Monday, August 4, 1997
Lasorda takes center
stage once again

The Cincinnati Enquirer

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. - Frank Sinatra was a no-show. When they introduced "The Chairman of the Board" at the Baseball Hall of Fame inductions, it was a cue for Whitey Ford, not Old Blue Eyes.

On the day he was admitted to baseball's shrine, Tommy Lasorda's show biz entourage consisted entirely of "one of the great actors in the history of Hollywood," Tony Danza. The more beautiful people must have been preoccupied. Don Rickles, evidently, was indisposed. The celebrity jock sniffers who helped create the Lasorda caricature were conspicuous by their absence Sunday afternoon. They left the retired Los Angeles manager a stage to himself, and for a few disorienting moments it was possible to believe Lasorda was not one half ham, the other half baloney.

The Big Dodger In The Sky got the day off. The mouthiest manager of modern times stood before a microphone and a willing audience and for once actually laid it on thin. The over-under had been two hours, but Lasorda's speech stopped at 12 minutes. The greatest honor in American sports is also the most humbling.

"This is a miracle. . .the greatest thing that ever happened to me in my lifetime,," Lasorda said. "I feel that it won't be too long before my mother will be shaking me and saying, 'Wake up, Tommy, it's time to go to school.' I am living a dream."

For all his bluster, the heavy-handed hugs and the contradiction between his on-camera cheerfulness and off-camera vulgarity, Tommy Lasorda has been mighty hard to hate. He might have gravitated to glamour, but at heart he was always a grunt, striving simply to spend another day at the ballpark.

"I never thought I'd be in the Hall of Fame," he said Sunday. "Are you kidding me? I was just trying to hold on."

Lasorda's Hall of Fame plaque points out that he was the fourth manager to run the same club for 20 years, but this statistic misses the essential man. The rich and famous Tommy Lasorda was made possible by the guy who started filling out lineup cards for $7,000 per season in rookie league.

The money would get better, but Lasorda's basic attitude is unchanged after 48 years in the Dodgers' organization. He was a career grinder who never seemed to see his job as a grind. At 70 years old, Tommy Lasorda continues to convey the unbridled joy of a child en route to the circus.

Sparky Anderson is the salt of the earth. Lasorda is a pinch of paprika.

"If there's ever been an ambassador for the game of baseball," Phil Niekro told him Sunday, "you are it."

Niekro, the esteemed knuckthe induction platform. Also enshrined, albeit posthumously, were Chicago White Sox second baseman Nellie Fox and Negro Leagues infielder Willie Wells. The audience included 34 previous inductees, notably the ailing Ted Williams and the ageless Stan Musial, who played "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" on a harmonica.

The featured speaker, though, was indisputably Lasorda, the kid the Dodgers once cut in order to keep Sandy Koufax. He recounted asking Pee Wee Reese if he was not the least likely member of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers to manage a World Series winner.

"He said, 'No, you're wrong,' " Lasorda said. "I said, where would you have put me?' He said, 'Twenty-fourth.' I said, 'Who would you have 25th?' He said, '(Sandy) Amoros. He couldn't speak English.' " Truth or fiction? Does it matter? When Tommy Lasorda's involved, you go in assuming the anecdotes are exaggerated, and you invariably leave laughing.

"A few years ago, we were playing in Cincinnati," he said. "I got up Sunday morning and I went to church. And who came in and sat right next to me but the manager of the Cincinnati Reds, Johnny McNamara. I knew why he was in church and he knew why I was there.

"At the conclusion of the mass, we walked out the center aisle together. I thought, 'Man, I've got to beat this guy today.' As we approached the front door, he said to me very quietly, 'Wait for me outside, Tommy, I'll be right out.' "

As the story goes, McNamara stopped to light a candle. Lasorda claims he then blew the candle out.

"I knew he was not lighting that candle for a dead relative," Lasorda said. "All through the game I kept hollering, 'Hey, Mac, it ain't going to work. I blew it out.' And we clobbered 'em, 13-2." Small wonder the Hollywood crowd stayed home Sunday. Tommy Lasorda is a tough act to follow.