Tommy Lasorda, 84, authentically fills his role as Dodgers icon and baseball ambassador
GLENDALE, Ariz. – Tommy Lasorda plops into a golf cart at the Los Angeles Dodgers spring training facility on a warm March morning and puts the pedal to the floor. Twelve hours, hundreds of autographs, dozens of one-liners and motivational gems, nine innings, a few catnaps and a platter of meatballs later, his head hits the pillow, another day in his 85th year.
His hair is white, his skin olive, his eyes a twinkling blue. Not quite Dodger blue, but close enough. He’s in full uniform and the golf cart is at full throttle, zooming along the perfectly manicured dirt path from the clubhouse to the practice fields at Camelback Ranch.
Fans line both sides, a half-dozen deep like a golf tournament gallery. Lasorda is revered by the masses, and a day spent with him provides a glimpse into the reasons. Not so long ago he could be manipulative and excessively profane. Those faults have receded with age, and now he authentically represents his image. His most annoying peeve these days could be refusing to autograph bats because he believes they can be sold for more profit than any other memorabilia.
“We love you Tommy!” one yells. “Good morning Mr. Lasorda!” says another. “God bless you Tommy!” yells a third.
Lasorda replies with a throaty, “Good morning! It’s great to be a Dodger,” as the cart zips by. He sees two adolescent boys and shouts good-naturedly, “Why aren’t they in school? I’m going to report ‘em.” Everybody in earshot has a good laugh.
Riding in the rear of the cart is Colin Gunderson, Lasorda’s omnipresent assistant. “Colin, where’s Loney?” Lasorda says. “I want to see Loney hit.” Gunderson points to a field where Dodgers first baseman James Loney is taking batting practice with Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Juan Rivera.
Lasorda maneuvers the cart onto the field, muttering, “We gotta get out of the way of these line drives,” and pulls to a stop inches behind the cage. Loud thwacks pierce the air every few seconds. Two of Lasorda’s star infielders from the 1970s, first-base coach Davey Lopes and public relations figure Ron Cey, stand to the side, engaged in an animated conversation.
This is Lasorda’s turf. So is the clubhouse. So is a podium at a corporate banquet or college commencement. So is a dugout. So is the head of a table at a restaurant. But the ballfield during spring training is Lasorda’s favorite place of all.
“I love to teach the game,” he says. “I love being out here with the guys.”
Before he was the Dodgers manager from 1977 to 1996, winning four National League pennants and two World Series, before he was a minor-league manager and before he was a coach, Lasorda was a left-handed pitcher whose success came during nine seasons at Triple-A Montreal. He reached the big leagues for parts of three seasons, going 0-4 with an ERA of 6.48.
His curveball was his signature pitch, and it gets more effective with each passing year. Trading jabs with Lasorda starts with the hook.
Kemp stands next to the golf cart, waiting his turn in the cage.
“Tommy, I’d bust your curveball,” he says with a sly grin.
“You couldn’t hit my curveball,” Lasorda replies. “You know what I used to say when they played against me? ‘Your heart belongs to momma but your behind belongs to me.’ ”
Kemp shakes his head and chuckles, saying, “I’ve heard ‘em all.”
Lasorda playfully waves off the slugger who was runner-up for the NL MVP award in 2011 and signed a $160 million contract extension in the offseason.
“You couldn’t hit me.”
Master of ceremonies
Lasorda has been inducted into 17 halls of fame, including the one that matters most, in Cooperstown, N.Y. He’s met seven presidents. Lasorda’s 60 x 50-inch portrait hangs in the Smithsonian Institution. He has an asteroid named after him. He has eight honorary doctoral degrees and will pick up two more this year.
“I’ve been honored more times than anybody in this country,” he says, more out of wonderment than braggadocio. “Nobody has come close to me. Who has 10 doctorate degrees? I didn’t graduate from college.
“I didn’t even graduate from high school. I’ve never told anybody that before. I got my degree later, when I was in the army.”
He’s sitting at a card table in the Dodgers’ spring clubhouse, having spent the last three hours in the dugout as a coach during the team’s Cactus League game against the Oakland Athletics. He spouted time-worn pearls of wisdom to players, chatted with manager Don Mattingly and occasionally dropped his chin into his folded arms and nodded off.
Now the players are gone for the day, clubbies are collecting soiled laundry and the clubhouse sanctuary is quiet. It’s time for some memories. Lasorda shakes his head, amazed and amused by his journey.
It’s been quite a life, and instead of just barreling through it anymore the way he does the back fields in his golf cart, he’s getting increasingly reflective. It’s one of his few concessions to age: He and his wife, Jo, will celebrate their 62nd wedding anniversary in April, and he’ll turn 85 in September.
