WSJ.com: Pitching Duel: In L.A., Fight Takes Off Over Struggling Airport
Locals Call In Baseball's Tommy Lasorda to Rally for Ontario; Hearing Birds Chirp
ONTARIO, Calif.—The Ontario International Airport, 35 miles east of Los Angeles, offers nonstop flights to just 15 cities. Daily departures have plummeted to 62, less than half the number five years ago.
The international airport has one nonstop passenger flight out of the country, a three-hour trip to Guadalajara, Mexico. Security officials stand around waiting for a passenger to screen, coffee shops and bookstores are empty, and the runways are quiet enough to hear the rustle of trees and birds chirping.
Ontario city officials believe part of the problem is the airport's ownership by Los Angeles and have waged a long battle to wrest back control of it. The campaign hadn't gained much buzz in L.A., until locals recently brought in a pinch hitter: Tommy Lasorda.
The 84-year-old Baseball Hall of Famer has pitched for the Dodgers, the antacid tablet Rolaids, the diet drink Slim-Fast and 1990s videogame-maker Sega Genesis. Still, Mr. Lasorda's latest pitch—on behalf of a struggling regional airport fighting for independence from Los Angeles—is out of left field.
"Hi everybody I'm Tommy Lasorda and I firmly believe without a doubt that Ontario International Airport should be under local control and not managed from a distant city," Mr. Lasorda says in a two-minute online commercial scheduled to begin airing on local television this month. "Come on L.A., let's set Ontario free!"
The Ontario campaign has used Facebook, Twitter and old-fashioned lobbying—more than 80 local governments, elected officials and civic groups publicly support the transfer of the airport back to Ontario, according to Ontario city officials.
Then Mr. Lasorda stepped up to bat. "We've been at this for over two years and we've finally got people's attention," says Paul Haney, who works for the public relations firm that represents Ontario.
Ontario has offered L.A. $50 million to regain control of its airport and end a 45-year relationship that allowed L.A. to run its airport.
Ontario mounted a "Set ONTario Free" campaign to convince the Los Angeles City Council to approve the breakup. ONT is the airport's code.
Last year, more than 62 million people flew through L.A.'s main airport, LAX, as it is known. About 4.5 million came through Ontario.
Los Angeles has managed Ontario's airport since 1967 and took ownership of it in 1985, in what was thought to be a good plan for both cities at the time.
But Ontario says that under L.A.'s management, its airport has seen traffic steadily decline, showing a 36% drop in passengers since 2007.
Local leaders blame L.A. for ignoring the needs of Ontario in favor of boosting traffic at LAX.
Los Angeles officials say they are committed to Ontario and that broader economic problems are to blame for the dwindling traffic there.
"I'm a Dodger fan. I'm a Tommy Lasorda fan," says Mary Grady, a spokeswoman for Los Angeles World Airports, the agency that runs the airports. "He is certainly entitled to his opinion, but I would invite him to spend some time with us so we can explain to him the facts about the causes of passenger decline at Ontario."
Of his pitch for Ontario's airport, Mr. Lasorda says, "I did it for my friend, and I was happy to do it because I believe in local ownership of that nature."
He has raised money for charities in and around Ontario—often at the behest of his friend, Chris Leggio, who owns a car dealership in Ontario. They met 15 years ago when Mr. Lasorda was signing autographs at a conference for auto dealers.
Mr. Leggio, who helped to fund Mr. Lasorda's portrait at the Smithsonian Institution, said he asked Mr. Lasorda to appear in the commercial after Ontario city officials contacted him with the idea.
The city paid $78,000 to film the commercial, including a $10,000 fee for Mr. Lasorda.
The fee is less than the $40,000 or so he usually charges for speaking engagements.
Mr. Lasorda says he has occasionally flown out of the Ontario airport, though he lives in Fullerton, about 25 miles away—and slightly closer to Orange County's John Wayne Airport.
Like many athletes, Mr. Lasorda has hawked a number of products over the years.
Yankees Hall of Famer Phil Rizzuto appeared in ads for the Money Store and fellow Yankees icon Joe DiMaggio made commercials for Mr. Coffee.
Yogi Berra stepped up to the plate for Miller Lite.
But his career as a pitchman has been longer than most, and the array of items more diverse. Mr. Lasorda launched his own spaghetti sauce in the late 1980s, which beat Paul Newman's sauce in a Los Angeles Times taste test, but ultimately flopped in the market.
He also promotes his Lasorda label of Italian-made wines, with appearances at local restaurants and shops. "If rubies had flavor, this is what it would taste like," the Lasorda Wine website says of the Lasorda Carmignano.
"You gotta believe in what you're doing, you gotta believe it's gonna help somebody,'' he said. "I helped a lot of people when I did that commercial for Slim-Fast."
Mr. Lasorda filmed the Ontario commercial while he was at spring training with the Dodgers.
He has worked for the team in some fashion for 63 years, since it was in Brooklyn.
"In baseball, I led that team right from the dugout, not from outside the stadium," he says in the Ontario commercial.
The Los Angeles City Council recently decided to study the issue of transferring the airport back to Ontario, though the outcome remains unclear.
On a recent day, Ontario resident Dennis Glassco sat in a mostly empty terminal waiting for a United flight to Houston, his belongings spread across a row of empty chairs.
Mr. Glassco said he hadn't heard about Mr. Lasorda's involvement in the Ontario campaign to win back its airport. But he wasn't enthusiastic about the prospect of the airport suddenly filling with passengers.
"This airport is one of the best kept secrets around," he said. "I'd like to keep it that way."
Write to Tamara Audi at [email protected]