Manager Tommy Lasorda, the major league's leading pregame gamesman, stands behind the Shea Stadium batting cage. It is 5:30 p.m., two hours before his Los Angeles Dodgers are to play the New York Mets. Home runs, strikeouts and stolen bases will follow, but for some the exhilarating action is now.
Lasorda is part peacock and part carny barker, and has his team well ahead in first place. He joshes, razzes, bellows and banters his way among the crowd of celebs, politicians and reporters who are cat-footing around the cage as the warming-up Dodgers swat meatballs over the fences.
Jane Fonda and her daughter, Vanessa Vadim, stroll onto the field. Tommy hugs and kisses them both. A local television crew asks for an interview. Tommy puts his arm around the reporter and takes the questions as if this were "Meet the Press." A corporation president comes over. Tommy honeys him with sweet talk.
The way Lasorda wins friends, winning games is a pipe. The Dodgers' manager is one of baseball's hot properties these days. He freewheels while others tell of freebasing. The cocaine stories out of a federal court in Pittsburgh are being called a "scandal" or "crisis." The terms are an overreaction. No deaths and no suitcases with $100 bills have been passed.
All we have is a letdown. Baseball fans are unable to see players as druggies or junkies because they lionize and idolize people who can skillfully throw a ball hard or, in the immortal phrase, "hit 'em where they ain't." Why make heroes of them in the first place?
It is one thing for a player to have a bad game, the shocked fans are gasping, but something else for him to be a bad person. That assessment, which was heard as players such as Keith Hernandez, Lonnie Smh and Enos Cabell took the stand to describe their and others' drug abuse, is about as accurate as a wild pitch in the dirt. Cocaine addiction is a medical problem, not a moral flaw. Athletes get sick like everyone else. If a few of them need to go into court to shrive themselves of guilt, the public ought to be sophisticated enough to see beyond that and look on the players as patients, not criminals.
Those who are shocked because someone like Hernandez was in the locker snorting coke when he should have been signing baseballs for kids in the hospital made the mistake of turning mere mortals into heroes. This is where Tommy Lasorda comes up to the plate. He is an entertainer whose playfulness keeps baseball in perspective. It's for laughs, it's for carefree hamming it up for folks in the cheap seats, it's for inviting movie stars onto the field to meet ballplayers who think meeting movie stars is hot bananas.
Of the teams competing for playoff slots, only the Dodgers have run away with their divion. Maybe that explains Lasorda's friskiness before the Mets game. Fernando Valenzuela will be pitching. What's the worry? And why not hug Jane Fonda?
In baseball circles, the distinction these days is to be a person who has not been hugged by Lasorda. He is the only manager who has a philosophy of hugging. He explained it once: "It's been said you shouldn't hug your players. I've been reading the rule book for years and I have yet to find a clause that reads you can't hug your players. It has also been said that a manager shouldn't eat with his players, or go visit them in their homes. I do both. We are told, too, to be sparing in our praise so that the players will feel we're sincere. I praise everyone. Like my pop said, 'Show me a law in the United States that says I can't tell everyone he's great.' "
Lasorda provides the only kind of emotional high a big leaguer should need. Nearly all other peaks are there for the players: extravagant salaries, a sport that is physically undemanding (they sit for half the game) and constant attention paid by the sportswriters. The environment has the kind of pleasurableness that adding one more delight to it -- the pleasure of a drug like cocaine -- shouldn't be needed as part of the deal.
The debate now is how to treat the abusers: punishment or therapy. In 1983 five players were imprisoned for cocaine use. For first offenses -- and ones that did not include selling -- the jail terms were excessive. The players need counseling more than penalties.
Instead of a scandal or crisis, baseball is suffering no more than a slump. A passing one. Three years ago, football went through this. A former player, Don Reese, wrote in Sports Illustrated that cocaine "can be found in quantity throughout the NFL. . . . It now controls and corrupts the game."
Drugball didn't replace football, and it won't be replacing baseball. Addictions can be overcome. Counseling works. When the current gloom passes, an ebullient spirt like Tom Lasorda will still be the only scandal around: how a clown like that can keep on winning.