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Lasorda welcomes Olympic challenge

By Ken Daley

Tommy Lasorda
Tommy Lasorda
Photo: Larry Goren

For 20 years, Tommy Lasorda managed the Dodgers as if the world were his stage. This summer, it actually will be.

When the United States Olympic team disembarks in Australia for the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, it is unlikely anyone will be wearing the colors more proudly than the man who previously claimed to bleed only Dodger blue.

"If they have the same attitude about going there as I have," Lasorda says of his players, "then you’re going to see a bunch of guys that really want to win."

It might seem an incongruous pairing, this 72-year-old retired manager leading a group of players predominantly 50 years younger. The professional careers for many of the U.S. Olympians have just gotten off the ground, while Lasorda’s time in the dugout was thought to be over after winning four National League pennants and two World Series championships during his 20-year run at Dodger Stadium. But the visibility this matchup brings to both parties made it a natural marriage.

For a born showman such as Lasorda, there is no greater curse than obscurity. And despite his 1997 induction into the Hall of Fame, Lasorda has been mostly out of the public eye since health concerns prompted him to retire as Dodgers manager in July 1996. Lasorda says his new career as a Dodgers vice president (and briefly as an interim general manager) has been satisfying. But those closest to him know how much Lasorda has missed wearing a uniform in a dugout, and basking in the spotlight that goes with it.

"This is going to be great for him, and it’s going to be great for the Olympics," says fellow Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson. "He’s the very best choice. He really gets enthusiastic about it. And you have to have someone who really appreciates it."

Exposure also is important to USA Baseball, the governing body that selected the Olympic team on Aug. 23. What better way to ensure its sport is not overshadowed by the track stars, gymnasts and swimmers who usually dominate Games media coverage than by hiring baseball’s most recognizable and enthusiastic ambassador, a tireless raconteur who could personally outperform any public relations firm on the planet?

"We are very fortunate to have him," says Bob Watson, the former Astros and Yankees general manager who serves as co-chairman of the USA Baseball Selection Committee, along with former Angels GM Bill Bavasi.

While both sides needed each other, Lasorda isn’t ashamed to admit his need might have been greater. He lobbied for the job for several weeks and jumped at the chance when it was offered in May.

"When they called and said they wanted me to be the coach, I was so elated, so proud," Lasorda says. "I was honored. People think I’m wacky when I say how important this is to me, to be able to do something for my country. But I think it’s an honor and a privilege."

In fact, Lasorda goes so far as to say his appointment as Olympic coach overshadows all the other high points of his Hall of Fame career, including the Cooperstown induction itself.

"The Olympics are something special to me," he says. "I’ve done everything in the game of baseball. I started from the bottom as a player and I reached the major leagues as a player. I started at the bottom as a manager and I reached the major leagues as a manager. And then I was fortunate enough to be inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame.

"This is even greater. This is the utmost right here. This is a tremendous chapter in my life. There ain’t nobody going to take it any more serious than me."

Lasorda says he plans to immerse himself in the Olympics experience. He plans to participate in the opening ceremonies and to live with the U.S. athletes in Olympic Village. He plans to treat every moment as the last hurrah he knows this could be, and to share his unique brand of motivational bombast with anyone who will listen.

"I’ll be living right there with those athletes," Lasorda says. "I ain’t going to live anyplace else. I want to be with all of the athletes from the United States. I want to pull for them all. I want to be part of them. I want to know them and be able to tell them how proud I am of them.

"I can’t wait until we walk into that place, and knowing that out of all those countries, I’m representing the greatest. That’s going to be the main thrill for me, to walk in that opening parade. I get chills watching it on TV. Just think what I’m going to feel like doing it."

Lasorda’s Olympic fervor stems from a sense of patriotism instilled in his youth. His father Sabatino came to the United States from Italy shortly after World War I. He married and supported a family of five sons (Tommy being the second) by driving a truck for a rock quarry in Pennsylvania. It was a hard life, but one for which Lasorda says his father was forever thankful because of the opportunities his adopted country provided.

