Last week as summer came to Los Angeles, Tommy Lasorda's city was its usual crowded self. It was bumper to bumper on the Santa Monica Freeway, side by side on the Malibu beaches, cheek to cheek at the Mayan club. Unless you count the thoroughly separated Kiefer and Julia, about the only people between Beverly Hills and Chavez Ravine who'd found any breathing room worth mentioning were Lasorda and his Dodgers, who by taking three of four from the Pittsburgh Pirates, opened a six-game lead over the Cincinnati Reds, L.A.'s closest pursuers in the National League West. As of Sunday, the Dodgers had surged to baseball's best record, and they'd made their mark on this up-to-the-minute town by emphasizing down-to-earth virtues: tough pitching, stingy defense and good pasta.
Four pounds of pasta, to be precise, lovingly prepared by Lasorda in the Dodger clubhouse last Friday. "Before games I feed my coaches, our trainers and some of my players who aren't playing that night," says Lasorda, who treats his office in Los Angeles like the ancestral family kitchen in Abruzzi, Italy. As the linguine pot bubbled, Lasorda sat in his office, cluttered with jars of Tommy Lasorda's Pasta Sauce, with a telephone receiver in each hand and contentment in his smile. True, his lineup was without Darryl Strawberry, who was suffering from a sore left shoulder and a bruised batting average, but there was soothing medical news to compensate. Orel Hershiser, the best pitcher in baseball three years ago, had returned to the Dodgers many months ahead of schedule following shoulder surgery, and he was pitching with the accustomed spice on his fastball.
Besides, Lasorda is never happier than when old friends drop in for a visit, and last week he was doubly blessed. Duke Snider came by for a chat on Thursday, which gave both men the opportunity to reminisce about the Dodgers of the 1950s in general and Carl Erskine's marvelous curveball in particular. Now Don Rickles, the Homer of hecklers, had arrived amid a flurry of insults. Quickly Lasorda rounded up some of his players. When Strawberry walked in, Rickles fixed him with a look. "Darryl," he said to the $20 million rightfielder, "you better start playing so you can save Tommy's job."
That's a joke, all right. No manager in baseball is as secure in his work as Lasorda, who has held his job for 15 years. As it happens, Strawberry will be back next week to join a lineup already rippling at the midsection with Eddie Murray, Kal Daniels and Juan Samuel. However, as the Pirates and the rest of the league are learning, this year's L.A. story is pretty much the same old story: The Dodgers have emerged as the team to beat because of their pitching. With a rotation of Hershiser, Ramon Martinez, Bobby Ojeda, Mike Morgan and Tim Belcher, L.A. gives up runs the way J.D. Salinger gives out interviews. So good is this staff that even Lasorda, Dame Hyperbole's scion, is stuck for an adjective. "The pitching's been just...great," he says. And then, after a pause, he says it again, louder.
Well, so it has, so it has. Consider that, at week's end, not once in the month of June had a Dodger starter failed to pitch at least six full innings. During that time the starters' ERA was a combined 2.16. For the season, the entire staff had permitted 2.91 runs per game, and Belcher (2.40), Morgan (2.41) and Martinez (2.73) were all among the top 10 ERA men in the league. At 3.20, Ojeda was not far behind, and just wait until Hershiser, with a 2.45 ERA in his first five starts, really warms up.
To Lasorda—once, briefly, a Dodger lefthander himself—there isn't much to choose among the five. So when the attending throng in his office started chatting about the particular virtues of the 10-3 Martinez or the 8-5 Morgan, he responded with what is, in effect, a Dodger family parable. "I went out with my father, Sam, one day when I was 12 years old," said Lasorda. "Someone said to him, 'Sam, you've got five sons; which one of them do you like the best?' I figured he'd say me, but he held up one hand and asked in reply, 'Which finger do you like best?' "
Given that pitching is indeed a Dodger family tradition, it would be almost unseemly for Lasorda to indulge in more ornate expressions of approval when discussing it. "The Dodgers take such pride in their pitching," says reliever Jim Gott, who, along with the rest of the L.A. bullpen, has had ample time for reflection of late. "You always hear about that, but I've never seen a manager or a pitching coach take such pride in his pitching, such pride in the legacy of his pitching."
When the Dodgers left Brooklyn after the 1957 season, they were parting with a style as much as with a city. The Dodgers of Snider, Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella, Carl Furillo and Jackie Robinson played inside a cracker box of a ballpark, Ebbets Field, where they specialized more in pummeling opposing pitchers than in breeding their own. When the team moved west, and especially after spacious Dodger Stadium was carved from the gullies of Los Angeles in '62, it made sense to seed the new park with the likes of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Claude Osteen and Don Sutton.
"When I joined the club in Brooklyn, it was an offensive club," says Drysdale, a Dodger pitcher from 1956 to '69 and now a broadcaster for the team. "But since we've come out here, the Dodgers have practically coined the phrase 'winning with pitching, speed and defense.' There's a tradition of excellent pitching in Los Angeles, no question, and the Dodgers have probably put a bigger emphasis on pitching than other organizations have. If you can pitch, you can win. We've proven that."
That emphasis is especially apparent to Belcher, Gott and Morgan, who have come to the Dodgers in mid-career. Los Angeles pitchers spend spring training receiving instruction from past masters like Koufax, Drysdale and Johnny Podres. As Morgan, who grew up in Las Vegas, a town of long odds and short sentences, puts it, "It rubs off."