing on the street in the name of promoting baseball. Joey Bishop could play him if they made the movie, borrowing lines from George C. Scott in "Patton."
"I'm having a hell of a time," he said last night. "But we're here to win for the United States of America."
He hadn't put on a uniform since retiring from the Dodgers because of a heart ailment four years ago, and he campaigned openly for the Olympic job, expecting major-league front offices to arm him with top prospects for Australia. Instead, those prospects were called up to the majors and Lasorda was left to make due with a roster comprising mostly Crash Davis clones.
"I was disappointed," Lasorda said.
But not anymore. Give him two years with these guys, he said, and he'd win the World Series. That's right, the World bleeping Series.
"I love these guys," he said. "They play hard and tough. And they aren't going to be like those [U.S.] hockey players [who tore up hotel rooms at the Nagano Winter Olympics]. We will represent the country with the highest degree of dignity."
He's from the old school of managers, the ones who could talk their way into or out of anything, even when they didn't believe what they were saying, which was about half the time. Earl Weaver was from that school. So was Sparky Anderson, who once interrupted a rambling pre-game soliloquy, smiled at his audience and said, "Am I stacking it up today or what?"
That's what Lasorda is doing in Sydney. Stacking it up, baby.
But it's funny, you can almost see his players starting to believe as he rattles on about God, country and baseball, throwing out everything short of Ronald Reagan's "Gipper" speech - and who knows, that might come tomorrow.
"He's the same as he always was," said Pat Borders, a former major-league catcher and one of the few recognizable names on the U.S. team. "He'll talk to anyone, even people he doesn't know. He'll talk to a post. With us, he's been very encouraging. And it works."
He was in a ballpark without seats behind home plate last night, probably not what he expected from the Olympic stage. It was so quiet you could hear cell phones ringing. A softball game up the street drew a larger crowd. The 10-run slaughter rule ended the game after South Africa's at-bat in the top of the seventh.
This was bigger than the World Series?
"Millions and millions of people are watching," Lasorda said as he stood on the field, rubbed his belly and autographed balls for several South African players after the game. "I'm having fun. The food is great. I'm just trying to help, trying to get the guys believing in themselves. Everyone wants to play their best game against us because it's baseball and they want to beat the United States."
He paused. Then he was all but shouting. Giving a new audience a show.
"And if there's one thing I know," he said, "the United States doesn't want to get beat."