Tommy Lasorda, RIP: “I made guys believe”

Tommy Lasorda (right) shares a handshake with Sandy Koufax near the Dodger clubhouse. “It took a Hall of Famer to get rid of me,” Lasorda loved to boast about Koufax’s bonus signing leading to Lasorda’s spring 1955 cut from the major league roster. (Los Angeles Dodgers photo.)

Last year’s losses of seven Hall of Fame players (eight, if Dick Allen is elected by the Modern Era Committee this year) were bad enough. Please, Lord, let Tommy Lasorda not begin a 2021 trend of Hall of Fame managers departing our island earth.

The odds may not be very good there. There are only four living Hall of Fame managers now that Lasorda is gone at 93: Bobby Cox, Whitey Herzog, Tony La Russa, and Joe Torre. Cox, Herzog, and Torre remain elder statesmen of a sort. La Russa has returned to the game to manage the White Sox, hardly without controversy.

Lasorda took the Dodgers’ bridge from Hall of Fame manager Walter Alston in 1976. Twenty-two years later, he retired as an eight-time division winner, four-time pennant winner and two-time World Series winner. It didn’t exactly come the easy way for a man whose major league life began as the marginal relief pitcher cut for a bonus baby.

Under the 1950s bonus rule mandating players kept on big-league rosters two full seasons if their bonuses were higher than $4,000, the Dodgers had to keep such a green lad after signing him for 1955. The man they cut was Lasorda, who’s said to have taken one look at the kid and said, “He’ll never make it.”

It might have taken six seasons for the kid to come into his own and beyond, but the kid was Sandy Koufax. It wouldn’t be the last time Lasorda gave himself the chance to dine out on an old mistake in judgment.

“I did not have a lot of ability, but I’ll guarantee you one thing,” Lasorda said in 1997 when recalling his own pitching days. “When I stood on that hill of thrills, I didn’t believe that there was any man alive who could hit me. And if they did hit me, which they did, I thought it was an accident.” That from the man who dined out further on Koufax, saying, “It took a Hall of Famer to get rid of me.”

Lasorda’s three major league seasons—eight games with 1954-55 with the Dodgers, then eighteen with the 1956 Kansas City Athletics—show 53 accidents while facing 253 batters and posting a lifetime 6.48 earned run average.

Maybe it depended upon whom you asked. To Dodger fans Lasorda was the second-closest thing to a franchise face behind Koufax himself. To non-Dodger fans, Lasorda was either loved, tolerated, or waved away. Dodger fans loved Lasorda’s “Big Dodger in the Sky” schpritzing. Non-Dodger fans thought it was either sacrilege or malarkey.

Come to think of it, not all Lasorda’s players bought into it, either. “I believe in God,” said Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton, “not the Big Dodger in the Sky.”

Lasorda was nothing if not both content to be a Dodger for the rest of his life, after his playing career ended in the minors in 1960, and to be Tommy Lasorda. He wasn’t exactly one of the most modest of men, and he rarely apologised for it.

When Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully asked about the pressure of following Alston—who’d won the only Brooklyn Dodgers World Series and three more to follow in Los Angeles—the reply was almost classic Lasorda: “I’m not worried about the guy I am following. I’m worried about the guy that is going to have to follow me.”

Well, it isn’t bragging if you can kinda sorta do it.

That’s not to say Lasorda couldn’t be humbled when humility was the mandate. Maybe no manager this side of John McNamara was as humilitated in the 1980s as Lasorda was with the Dodgers one out from forcing a seventh National League Championship Series game in 1985.

With two Cardinals on and first base open, Lasorda decided it was absolutely safe to let Tom Niedenfuer pitch to Jack Clark instead of putting Clark aboard to pitch to Andy Van Slyke. And Jack the Ripper decided it was perfectly safe to hit Niedenfuer’s first pitch three quarters of the way up the left field bleachers.

“Lasorda wept in the clubhouse,” wrote Thomas Boswell in the Washington Post several years later, “went to the players to apologise, then went on with his life. At the moment he manages the [1988] world champions. Maybe Lasorda coped so well because he’d already gone to three Series and won one.”

The skipper who looked more like he’d be coming out to chat with you in his neighbourly Italian restaurant (“Two World Series Rings. Ate everything he wanted. Drank everything he wanted. 70 Years in the same work uniform. Lived For 93 Years. Absolute Legend,” tweeted sports business analyst Darren Rovell) loved being Tommy Lasorda almost as much as he loved the Dodgers.

He brought Hollywood back to the Dodgers once he realised the celebrities got as much of a kick out of him as he got out of them, and he wasn’t exactly a shrinking violet when it came to being an occasional pitchman. The problem—particularly remembering his once-familiar spots for Slim-Fast diet drink—was that he didn’t always shrink.

Of course, Lasorda’s celebrity provoked a little friendly mischief aimed his way by players who couldn’t resist tweaking him. His late utility outfielder Jay Johnstone often conspired with teammates Don (Stan the Man Unusual) Stanhouse and Jerry Reuss to swipe Lasorda’s wall of photos with him and various celebrities and substitute photos of themselves in their stead. And those were the more benign pranks at the skipper’s expense.

