Tommy Lasorda: The Lion in Spring
It’s a weekday afternoon late last season when I meet Tommy Lasorda in the lobby of Dodger Stadium. Lasorda has a crafty, comical and somewhat menacing air about him as he struts/waddles toward his office. He brings to mind Burgess Meredith’s Penguin from Batman, though, like a lot of tough guys, Lasorda prefers chomping on a toothpick to twirling a cigarette holder.
Maybe it’s the toothpick or maybe it’s the brawler reputation he earned while growing up near Philadelphia and maintained as a player, coach and manager, but 80-year-old Tommy Lasorda still gives the impression he could deck you if you crossed him.
He shows me to his office, where a wall is filled with photos of his friends. There he is with Frank Sinatra, who sang the national anthem at Dodger Stadium to inaugurate Lasorda’s first full season as manager in 1977. There are also shots of Presidents Ford, Reagan, and Bush I and II, all Republicans whom Lasorda admires.
Dapper with his silver hair, gray slacks, and blue-and-white checked button-down shirt, open at the collar, Lasorda eyes me warily at the outset but warms up in conversation. He smiles and says, “See if you can see the book that’s underneath Ford’s arm.”
It’s The Artful Dodger, a book Lasorda wrote with David Fisher in 1985, most notable, perhaps, for Lasorda’s unabashed candor about his Old Testament–style pugnacity and vindictiveness. For instance, Lasorda tells of hurling several pitches at an old-timer in the minors. Why? Because this former major-leaguer had refused to give Lasorda an autograph when Lasorda was a boy. Chuckling, Lasorda says that he didn’t realize until recently that the book held by President Ford, shown grinning in the photo, was his own.
Lasorda’s optimism is eternal and can veer toward the cornball. One of his favorite sayings — that the four things in life he’s never regretted are God, family, the United States and the Dodgers — is framed on his door.
As the Dodgers open the season on their 50th anniversary in Los Angeles, Lasorda, along with Vin Scully, has been the only constant. He started back in the team’s Brooklyn days as a player and later in L.A. became a scout, minor-league manager and big-league coach. Once known for their front-office stability, the Dodgers have gone through six managers and six general managers and have had three owners in the past dozen years. Through all the hirings and firings (and the speculation that he played a behind-the-scenes role in some of them), Lasorda has been a model of Darwinian behavior, surviving even the Rupert Murdoch era, when his long-valued counsel was ignored. He’s now special adviser to Dodgers owner Frank McCourt and can be seen every home game in the executive seats right behind the dugout.
Lasorda puts his hands behind his neck, leans back in his black swivel chair and places a shoe on his desk. He carries the confidence of a man who has paid his dues, who has proved himself a winner on the field, and who knows how to handle himself in the presence of a president, a celebrity, a journalist or an opponent. Not bad for a “runny-nosed kid, a son of Italian immigrants,” his constant refrain in TheArtful Dodger.
Travis McCourt, one of Frank’s four sons, shows up at the door, a five-o’clock shadow on his face. Lasorda, who has been tapping a silver letter opener and stacking a series of photos in plastic sheaths on his desk, flashes his biggest smile yet.
“He’s got all the qualifications of an Italian,” Lasorda tells me. “Look at him. He’s good-looking; he’s tough; he’s smart. When I look at him, I see a lot of me in him.”
The 20-something McCourt teases Lasorda that he’s only being nice because he’s one of the few people in the building who “can take him in a fight.”
“I’d catch him on a bad day,” says McCourt, grinning.
Lasorda’s accomplishments are legendary, topped off by coming out of retirement in 2000 to lead the U.S. Olympians to a gold medal over Cuba. When Lasorda was a rookie big-league manager, his Dodgers beat out the fearsome Big Red Machine of Cincinnati to win the Western Division and make it to the World Series before losing to the Yankees. They would lose to those damn Yankees again in 1978, before besting them in 1981. His tenure as Dodger skipper, though, is probably best remembered for the 1988 World Series victory over the heavily favored Oakland A’s, immortalized by a hobbled Kirk Gibson’s game-winning home run.
The origins of that championship dated back several years earlier, when Lasorda, in a stroke of inspirational genius, gave Orel Hershiser, a modestly built man with the equally modest mug of popcorn king Orville Redenbacher, the nickname of Bulldog. Lasorda tells me how it happened, after Hershiser’s first outing as a Dodger.
“I put him in, in relief against Houston. Jose Cruz was the hitter ... The bases were loaded. He pitched ball one, ball two, ball three ... Then [Cruz] hit one off this little gate down here in left field.” Lasorda pauses, pointing out the window to the ball field. “Cleared the bases.”
Lasorda says he called the future Cy Young Award winner into his office the next day.
“ ‘You’ve been pitching scared, you’re pitching negatively,’ ” he recalls telling Hershiser. “ ‘You’re saying to yourself, I better not throw that ball there or he’s gonna hit it, instead of saying, I’m going to throw that ball there and he ain’t gonna hit it.’
“Then I told him, ‘You’ve got to believe in yourself’ and all that stuff.
“ ‘And another thing about you,’ ” Lasorda added. “ ‘I don’t like your first name. If I bring you in tonight, we’re playing the Braves, and Murphy’s the hitter, and that guy says now pitching for the Dodgers, number 55, OR-el Hershiser. Murphy can’t wait till you get to the mound, with a guy named OR-el.’
“ ‘From now on, your name is Bulldog ... I want you to act like a Bulldog.’ ”
Hershiser did just that, winning the ’88 World Series MVP.
During this past spring training, Lasorda was given the honor of managing the Dodgers’ final Grapefruit League game, after 60 years at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida. The image of him barreling out of the dugout to protest a call is vintage Lasorda.
We finish, and Lasorda struts/waddles through some doors that take him deeper into the bowels of Dodger Stadium. Safe at home.
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