Excerpt: Dodgerland

The following is an excerpt from Dodgerland: Decadent Los Angeles and the 1977-78 Dodgers (June 2016) by Michael Fallon. 

 

9780803249400Chapter 6: We Were All Rookies Again

I can’t believe they’re paying me to do this.

—Tommy Lasorda, spring training, 1977

By the start of the spring exhibition season in 1977, the atmosphere in the Dodgers’ clubhouse was uncharacteristically electric, and Tom Lasorda was at the center of the buzz. The pace of his commentary, the speed and relentlessness of his chatter, and the range of his sub­jects were noticed by all. “Thank you, Lord, thank you,” he would call out while pitching batting practice to his second baseman, “for blessing Davey Lopes with so much speed—a beautiful and deserv­ing virtue surpassed only by his enthusiasm and love for baseball.” Or “Look at Reggie Smith,” Lasorda would shout, “he can’t wait to hit that ball. Reggie Smith’s name is in the book of a lot of great pitchers!” Or “If any of you guys can hit one out off Charlie Hough’s knuckleball, I’ll buy you a new car! Charlie Hough you’ve got the best knuckleball in baseball.”1 Lasorda was particularly adept at find­ing the most sparkling trait, talent, or key characteristic of each and every of his players and driving home awareness of that trait in open view of the team. Additionally, Lasorda made a science of employing player nicknames as shorthand for his hopes and aspirations for, or mischievous sense of irony about, each and every one of his squad. “Hey, Ace,” he called veteran pitcher Al Downing, “you’re looking good,” even though “Ace” Downing wasn’t actually looking all that good.2 “Hondo, take it easy,” Lasorda told utility player Lee Lacy, named after the Celtics’ highly regarded sixth man, John “Hondo” Havlicek. “You’re going to kill somebody. You’re hitting the ball too hard. My God, you’re hitting it hard.” “Harpo, you’re sensational,” he told backup corner infielder Ed Goodson, named for the silent, and frizzy-haired, Marx brother, “Listen to that wood sing. Look at that drive. Harpo, you are the best hitter in baseball, bar none.” Pitcher Burt Hooton was “Happy” Hooton, because of the habitual glum­ness of his countenance. Rick Rhoden was “Young” because of his age, and Mike Garman was “Pickles” because of his fondness for the food. Johnnie Baker was no longer “Dusty,” as most fans knew him, but Johnnie B., seemingly just because Lasorda said so. On and on it went. At one point, during a spring batting practice, Rick Mon­day got up to take some cuts. “Hey, Rick,” Lasorda shouted across the diamond, “we don’t have a name for you.” To which the out­fielder quickly responded, much to Lasorda’s delight, “Just call me Betsy Ross.”3

Despite his back-slappy, loosey-goosey, seemingly boundless, and wholly contagious joviality, make no mistake, almost every word and act of Lasorda’s that spring were calculated, intended for the good of the team’s overall emotional well-being and balance. The yelling, the ribbing, the nicknames—all of it not only brought the team closer together but also reinforced the idea that the manager was aware of, and cared about, each and every one of his players. In fact, as spring training got fully under way for the Dodgers in 1977, it became increasingly clear to observers how extensive had been Lasorda’s efforts to connect members of the team. In addition to the Christmas cards that Lasorda sent to his players, before the start of spring training the manager had made a point of talking directly with each of his projected starting players. As would be revealed over the first weeks of spring camp, Lasorda told each how much he appreciated their talents, what he hoped for them, and, perhaps most important, what he expected them to do in the coming season. Las­orda told Dave Lopes, for example, that he was the team’s catalyst. “One of our real keys . . . I expect him to become the leader.” The quiet Bill Russell, meanwhile, was, according to Lasorda, underap­preciated. He had plenty of speed, and his fielding statistics were as “good or better than any shortstop in the game.” Dusty Baker was the “big guy, the key guy,” and Lasorda believed in his ability to come back from injury. Reggie Smith had “superstar talent” that just needed to be demonstrated. Ron Cey had the potential, with a little work and extra plate discipline, to become one of the game’s “pre­mier hitters.” Steve Garvey was capable of more power. Steve Yeager was the “best defensive catcher in baseball” and capable of hitting “50 points more.” He ended by telling his pitching staff they were the “best in the National League” and explaining to each exactly what he thought they could achieve.4

All through spring Lasorda strove to build up his players’ confi­dence. He told them, over and over and loud enough for anyone to hear, that they could do anything if only they believed hard enough. He told them that he knew, in his heart, that this was a World Series–bound team. When asked during spring training if he felt the Dodgers were hungering for communication and motivation, if he felt the club was handicapped for lack of it in the past, Lasorda brushed aside the question. “What happened in the past doesn’t matter,” Lasorda said.

We’re looking ahead. Baseball has to be played with a relaxed and confident attitude. Putting the uniform on should be fun. I want a team that’s aggressive, that wants to win, but I can’t be naive enough to think that as the manager I’m going to win any games. The players do it all and my job is to stay with them and motivate them, know their strengths and weaknesses, make each feel he’s a part of it and create a happy attitude by making sure I walk into that clubhouse each day with an enthusiastic and happy face.5

While Lasorda saw his motivational skills as key to his inevita­ble success as a manager, there was more to his approach than was evident at first glance. Lasorda, who knew the names of each of his players’ wives and children, was connected and generous. But he was also demanding. “I want everyone tugging on the same end of the rope,” he said. “I don’t see anything wrong in that. I’m close to my son. I love him. But I’m also capable of disciplining him, of giv­ing him a whack if necessary.”6

In the main Lasorda said he was content if his players did their job as professionals. “You owe it to yourself and teammates to stay in shape” was how Lasorda explained his expectations to players on the first day of camp. Gathered at those earliest meetings were thirty-six roster players and fifteen nonroster invitees. Only a few veterans were missing—including pitcher Tommy John and outfield John Hale, who each had unresolved contract issues, and outfielder Glenn Burke and veteran catcher Ellie Rodriguez, who were ailing.7 At the same time Lasorda knew that teams had to have at least some rules, and there had to be some sort of limit to all the fun. After one sunny but frigid and windy day of early workouts, Lasorda told the team he had made a decision. Dressed formally in jacket and tie dur­ing a team dinner, Lasorda declared that, as a measure of respect to the traditional image of the Dodgers, players should keep their hair cut short. This was no mean request in wild and woolly 1977. Las­orda also imposed a few other cosmetic rules, concerning things such as signing autographs, and he enforced the rules in his own particular and somewhat roundabout and offhand way. Whenever a player inevitably wanted to test Lasorda’s resolve by refusing, say, to get a haircut, Lasorda would respond not by fining or suspend­ing the player, as was widely the league norm. “Fine,” he would say, “but next time we’re on the road, don’t ask me if you can fly home on a day off. . . . [I]f you wanted something from me, you had to give something to me.”8

 

 

Notes

  1. John Hall, “Still Bubbling,” Los Angeles Times, April 3, 1977.
  2. He would be released before the start of the regular season.
  3. Hall, “Still Bubbling.”
  4. Newhan, “Now the Dodgers Know.”
  5. Newhan, “Now the Dodgers Know.”
  6. Newhan, “Now the Dodgers Know.”
  7. Burke had a hepatitis infection, and Rodriguez was struggling with a seri­ous shoulder injury, from which he would not recover enough to play in the Major Leagues again.
  8. Plaschke with Lasorda, I Live for This, 125.