LIGHTS, CAMERA... TOMMY : LASORDA KNOWS WHEN TO TURN IT ON AND OFF.
``I know, I know for a fact, people say I'm a phony. But what I did, I did from the heart.''
- Tom Lasorda
At 7:30 on a Monday morning, a limousine turned left onto a West Hollywood side street and glided to a stop in front of a tall apartment building. Inside the car, Tom Lasorda was angry.
This wasn't a bellow-at-the-umpire rage. More like an arms-folded-in-the-dugout huff.
``The KTLA Morning News'' had asked Lasorda to meet the limousine in the Dodger Stadium parking lot at 7:30 a.m. for the drive to the home of Bob and Leah Molin, where the former Dodgers manager would deliver on-the-air congratulations to the winners of a trip to his Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Sunday. But then the Channel 5 people changed the departure time to 7 a.m., because they worried about traffic.
As it turned out, there was no traffic, so here was Lasorda, half an hour early for his TV appearance, a 69-year-old bundle of energy forced to sit and wait.
This was a side of Lasorda the public rarely sees but a side as true as Dodger Blue.
``These (TV) people only think of themselves,'' Lasorda said, still grumbling after he was escorted upstairs, where the Molins soothed him with a tray of bagels and a sports section. ``They don't think of the other person.''
Bob Molin, an 80-year-old retired pharmacist and longtime Dodgers season-ticket holder, was sympathetic.
``He's complaining and he's right!'' he said to the small crowd of TV production people in his living room.
Molin's sister-in-law, Sara Maron, who drove from Encino for the big occasion, had less sympathy for the man sitting quietly at the dining table, his head in the box scores.
``To be frank,'' she said, glancing over at Lasorda through a thicket of TV people setting up their shot, ``a little rude.''
``I don't think there are too many people who are in the public eye who are the same on camera as they are off camera.''
- Fred Claire, Dodgers executive vice president
Since he gave up managing the Dodgers after 20 seasons on July 29, 1996, Thomas Charles Lasorda's duty as a Dodgers vice president primarily has been to play Tommy Lasorda in TV appearances, speaking engagements, ribbon cuttings and scouting trips.
It's a larger-than-life character, a role only he could handle. But what happens when the cameras are off, when the crowds go home?
Lasorda always has presented himself to the public as Santa Claus in blue, but can anybody be that lovable 24 hours a day?
There is the public Tommy - flamboyant salesman for the Dodgers and ambassador of baseball. There is the clubhouse Tommy - vain, profane, demanding, defensive, freeloading, self-promoting. And there is the private Tommy - loyal, charitable, introspective, grateful.
That might sound like three different Tommys, but to many of those who played and coached for him, they all fit together.
``During your career, as you grew as a player and a person, he took an interest in your professional and personal life,'' said Dodgers coach and former catcher Mike Scioscia, recalling how his former manager cultivated players' wives and kids. ``I think it's immaterial whether he did it naturally or (if) it was calculated to get the best out of his players.''
Same with Lasorda's public image, as far as Scioscia is concerned.
``I can tell you there have been plenty of times when he'd be out speaking after a tough loss and it couldn't have been easy,'' Scioscia said. ``He had to suck it up a little bit and be part actor. I think it's a testament to what a strong person he is.''
``Sometimes you want to tell him to f--- himself.''
- Someone who worked for the Dodgers when Lasorda was manager
In the apartment, it was 8:10 a.m., the Molins were seated on either side of Lasorda at the table, and they were scheduled to go on the air in 10 minutes. The producer was edgy because Lasorda didn't seem to be paying attention.
``This is the cameraman . . .,'' the producer said by way of introduction.
``Oh! This is the cameraman,'' Lasorda said sarcastically, looking at the man with the camera on his shoulder.
``Tommy, can you push in your IFB?'' the producer said, referring to the earpiece through which Lasorda would hear the Channel 5 anchors.
``Because it's sticking out.''
