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Tom Lasorda, the noted evangelist, has a message for anyone who will listen, for little children who seek his autograph, for adults who invite him to speak at their civic clubs, for girls in the office, the man on the street and the stars at Hollywood and Vine. The gospel truth according to Lasorda: there is no organization in baseball equal to the Los Angeles Dodgers. And there is no greater honor in baseball than to be a part of the Dodgers, to wear Dodger blue, to bleed Dodger blue, to revere the Great Dodger in the Sky.
This is not just team spirit, brethren. This goes beyond mere loyalty to a cause, a country or a laundry detergent. We are talking about something that really matters. For, as the Billy Sunday of the Dodgers was telling an audience last month, "When you say you're a Padre, people ask when did you become a parent. When you say you're a Cardinal, they tell you to work hard because the next step is Pope. But when you say you're a Dodger, everybody knows you're in the major leagues." Hallelujah!
Lasorda is a Dodger and, as we shall see, has a tombstone to prove it. He is, in fact, the manager of the Dodgers, something that for the last 23 years could be said only of Walter Alston. But Alston retired last Sept. 27, and two days later Los Angeles selected its gregarious, persuasive, combative 49-year-old third-base coach to be his successor. As a result, when the Dodgers opened spring training last week, the scene in Vero Beach, Fla. was quite different from what it had been for more than two decades. The man in charge was moving here, hurrying there, shouting orders, giving directions, laughing, talking a mile a minute, hugging, cajoling and praising.
Alston never did any of these things, at least not so openly that anyone could notice. But in his quiet, conservative way he won—four World Series, seven pennants, seven All-Star Games and more regular-season victories than all but four other managers in baseball history. And while he was signing 23 one-year contracts with the Dodgers (only the Athletics' Connie Mack and the Giants' John McGraw stayed with one team longer), he watched some 80 other National League field bosses come and go.
Lasorda is only one of half a dozen new managers in the league this year, but because he is both Alston's successor and a winning, controversial baseball man in his own right, he is drawing much more attention than San Francisco's Joe Altobelli, St. Louis' Vern Rapp, Pittsburgh's Chuck Tanner, Chicago's Herman Franks or even Montreal's Dick Williams. All Williams ever did was win three pennants and two World Series with Boston and Oakland; Lasorda, as a player and manager in the Puerto Rican, Cuban, Panamanian, Dominican Republic and Venezuelan winter leagues, incited more Latin American brawls than anyone since Ch� Guevara.
But a right cross and a broken nose are not what earned Lasorda his managerial job. He got it because of unflagging loyalty. Although as a young pitcher out of Norristown (Pa.) High School in 1944 he was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies, Lasorda was soon purchased by the Dodgers, with whom he has spent most of his 27 years as a player, scout, minor league manager and major league coach. Lasorda's feelings for the Dodgers inspired him in 1961 to write a treatise called An Organization with a Heart. He also started repeating corny little sayings such as "Cut me and I'll bleed Dodger blue" and "When I die I want my tombstone to say, ' Dodger Stadium was his address, but every ball park was his home.' "
During spring training in 1968, Lasorda lived to see his death wish come true, and he didn't even have to die for it to happen. He was preparing to start his third season as the manager of the organization's rookie team in Ogden, Utah when owner Walter O'Malley called him into the Dodgertown press room and presented him with a marble tombstone. And sure enough, it had a heart dripping blue blood on it, and an epitaph that read: DODGER STADIUM WAS HIS ADDRESS, BUT EVERY BALL PARK WAS HIS HOME.
"And just how do you plan to do that?" the startled owner asked.
"Just put the Dodgers' schedule on there each year," Lasorda said, pointing at the tombstone. "When people are visiting their loved ones at the cemetery, they can come by my grave and see if the Dodgers are at home or away."