His ability to tell a story, to speak extemporaneously, to motivate, to humor, remains unparalleled. It’s why he’s still relevant, why he’s sought as a speaker all over the country 16 years after he managed his last game and 24 years since the Dodgers last won a World Series.
Lasorda thinks back to his roots. He was one of five sons born to Italian immigrants Sabatino and Carmella Lasorda, raised in a small tri-level house in blue-collar Norristown, Pa. Sabatino drove a truck at a stone quarry for a living.
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“A lot of times when I’m up there speaking, I think of my father and how he was a great storyteller,” Lasorda says. “When he wanted us to do something, he always told us in story form. He’d use our names in the stories and they always had a message.”
One made-up tale Sabatino told his sons was of a priest who wanted a huge boulder removed from the front of the parish. He had the five Lasorda brothers over for dinner, thinking that if he fed them, they’d move the rock for him. After they ate, the priest said, “You are the biggest guys in town. Show me how strong you are.”
One of the Lasorda brothers replied, “Look, Father, you got us all wrong. We’re just the biggest eaters in town.” The Lasordas walked out on the priest.
“That was my dad’s way of telling us, ‘You guys are lazy. You eat but you don’t do squat,’ ” Lasorda says, a good 70 years after the lesson.
Lasorda never uses notes when he speaks. He has so many anecdotes and jokes and motivational yarns memorized that he says he looks at his audience, intuitively recognizes the message that will resonate best and launches into his speech.
He spoke at the California State University-Fullerton commencement last June, and rather than preach to the graduates about how education has prepared them for their lives ahead, he told a story: “Three friends had just graduated. The parents of the first lad explained how proud they were and gave him keys to a new car. The parents of the second kid said they were delighted with her accomplishment and gave her $10,000. The third parents went up to their son and said, ‘We are very proud, you worked hard, you got a good education. Good luck, son.’
“The boy said, ‘Dad, wait a minute. My buddy got a new car and my other friend got $10,000. You didn’t give me anything.’ His father said, ‘That’s where you are wrong, son. We’re giving you a much bigger and better present than they received. We’re giving you the world. Now go out and earn it.’ ”
After the speech Lasorda joined the regents in a room for a bite to eat. One of them said, “Hey, Tommy, look outside. All the parents are throwing keys away and tearing up checks.”
Teaching and a touch of tormenting
Before pulling the golf cart away from the batting cage, Lasorda watches Loney take his swings, exhorting him to hit the ball out in front of the plate and to use the whole field. Loney listens and responds politely – advice from Lasorda did help him pull out of a slump last season – but he’s got a major-league staff of coaches to draw on.
Among the stars, Lasorda mostly teases and loves being teased.
He gets the attention of newly signed veteran second baseman Mark Ellis and says, “God must really love you, Ellis.”
“Why is that, Tommy?” Ellis replies with a bemused grin, knowing what’s coming.
“Because after all those years in that other [expletive] league, he finally made you a Dodger.”
A ball jumps off Loney’s bat. Lasorda’s long-range vision is weak, and he says, “Where’d it go?” Told the ball cleared the fence, he yells, “Thata boy, James!”
Lasorda maneuvers the golf cart back to the fields where minor leaguers work out. This is where he’s able to once again be Tommy Lasorda, manager, the guy who reached the World Series in his first two seasons and won championships in 1981 and 1988, who turned nerdy-looking pitcher Orel Hershiser into a bulldog by making it his nickname, who inspired an ailing Kirk Gibson to leave the training table and belt a ninth-inning home run to win Game 1 of the 1988 World Series.
With the minor leaguers, Lasorda can be a jokester, but he also gets serious, even if the lessons are circa 1990. He’s coaching. He leads a group of players around the diamond, beginning and ending at home plate, imparting wisdom at every base. Think of it as “The Dodger Way to Play Baseball” cranked through a pasta maker.
“I try to impress upon them how to make it, what it’s going to take,” he says. “Everybody wants to win but everybody doesn’t win. I teach them how to win.”
Lasorda visits every Dodgers minor-league team during the season, and last year he found himself standing before the Great Lakes Loons, a Single-A team in Midland, Mich. He told them about the minor-league journey of guys he managed – Mike Scioscia, Mike Piazza, Steve Garvey – and of contemporary Dodgers such as Kemp, Ethier and Chad Billingsley.
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“Nobody in this room knows who among you is going to play at Dodger Stadium,” Lasorda said, his voice rising. “Learn the fundamentals of the game and execute them on a daily basis. Be in peak physical condition. Be a great teammate. It will take perspiration, dedication and inspiration.”
Then he amends his first comment.