``So?'' Being difficult.
The producer was telling Lasorda about the contest, how the Molins' postcard was drawn from 2,500 entries, so he'd know what to say.
Lasorda was reading the National League Roundup.
``Sometimes I hear people say he's changed. Tommy was that way when he didn't have a nickel to rub together. That was him. I used to say, `You're full of it.' ''
- Sparky Anderson, a minor-league teammate in the 1950s
Back in Norristown, Pa., Lasorda used to entertain his brothers by imitating the windup of Van Lingle Mungo, the workhorse Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants pitcher of the 1930s and '40s.
That became young Tom's nickname - Mungo.
``He really thought he was Van Lingle Mungo. He really thought he was going to pitch in the big leagues. We thought he was goofy,'' Harry Lasorda said from the Italian restaurant Tom's four brothers run in Exton, Pa. ``When he left (to play in the minor leagues), a lot of people said, `He'll be back.' But he had determination. Tommy, when he put his mind to something, he always got it done.''
When he pitched for the Dodgers' minor-league farm team in Montreal, Lasorda roomed with Don Drysdale.
On rainy days, they would sit in the hotel and make believe.
``We'd take turns,'' Lasorda said. ``He'd say, `Now you're speaking to the Rotary Club. Let me hear what you say.' In turn, he'd do a couple of innings announcing a baseball game.''
Lasorda went on to speak to dozens of Rotary Clubs. Drysdale went on to be a Hall of Fame pitcher and Dodgers announcer.
Lasorda delivered his first speeches in the 1960s, when he was scouting for the Dodgers on the East Coast and the appearances let young players and their parents know he was out there. He wasn't a natural at it, couldn't look the audience in the eye.
Determination. Now he's a natural.
``We've (said), my brothers and I, `How does he turn it on and off like that?' When he's out in the public, once he puts the civilian clothes on, I've never, never heard him use a curse word.''
- Harry Lasorda
At 8:22 a.m., Lasorda straightened his sport coat, sat up straight, broke out a Jolly Saint Nick grin and made the camera his friend.
``Good morning, Barbara and Carlos!'' he said to the anchors. ``I'm sitting here in West Hollywood with two special people . . .
``I think 3,000 people sent in cards to this contest, and I can honestly say this from the bottom of my heart, it couldn't have happened to two nicer people . . .
``Let me say with all the sincerity I have,'' he said to Bob and Leah, ``that I hope you have many more years of health and happiness . . .''
Charming as could be.
By 8:26, the TV thing was over, Lasorda was saying his goodbyes to the Molins, leaving behind an autographed baseball, and the Channel 5 people were thanking him for a flawless performance.
When the red light is on, Lasorda always shines.
``Tommy has one weakness - kids.''
- Bill Russell
Some of the best moments in the Lasorda legend happened when there were no crowds or TV cameras around.
A boy in Houston, a great high school athlete and a Lasorda fan, was comatose and unresponsive after a car crash. His dad phoned Lasorda when the Dodgers were in town.
Lasorda went to the hospital and, leaning over the bed, said, ``Willie, this is Tom Lasorda, if you can hear me, blink your eyes.'' Willie blinked.
Lasorda delivered a religion-laced pep talk that challenged the boy to get back on his feet by the time the Dodgers returned to Houston later in the season.
A few months later, an Astrodome clubhouse guard asked Lasorda to come to the door. There was Willie on a walker. Lasorda went back into the clubhouse, assembled all of his players, and had them give Willie a standing ovation when he walked in.
The other, similar cases:
The San Jose schoolboy baseball star, disabled in an accident, who learned to run again after Lasorda said he could be the Dodgers' batboy for a game against the San Francisco Giants.
The Atlanta kid, paralyzed in a spring-break accident, who was so depressed he wouldn't even talk to his doctors until he got the Tommy treatment.
Those stories were recounted by Russell, Scioscia and bullpen coach Mark Cresse.
