Work in Sports
Lasorda feels right at home
SYDNEY, Australia -- This is "a surburnt country" -- the phrase comes from a poem every schoolkid in Oz knows by heart -- but not even Australia could have been prepared for a nearly 73-year-old (on Sept. 22) force of nature named Tommy Lasorda. He spins tales, dispenses happy nuggets of wisdom, tosses oversized bouquets. The U.S. Olympic baseball team better have ordered its uniform pants at least one size too large, because Lasorda has pumped so much sunshine up its collective derriere that the Americans are going to have trouble running to first base.
Too bad Olympic coaches don't receive medals, because Lasorda already would have clinched the gold in the 100-meter schmooze. No silver. No bronze. When he was managing the Los Angeles Dodgers, Lasorda's office was a treasure trove of artifacts -- pictures with Sinatra, snapshots with Rickles -- that was the most incredible, semi-private museum of celebrity imaginable. The Dodgers' victories on the field, notably the 1988 World Series over the mighty Oakland A's, were tribute to what Lasorda knew; the office walls were testament to who Lasorda knew, namely everybody who seemed to matter in Los Angeles.
Lasorda was often the gracious host, offering a skinny writer a plate of postgame pasta, mentioning the name of the restaurant that had thoughtfully shipped the food over. And if the restaurant wound up getting a plug somewhere, well, so much the better. Of course, the opportunities for casual kibitzing are severely curtailed at the Olympics -- no office, press conferences with translations, a mixed zone for quick interviews, no tagliatelle -- but those major-league people skills are transferable to the international stage, precisely the gift that makes him the perfect manager for this team.
"Look at him," Ben Sheets, a right-hander from the Milwaukee Brewers organization, told me as Lasorda continued a monologue to an appreciative group of writers, a semi-private audience now in its 25th minute on the heels of a dazzling half-hour Lasorda already had done in a general press conference. "No pressure on us. We just lay back. Chill. Do our jobs. Tommy can do the talking."
That's the formula for success: Guys who are fence busters and guys who are filibusterers. During the press conference Lasorda dropped more place names than Bill Bryson. He remembered pitching in Cuba during the revolutions that brought Batista and later Castro to power in the 1950s; a visit to spring training in Japan in 1965; a later trip to the Dominican Republic in which he termed it a future Cuba, a gem of prescience that would have fallen on more appreciative ears if the Dominicans had actually qualified here. But the most stunning thing Lasorda said was that if he could keep this Olympic team together, it would win the World Series in two years.
"I tell them how great they are and use you guys to send the message," said Lasorda, who was a successful minor-league manager in Spokane before he and his players like Steve Garvey, Ron Cey and Davey Lopes all graduated to the bigs. "We saw in 1988 that the best team doesn't always win."
Lasorda is tanned, fit and far more engaged than in his final days managing the Dodgers. His only physical ailments are sore feet sustained from marching in new shoes in the Opening Ceremonies. Maybe he doesn't know much about Japanese phenom pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka -- in fact, it took him six days to learn his own players' names and he still sometimes calls Brent Abernathy "Trent" -- but he knows how important a laugh can be, especially in a tense, 10-day tournament. The manager provided his players with a guffaw at the Olympic Village when he clandestinely wiped his mustard-stained fingers on the warmup suit of another U.S. athlete, one who had been thrilled to meet Lasorda and get a hearty pat on the back.
The U.S. might not be golden -- even if Lasorda did repeat his oft-used statement that the U.S. didn't fly halfway around the world to lose -- but already the Americans are Gulden.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Michael Farber is in Sydney covering the Games for the magazine and CNNSI.com. Check back daily to read Farber's behind-the-scenes reports from Down Under.