In the afternoon sunshine of Vero Beach, Fla., on the second day of spring training last week, Tommy Lasorda cruised around Dodgertown in his golf cart. When he reached the grassy area behind home plate at Homan Stadium, he stopped to watch a kid named Hershiser fill the mitt of coach Joe Ferguson with strikes. Lasorda leaped from the cart and called his three catchers over to watch. "Look at that follow-through!" Lasorda yelled. "Look at those mechanics!" Before long a large group of fans had gathered, and Lasorda had them cheering each pitch.
Only Lasorda could make an instant star out of a two-year-old. The young pitcher was Jordan Hershiser, the exceptionally advanced son of Los Angeles Dodger ace Orel Hershiser. And only Lasorda could be so upbeat, so fired up, so downright giddy with excitement just hours into spring training. But then, this is the dawn of a Dodger season that inspires high hopes—and may require all the positive energy Lasorda has to give.
In his 15th season as manager of the Dodgers, Lasorda faces his ultimate challenge: What to do with the most talented team he's ever had. In the mystifying science of team chemistry, Lasorda has long been considered a wizard. But with $37 million worth of new ballplayers now coursing through his clubhouse, he must mix a volatile blend of rookies, rehabs, recalcitrants and the ridiculously rich under pressurized expectations: to win the strongest division in baseball. Will it all come together in a gorgeous pyrotechnical display, or will it just blow up in his hands?
If the master chemist is even the least bit worried about the task before him, it certainly doesn't show. As in every spring, as in every day of Lasorda's life, he is a hand-clapping, back-slapping, butt-patting bundle of optimism. On the face of it, his exuberance is justified. The Dodgers, who last season finished second in the National League West, five games behind the Cincinnati Reds, turned to the free-agent market and added one of the game's best power hitters, Darryl Strawberry (the only player to hit more than 25 homers in each of the last eight years), and one of its best leadoff men, Brett Butler (one of only five players to reach base more than 200 times in each of the last eight years). They signed free-agent pitcher Kevin Gross, traded for pitcher Bob Ojeda and are encouraged by Hershiser's return from shoulder surgery.
"We could have competed with the Reds if we hadn't done anything except get healthy," says Hershiser. "But [Dodger general manager] Fred Claire didn't sit on his hands. He got more. This is the first Dodger team I've been on in my eight years here that, on paper, looks very good. It reminds me of the Mets and A's of the last three or four years, teams you pencil in as the team to beat."
Says Strawberry, "On paper, this team is better than the [world champion] '86 Mets. But that team was very determined. Only time will tell what type of determination this team has."
And only time will tell if the diverse personalities on this roster can coexist. "They have a problem, no doubt," says Al Rosen, general manager of the division-rival San Francisco Giants. "When you have guys who have been cantankerous—like Kal Daniels, Darryl Strawberry, Eddie Murray—you wonder what will happen when they're all together. I'm a big believer in chemistry. We have great chemistry. But Tommy is a great motivator. I think he can handle any mix."
Predictably, there was controversy the first day at Dodgertown. Top reliever Jay Howell and 1990 ace Ramon Martinez didn't report to camp because they were unhappy with their contracts. Martinez had been offered a one-year deal worth $400,000—which would be the highest salary ever given to a pitcher with less than two years of major league service. He wants more. Howell, the closer, will make $1.05 million in 1991, while his setup man, Jim Gott, will make $1.75 million. Howell wants an extension of his contract.
There are other questions to be answered. Is shortstop Alfredo Griffin's back ailment serious? Is highly touted 22-year-old rookie Jose Offerman ready to take over at short? Will starter Tim Belcher bounce back from shoulder surgery? Can 30-year-old lefty Fernando Valenzuela still win? Can the lineup survive its shortage of righthanded hitting? ("Teams will call up lefties from the minors just to face us," says one doubting Dodger.) Is the LA. defense good enough? ("It can't compare with ours," says the Giants' Rosen.)
So. Dr. Lasorda, how do you feel about that load of uncertainty? "I'm thankful to have all these good players," he says.