``It just takes a special guy to do that,'' Russell said. ``That's what you never hear about him.
``And nowwww, the end is near, and now I've searched (sic) the final curtain. . . . You know, that song was written for me.''
- Lasorda, singing, in his limo
Russell met Lasorda in 1966, when Russell was 17 and had just taken his first airplane flight and Lasorda was his manager in Ogden, Utah.
``Wow, I'd never run into a guy like that before,'' Russell said.
Russell was one of 13 outfielders on the Dodgers' lowest minor-league team. He also was too shy to inquire about his status. At least he was too shy until he got to know Lasorda, who was ``one of the guys,'' as Russell put it, intent on making them comfortable.
Russell got up the nerve to ask, ``Am I going to get released?'' Lasorda answered, ``Not as long as I'm the manager.''
He was Russell's manager for 13 professional seasons.
``When I came in, I brought a whole new style of managing,'' Lasorda said. ``I hugged my players, I ran out and congratulated the pitcher after a win. It was a sign of respect, a sign of appreciation, a sign of love for the person.
``I ate with my players. I remember Al (Campanis) said, `You can't eat with the players.' I said, `Why not?' He said, `Because it's never been done.' I said, `What if I'm speaking at the Rotary Club and three of my players show up, do I sit at the same table? Then why shouldn't I sit at the same table in a restaurant?' ''
It wasn't just the players.
When Dave Wright, the Dodgers clubhouse manager, thinks of Lasorda, he chooses not to remember the decade of loud demands or the 100-plus days the two men once went without speaking to each other. Wright chooses to remember this:
In 1984, when Wright joined the team, he met with Lasorda, who asked about his background. Wright worked in a printing shop. The shop owner tried to talk him into staying, telling Wright that if he left, he would never make anything of himself.
The conversation wasn't mentioned again until 1988, on the night the Dodgers won the World Series over the Oakland Athletics. As the champagne celebration wound down, Lasorda called Wright into the visiting manager's office at the Oakland Coliseum and gave him a hug.
Said Lasorda: ``Where's that SOB that told you you'd never be a success in life?!''
``I couldn't believe it,'' Wright said the other day. ``He'd remembered that from four years before.''
``My hobby? I like to speak.''
- Lasorda on life beyond baseball
Lasorda was at spring training in Vero Beach, Fla., on March 5 when the call came from Cooperstown, N.Y., saying he had become the 14th manager elected to the Hall of Fame. Ted Williams was on the phone with congratulations. Yogi Berra was next.
``Hey,'' Berra said, as Lasorda related the conversation, ``don't talk no longer than 15 minutes, now.''
If Lasorda knows exactly what he will say in his induction speech Sunday, he isn't telling. He takes pride in having delivered each of his thousands of speeches from off the cuff, no notes or cue cards.
``Half the time I don't know what the hell I'm going to say,'' he said.
The acknowledgments alone could fill the afternoon.
``I could do it categorically,'' he said. ``My family. Then I can thank the two people who made it all happen, the O'Malleys (the Dodgers owners) and Campanis. My players. I've got to thank the fans.
``I think I'm definitely going to make a statement about our game of baseball, absolutely.''
If there really is more than one side of Tom Lasorda, and if those sides are seen together only rarely, this could be such a time.
Have you seen Santa Claus cry before?
``This one's definitely going to bring tears to his eyes,'' Harry Lasorda said, thinking back to when they were kids, he and Mungo, and merely visiting the Hall of Fame would have been a dream come true. ``I've never seen him at a loss for words, but this one, he's definitely going to choke up.''
Tommy, you're on.
This will be good.
Photo: (1--Color) Tommy Lasorda will be the 14th manager inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Jed Jacobsohn / Allsport
(2) Ex-Dodger manager Tom Lasorda is always 'on' when he goes on the air.
(3) no caption (Tom Lasorda)
(4) Often foul-mouthed and rude, Tom Lasorda never let it go unsaid in arguments with umpires.
Daily News File Photo