"My father used to sit at the head of the table," Lasorda says. "And he’d say to us five boys, ‘You guys are very lucky to be born in the greatest country in the world. You do everything you can to keep it that way. If you have to fight for your country, you must do it. And, maybe, you might even have to give up your life for your country.’

"Now, that’s a father, speaking in broken English, talking about patriotism. He wasn’t born in this country. But he came here, and he wanted his children to grow up in this country. I’ve served my country. I was in the United States Army and I felt proud to do that. I wore that uniform with pride, and now I want to wear this uniform with pride. Because, to me, this is bigger than a World Series."

A renowned motivational speaker, Lasorda plans to instill a similar sense of duty and national pride in his Olympic players.

"I will tell our players, ‘Hey, you don’t represent your hometown or that high school you came from or that organization you’re in,’ " Lasorda says. " ‘You represent the United States of America. And by golly, you’re going to be proud and you’re going to play your hearts out for the good of this country.’ "

Of course, jingoism might carry Team USA only so far against the honed talent of the Cubans, the advanced pitching of the Japanese and the overall efficiency of the Koreans. Even the Italian team and the host Australians (headed by former Brewers all-star Dave Nilsson) could threaten Team USA’s quest to reach the medal round of the eight-team tournament.

"We don’t know, for real, how good those other countries are," Anderson says. "What level could they play at? We have no way of knowing. But you couldn’t have made a better selection because Tommy really cares about what happens. And they’re going to have to, with who they’re competing against.

"Tommy is going to give them exactly what they need–some excitement. That’s what the Olympics needs."

Lasorda is well aware of the challenges ahead. He knows the Cuban national team split an exhibition series against the Orioles last year. He knows Japan will have players from its major league teams. He knows the Korean league is shutting down in order to send its best players to Sydney, and the Italian team will feature several American-trained players of Italian descent.

Lasorda’s well-rehearsed response: "The only thing I can say is, we’re not going 6,000 miles to lose."

After training on Australia’s Gold Coast for a couple of weeks, Team USA will reach Sydney on Sept. 14, participate in the opening ceremonies, then open the Olympic tournament Sept. 17 against Japan. Teams play everyone once in the round-robin, with the top four finishers advancing to the medal round. The team with the best first-round record faces the fourth-ranked team, while the No. 2 seed plays No. 3 in the other semifinal. The gold-medal game is scheduled for Sept. 27.

Lasorda says the format will force him to manage virtually every game like it’s the World Series.

"I think every game is important," he says. "Under the conditions you’re going to be playing under, you can’t wait and say, ‘Well, we’ll do something tomorrow.’ No, we’ve got to do it every game. We’ve got to play every game like it’s the one you have to win. You’ve got to try to win them all and be prepared to withstand certain types of ballclubs. It’s going to be exciting."

It would be more exciting still, Lasorda admits, if he could have brought an authentic dream team to Sydney, letting major league stars uphold the nation’s honor.

"That would be the thing, to take a team like that," he said. "To take Barry Bonds and (Mike) Piazza and (Alex) Rodriguez and those guys–(Ken) Griffey and (Mark) McGwire–can you imagine bringing a team like that? I just wish it was in a different season, like basketball is."

Major League Baseball encouraged its clubs to cooperate as much as possible with the Olympic effort, but the timing of the Games coincides with the expansion of rosters to 40 players on Sept. 1. Many contending clubs preferred to keep their top minor leaguers stateside to add depth to their playoff efforts. Other clubs preferred to expose top prospects to the major leagues in September to better assess their development heading into the winter. Such issues as injury risk and lost big league service time also made stocking the Olympic team a thorny task.

Lasorda, naturally, wishes priorities were different. "They should make every effort to see that we bring the best possible players we can bring, because this is our game," he says. "I think the Olympics are more important than calling that guy up."

Lasorda’s club certainly would be stronger if also-rans such as the Twins, Pirates and Phillies loaned out Matt Lawton, Brad Radke, Brian Giles, Jason Kendall and Scott Rolen. But diluting big league lineups in the final month of the season also could affect the integrity of pennant races.

"I want the best ballplayers we can get, I don’t care who they are," Lasorda says. "We gotta go over there to win."

Ken Daley is the national baseball writer for The Dallas Morning News.

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