As Tommy Lasorda talked about Fernando Valenzuela, he casually removed sawdust from his hair, eyes, nostrils and deep inside his ears.
"The thing that I don't want to see happen to him," said the Dodger manager, pouring shavings from his jersey, "is for him to undo all that he did by having people say, 'This guy's greedy.' "
Suddenly, Lasorda stopped, pulled down his pants and, therein, discovered enough additional sawdust to fill a lion's litter box.
"See what those damn guys did to me?" said Lasorda, plaintively. "I was showin' 'em how to slide in the pit and they all jumped on me and covered me with sawdust."
In most ways, the Dodgers--who face no more serious labor here than playing mug-the-manager--are the world's happiest baseball team. The spring training after a long-sought World Series championship is like a six-week celebration of the previous October's heroism. Dodgertown practices are one long party.
There's only one pudgy cloud in the team's Dodger blue sky--Valenzuela, the rookie of the year and National League Cy Young winner of '81 who's an old-fashioned holdout.
On Monday, the Dodgers announced that they had unilaterally renewed his contract for "the largest second-year contract in (baseball) history"--a salary of about $350,000.
Today, Valenzuela's representatives announced that their client--who is believed to be asking $800,000--had rejected that "offer" and would continue his spring training boycott.
This status-quo report hardly paralyzes the Dodgers with worry.
"I'm not sure if Fernando missed two weeks of spring training it wouldn't be the best thing that could happen to him," says Sandy Koufax, special pitching instructor. "He went 8 2/3 innings two weeks ago (in a winter league). Down here, nobody's gone one inning yet. A couple of weeks wouldn't have any effect on him at all, I wouldn't think . . . I can't conceive that he wouldn't be here to open the season."
When the Valenzuela flap is settled, it will probably be the Koufax Compromise--a perfect piece of mediation--that paves the way.
In a tangled situation, in which both Valenzuela and L.A. are entirely in the right, Koufax has managed to discover a unique and equitable middle ground.
Valenzuela feels that, in essence, the Dodgers owe him a million dollars for what he did in '81, when his salary was a ridiculous $42,500. What if, like Mark Fidrych, Karl Spooner or Herb Score, his pitching career is cut short by injury or accident? He'll never get the money that, in a sense, he has earned.
The Dodgers know that, under baseball rules, they could renew Valenzuela's contract in '82 for as little as $35,000 and the left-hander, devoid of leverage, would have little choice but to pitch for them--unless he wanted to go to Japan. Also, the Dodgers know that every dollar they give Valenzuela now--when they don't really have to--will have an effect: on other teams' salary arbitration cases and on their own payroll, causing players to line up instantly to ask for renegotiation.
Enter Koufax, man of reason, independent opinion and a former bitter Dodger holdout, in tandem with Don Drysdale.
"For what he did last year, I feel Fernando deserves some special protection and appreciation. I don't think they can accede to his demands. First of all, they don't have to. But they can show their appreciation by protecting him.
"After all, Fernando's playing in '82 and bargaining in '62. He can't be a free agent this year and he can't go to arbitration . . .He's in the same situation that players used to be for their whole careers--no leverage."
So, Mr. K, what's the way out?
"The Dodgers sign three contracts. Fernando signs one," says Koufax.
In other words, the Dodgers hand Valenzuela contracts for '82, '83 and '84 for a salary on the order of $350,000 a year. Valenzuela signs for '82, but puts the other two in his pocket. If he has a great year in '82, then he is still free to negotiate a new contract to '83, or, if he and the Dodgers can't agree, go to arbitration.
However, if Valenzuela is a second-year flop, or has a major injury, he can, at any time, sign those '83 and '84 contracts, make them valid, and get his "protection" money. Thus, Valenzuela would be both free and protected.
It has never been done, or suggested, before.
"A unique problem, why not a unique solution?" Koufax asks.
Tony DeMarco, Valenzuela's agent, said today he is willing to work on the proposal. But it is obvious the pitcher's representatives still want to haggle over that ($350,000) salary figure.
Dodger General Manager Al Campanis simply says, "No comment."
The Dodgers' worry is that this arm-twisting phase will alter Valenzuela's personality and, thus, his pitching.
"He's going to have a totally new experience, I'm afraid," Koufax says. "And you don't know how it's going to affect him at 21 years old. He will get a crash course in human nature . . . Last year, he was a breath of fresh air. I'd hate to see him get hurt . . .
"To the Dodgers' credit, they haven't done anything to embarrass him . . . This could have made an open breach. The Dodgers have avoided that. They haven't said he's greedy. They're not out to destroy him. Basically, they know they own him for the next five years. The question is, how much are they going to have to pay him?
"The fact that he's going to be in Los Angeles is predetermined. Why? Because if he misses part of the season, then he's not eligible for arbitration next year and he's in the same boat."
While Fernando's away, the Dodgers are content to frolic--at least until his holdout becomes deadly serious.
"Here's Jay Johnstone, America's guest," crows Lasorda. "All winter long, you'd think this guy was Lou Gehrig. He was at every function. 'Our guest today is the man who hit that pinch home run in the World Series, the guy that helped the Dodgers to the pennant. Mr. Jay Johnstone.'
"The worthless bum got 17 hits the whole damn year. (Pitcher Burt) Hooton had 10. Johnstone's the only guy who ever parlayed 17 hits into a fortune.
"And here's Rick Monday the man who hit The Home Run That Won The Pennant," continues Lasorda in a thunder that keeps the whole locker room in snickers. "If Monday meets three guys in the men's room, he thinks it's an interview."
By day's end, Lasorda wasn't needling. He was begging. On a radio show back to L.A., Lasorda said, "Fernando, if you're listening, I just want to say one thing." And with that, he broke into two minutes of impromptu Fernando Won't You Please Come Home in fluent Spanish.