Dodgers alumni praise new ownership

Dodgers alumni praise new ownership

Dodgers alumni praise new ownership
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- As the man, along with Vin Scully, most identified with the Dodgers over the past 35 years, Tommy Lasorda has entertained thousands of fans with tales of bleeding Dodger blue and having faith in the big Dodger in the sky.

One afternoon in his office at Dodger Stadium in 1979, Lasorda, risking a shoulder strain to do so, put a Dodgers cap on the head of a very tall visitor. This was the new kid in town, Earvin "Magic" Johnson. He'd just arrived from Michigan State's campus and was about to embark on a journey that would make him arguably the most beloved athletic figure in the history of Los Angeles.

"I gave him a Dodger hat, and he wore it for a long time," Lasorda recalled. "We talked, and I said, 'Don't let yourself get involved with the wrong people. You're going to be a star, and you have to learn who you can trust.'"

Johnson -- five-time NBA champion, Olympic gold medalist, greatest point guard in history, international HIV spokesman, hugely successful businessman -- gave Lasorda a call on Tuesday night, Hall of Famer to Hall of Famer.

Enthusiastic in nature, Magic had to be coming out of his skin with the news that Guggenheim Baseball Management LLC had purchased the Dodgers from Frank McCourt for $2 billion, pending formal approval. The new ownership group is led by controlling partner Mark R. Walter, with Johnson, Peter Guber, Stan Kasten, Bobby Patton and Todd Boehly.

"Stan Kasten also called me," Lasorda said. "I've known him for a long time. Any time you have two guys like that taking over, it's very encouraging.

"Stan has been a successful executive -- he won in Atlanta and with Washington, also in the NBA. Magic has been a winner his whole life. He's a great guy. People love him."

Lasorda isn't sure how their roles will be defined, but he anticipates Kasten handling the nuts and bolts of the operation with Johnson using his immense appeal to draw fans back to a ballpark that in recent seasons has been missing the magic and passion of old.

"I'm more concerned with the fans," Lasorda said. "We need to get them back, get back to three million. That can have an impact on what the players do on the field, feeling that outstanding support we used to have."

Maury Wills, one of the first Dodgers superstars in Los Angeles along with Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, is still in uniform, tutoring youngsters in camp on the game's finer points.

Having guided the kids through the usual bunting, sliding and base running drills, Wills took a break to ponder the potential impact of the Magic Man.

"I don't think because he walks in the clubhouse all the guys are going to rise to 100-percent performance level," Wills said. "But they'll know he has their back. I can see a guy like Magic being in a position to make some differences that are going to be positive.

"He knows what an athlete needs to be comfortable. A happy athlete is a more productive athlete. I've been in situations where management cut corners, and that affects players. He'll talk with ownership about doing things right, like taking care of a ballplayers' family. Are we going to make them comfortable? Happy wife, happy life."

Wills feels the selfless manner Johnson exhibited on the court, making everyone around him better with his unifying personality and skills, can translate in more subtle ways to baseball.

"In baseball, you can't help a hitter get hits, a pitcher get outs or a fielder make plays," Wills said. "But Magic's desire to make other players good, to get them shots and raise their intensity level, that approach can work in baseball.

"There were times when I made plays to help Sandy Koufax get a shutout. He'd back me up by striking out a guy after I'd made an error to take me off the hook. I got beat up on the bases -- you can hit a home run, but they hate it when you steal. Drysdale would come to me and say, 'Did that guy rough you up? I'll get him.'

"You're in it together. We won World Series in '59 [Wills' rookie year], '63 and '65, and a pennant in '66, with teams that were picked fourth or fifth. Teams like the Braves and Giants had tremendous talent, but I don't think other teams had the camaraderie we had. We played for one another. It's what made us special.

"That's what we need to do here. Baseball is definitely a team sport. We have a very good manager in Don Mattingly, and I think this new ownership group can bring a sense of stability to the players."

Jerry Reuss pitched for 22 big league seasons, the four best, in his mind, coming from 1980 through '83 with the Dodgers. They were the model organization of the era, with a rich farm system constantly replenishing the big-league roster.

Reuss believes it would be unrealistic for fans to expect an overnight transformation with so much work to be done in so many areas, including the ballpark.

"I'm not close to the situation anymore," he said, having left the broadcast booth four years ago. "But this is something that's not going to be done in a year, five years, maybe even 10 years. The time frame could be 20 years to take care of everything that needs to be done to make it world class.

"First class is what we had, but that won't do anymore."

Al Downing, a 20-game winner for the Dodgers in 1971 and a former broadcaster for the club, is enthused by the new ownership group's credentials. He advocates an upgrade of the farm system as the only way to create and sustain success as in the franchise's previous generations.

"If you want to be in the playoffs consistently," Downing said, "you have to rebuild your organization from the ground up. You've got to use your resources to sign guys who can play in the Major Leagues in a reasonable amount of time. And you have to train those guys right. Every player has talent, but he needs some advanced training.

"The Dodgers always had a collection of veterans to mentor young guys coming up. They got away from that. You know how Bill Russell got the nickname "Ropes?" Walter Alston told Ken Boyer to teach him the ropes.

"Now you have young guys leading young guys, and that's a recipe for disaster. The veterans were the ones who told you winning was everything."

Kirk Gibson, one of those former Dodgers leaders, is now managing defending National League West champion Arizona.

"Well, it will be interesting," Gibson said. "Guess McCourt knew what he was doing, huh? That's a big number if that's the number. It will be good just for baseball just to get it over with. Personally, I didn't know the McCourts, but I could identify as I went to Dodger Stadium that it was a much different atmosphere.

"I remember the O'Malleys, so I'm hoping that new ownership will come in and kind of restore more of the Dodger way as we knew it."

The infusion of fresh money, many feel, could elevate the Dodgers through free agency or even earlier, at the July and August trade deadlines.

"I think it will strengthen [the division]," Gibson said. "Part of me is happy for Don Mattingly. Just think of what he's gone through. He's been a trooper; he's understood it. A young manager keeping a poker face, that couldn't have been easy. So for him it will be great, a great opportunity. It's going to be a big, big challenge for us, we understand that."

Angels manager Mike Scioscia was Lasorda's catcher while Johnson was turning the "Showtime" Lakers into the most exciting team in sports. Scioscia and Magic would meet on occasion at the ballpark.

"He's always been a huge baseball fan," Scioscia said, "and I'm sure it's going to be a positive.

"Just following it from a distance, I think the first course of action for that franchise was to get ownership. They did, and I'm sure it's going to be a positive."

Reds manager Dusty Baker was the clubhouse leader of the great Dodgers clubs of the late '70s and early '80s.

"I'm glad for Magic, who I knew from when I was playing there," Baker said. "I'm glad for the organization that it's getting some stability. I knew Stan from when I was with the Braves.

"It's a lot of money. How much are the Yankees worth now?"

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