Just like old times: Lasorda looms large

Old times: Lasorda looms large

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Slowly, the baseball dribbled down the first-base line -- same as it always has in Dodgertown. Slowly, Marlins pitcher Andrew Miller saw it, plucked it off the dirt, stood up, and tagged a half-jogging, half-confused James Loney.

Fair ball, ruled home plate umpire Damien Beal. Batter's out. Inning's over.

Then slowly, manager Tommy Lasorda ambled out of the third base dugout -- same as he always has in Dodgertown. Slowly, he waddled over to Beal, ranted a bit, raved some more, and finally shuffled back with a hint of a smile and a hint of a scowl.

Then the Dodgertown faithful, standing in unison, hollered and whooped -- same as they always have.

"They like that," Lasorda grinned after the game. "They've always liked that, when I go out and start arguing about it. I put on a little show, you know."

They know. On Tuesday, everyone knew. Even if the Dodgers will soon leave Vero Beach, Fla., for the final time, and even if the team, the players and -- believe it or not -- the game has changed, on this day, everything seemed the same. Lasorda was back in the Dodgers dugout as a manager, leading half the roster while regular skipper Joe Torre took the rest to China. And Lasorda wasn't about to take this mission lightly.

"It's been a long time for me to be able to sit there and do that," he said, spouting endless thanks to Torre, to the front office and to Dodgers ownership.

"It was really a shock that they asked me to do that," he said. "They could have very easily asked one of the coaches to do it, and they asked me to do it, which made me feel very, very proud. It just goes to show you how people can remember you and remember what you did. I take my hat off to them because they're making an 80-year-old guy feel real good."

Well, maybe he's 80 -- Lasorda has the fuzzy math worked out exactly to his liking. With time zones the way they are, he figures, every trip he's ever taken from the Atlantic to the Pacific has knocked a full three hours off his age. Add up all those plane rides over the course of his life, and his 80 years might seem a bit closer to 70.

"I had to come up with something to make me younger," Lasorda said.

Sounds crazy, until he starts ambling around the fields at Dodgertown, barking at umpires and charming old friends. Suddenly, he seems precisely that young.

For 21 years, Lasorda stalked through the home clubhouse in Los Angeles, leading his team through seasons of hardship and seasons of glory. His hair might rest a bit thinner under his cap these days, but his eyes still drip with Dodger blue.

They always will for this lifetime Dodger, for this man who likes to think he might still be wearing a uniform every day if health concerns hadn't forced him off the field back in 1996. Lasorda gets his kicks every once in a while -- he managed Team USA at the 2000 Summer Olympics and served as third base coach in the 2001 All-Star Game -- but it's not the same. And sometimes, that haunts him.

"I didn't have to have it end," Lasorda said. "But I did, and simply because I got scared."

He hung up his uniform for good only after a heart attack frightened him into doing it, and maybe that was for the best. After all, in the decade since, he's transformed from manager to legend. He's a Hall of Famer. There's a street named after him here in Dodgertown. There's a whole generation of Dodgers who glorify his every move.

"I've known Tommy since I've been a Dodger," infielder Delwyn Young said. "I've been trying to tell him for years, I've been wanting to get him out of retirement so I could play for him one day."

It's that sort of reverence that reassures Lasorda. Perhaps, in hindsight, everything really did turn out all right.

"When I stopped, everybody told me that I stopped at the right time," Lasorda said. "I think they were right. It's not easy, going out there every day, day in and day out. But by golly, I enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it, and I'm going to enjoy the rest of the games, because we'll get 'em tomorrow and we'll get 'em the next day. We'll keep playing."

So there he was on Tuesday, yelling at pitchers, yelling at umpires, yelling at anyone who would listen -- and at more than a few who wouldn't. This wasn't a show. Lasorda was focused on beating the Marlins -- it's nearly all he talked about -- and was genuinely disappointed when he didn't. That's just the way he is.

Riding around in his golf cart on a mission, Lasorda took his job for what it was -- a job. He knew it was an honor, sure, but honors don't win games. Hitting does, and pitching does, and maybe a well-timed argument or two. So he was more than ready for the Dodgers on Tuesday, whether or not the Dodgers were ready for him.

"He kind of surprised me when he came out," Loney said, laughing when he recalled the play that drew Lasorda's ire. "He was angry. He came out yelling.

"That's Tommy, though. You've got to win."

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.