Which didn’t stop Lasorda from writing the introduction to Johnstone’s first book, Temporary Insanity: “[He] wrote a book? What with, a fire extinguisher? . . . What’s that they say about marching to a different drummer? Johnstone must hear a symphony out there . . . That’s some book title. But I’m not so sure about the temporary part.”

The skipper’s outsize personality sometimes masked that he was as inclusive and unprejudiced as the week was long. It didn’t matter if you were white, black, brown, beige, yellow, or paisley, whether you came from flyover America, urban America, outback Mexico, downtown Tokyo, or the penguins of Antarctica. (Which may be where some people thought the Dodgers found 1970s third base mainstay Ron [The Penguin] Cey.) If you could play to the standard the Dodgers prescribed, Lasorda wanted you in the worst way possible.

He preferred positive reinforcement with his players, which didn’t necessarily keep him from reading the proverbial riot act when necessary. There were times when those players perceived as Lasorda pets enjoyed less than consistently friendly relationships with others in the Dodger clubhouse. Sutton and longtime first baseman Steve Garvey didn’t have a clubhouse brawl once upon a time because Lasorda could make them  bosom buddies.

“I made guys believe; I made them believe they could win,” he said in a 2013 interview. “I did it by motivating them. I was asked all the time, ‘You mean baseball players that make $5 million, $8 million, $10 million a year need to be motivated?’ They do. That’s what I did.”

It’s not unreasonable to suggest Lasorda’s presence at last fall’s World Series had even a little hand in pushing the Dodgers back to the Promised Land they hadn’t seen since Lasorda himself managed Orel Hershiser, Kirk Gibson, and company in 1988.

“He was a fellow with limited ability and he pushed himself to be a very good Triple-A pitcher,” Scully said in a statement upon Lasorda’s death. “He never quite had that something extra that makes a major leaguer, but it wasn’t because he didn’t try. Those are some of the things: his competitive spirit, his determination and above all, this boundless energy and self-belief. His heart was bigger than his talent, and there were no foul lines for his enthusiasm.”

There were if someone went nuclear against his Dodgers with bombs that didn’t sail foul.   Lasorda’s wild postgame rant after then-Cubs outfielder Dave Kingman destroyed the Dodgers with three mammoth home runs starting in the sixth inning of a fifteen-inning marathon in 1979—the Cubs won in the fifteenth after Kingman hit a three-run shot—is considered one of the greatest managerial fly acts in baseball history:

What’s my opinion of Kingman’s performance? What the [fornicate] do you think is my opinion of it? I think it was [fornicating] horseshit. Put that in. I don’t [fornicating] . . . opinion of his performance? Jesus Christ, he beat us with three [fornicating] home runs. What the [fornicate] do you mean what is my opinion of his performance? How can you ask me a question like that? What is my opinion of his p – of his p-p-performance? Jesus Christ he hit three home runs. Jesus Christ. I’m [fornicating urinated] off to lose the [fornicating] game, and you ask me my opinion of his performance. Jesus Christ. I mean that’s a tough question to ask me, isn’t it? What is my opinion of his performance?

Lasorda probably survived only because a) he was the defending National League champions’ manager, b) he had his Dodgers in the thick of the National League West race at the time, and c) he was Tommy Lasorda, liable to go from celebrity pennant winning skipper to everybody’s crazy uncle on the terrazza in the proverbial New York minute.

The hapless Los Angeles radio reporter who asked Lasorda the fateful question was Paul Olden. When Lasorda ran into Olden at a subsequent charity dinner, Lasorda apologised to Olden, even as the reporter admitted it wasn’t a brilliant question in the first place. In due course, Lasorda expanded upon it:

You know Paul said to me he was sorry he did that, I said “Hey, you did your job Paul. Don’t worry about it”. He asked me, ‘What is your opinion of Kingman’s performance?’ Nobody asked me about an opinion. They’ve always asked me, ‘Well, Kingman hit three home runs’, ‘What did he hit’, ‘What did it do to you’, so and so. This guy says, ‘What is your opinion’. So I proceeded to give him what was my opinion of Kingman’s performance. I’d like to have the rights on that, on that tape, because what happened, uh . . . was when it was first played on the Jim Healy show, I guess Gene Autry heard it and he wanted a copy of the real tape. And then all of a sudden, within a two week period, that tape had gone from the west coast to the east coast. Everybody had that tape. Within a month’s time, I couldn’t go anywhere without somebody telling me they had the tape—the real tape of that, uh, opinion. I think it was finally translated into Japanese.

That tells you something right there. Tommy Lasorda may have been one of baseball’s most unforgettable managers, but he had a sense of humour about it, even delayed, if you weren’t always inclined to agree with him.

Which is why he now steps through the gates to the Elysian Fields with the Lord in whom he devoutly believes saying, “For you, I’ll be the Big Dodger in the Sky. Better that than a bum.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s