“I’ll tell you who among you will play at Dodger Stadium. It’s the guy who right this minute is thinking, ‘He’s talking about me!’ ”
Gotta say please
Batting practice is over and it’s high noon. The players duck into the clubhouse for a respite before the 1 p.m. game but Lasorda turns the golf cart onto a knoll and behind a card table with pens and Sharpies sitting on it. A line of fans snakes around the knoll.
Signing autographs is a ritual for Lasorda before every Dodger spring home game. He doesn’t charge a fee to sign. He’s on the payroll as a special advisor to the owner, he revels in being baseball’s foremost ambassador, and this he considers part of his duties.
He yells from the golf cart to the security guard monitoring the line, “Bring the kids up first!”
One youngster after another steps to the table and hands Lasorda a ball or a cap or a photograph to sign. Lasorda won’t pick up a pen until the boy or girl says, “Please,” a courtesy he didn’t extend to the security guard. He’s patient, engaging conversation with many of them and allowing parents to take a photo of him with the kids.
One boy can barely see over the edge of the table. “Are you a good boy?” Lasorda asks. “Let me see your eyes. … You are a good boy.”
Lasorda as Santa Claus is blurred when the adults begin approaching the table. A man with a gray beard wearing a T-shirt that reads “Hang Loose, Maui” pleasantly asks, “Can you sign my picture?”
Lasorda turns his ear to the man: “What? What? … Grownups have to say please, too.” The man does, and so do others, although some appear to depart feeling like the groveling was demeaning.
Overall, he’s crusty and as sweet as can be expected for an octogenarian sitting in the noon Arizona sun. He signs with his given name, Tom Lasorda, and often adds the date he was inducted in the Hall of Fame, 8-3-97.
The game between the Dodgers and A’s will begin in a few minutes. Lasorda wants to reach the dugout before the first pitch but he’s still surrounded by autograph seekers. Gunderson, his assistant, tells everyone to back off. Lasorda doesn’t need to be the bad guy. They climb into the golf cart and head for a quick bite to eat on the way to the stadium.
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“This game doesn’t belong to the players, it belongs to the fans,” Lasorda says while he’s driving. “You can have the best team in baseball and if nobody goes through the turnstiles, you’ve got to shut the doors down.”
As for his own memorabilia, it’s stuffed into the garage of the modest Fullerton, Calif., home he’s shared with Jo since the 1960s. He’s beginning to think about it, to become curious of its value.
“My wife says she doesn’t want it,” he says. “My daughter says she doesn’t want it.”
Maybe he’ll sell it at auction. It’s that time of life.
“Somebody might like to have it,” he says. “I’d put half of the money in Jo’s foundation. She’s already built an athletic center in Yorba Linda [Calif.], and we helped build a convent in Nashville.”
Perpetual zest for life
Frank McCourt’s failings as the Dodgers owner are well-chronicled, but Lasorda gives him and his ex-wife Jamie praise. Fox Corp., which bought the team from the O’Malley family in 1998 and sold it to McCourt in 2004, considered Lasorda obsolete and marginalized him.
One of McCourt’s first moves was to make Lasorda a face of the franchise. After retiring as manager in 1996 following a heart attack, Lasorda all but disappeared until he managed the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in 2000. The Fox ownership underutilized him as a team ambassador even after that, but McCourt was enamored with the Dodgers’ storied past and not only was Lasorda integral to that, he was eager to please.
A new owner will be approved by MLB in the next few months. Lasorda would love to keep doing what he does, probably until the day he dies. He’s too shrewd to align himself with any one group trying to buy the team. He’s aligned with the Dodgers.
“I had three or four of the prospective owners call me to ask if I’d be part of their group,” he says. “I’ve told them all that when one person wins the bid, if he wants me to continue, I’d do it. If he doesn’t, I’ll say adios.”
It’s early evening and the clubhouse is empty except for Lasorda, Gunderson and a couple of visitors. “Tommy, it’s time for your workout,” Gunderson says. Lasorda needs no prodding. He peels down to a pair of blue shorts and climbs into a warm pool that has a treadmill on the bottom. Jets blow water at his chest while he briskly walks on the treadmill.
He’s proud of his daily workout. He’s pulling small plastic oars through the water, 50 repetitions one way, 50 another, 200 in all. His legs are pumping, battling against the force of the jets.
“Give me some more juice!” Lasorda yells at Gunderson, who cranks a knob to increase the jets.
The workout ends and Lasorda only has one more appointment, the same one that ends every day. Like he’s done all across America, he’s become friends with the proprietor of a pizzeria 15 minutes from Camelback Ranch. The first time he ate there, Lasorda was aghast that no meatballs were on the menu.
The staff rustled up some meatballs, and they were good. Now Lasorda is a regular, filling a table of eight with minor leaguers on one night, coaches and scouts on another, secretaries and administrative staff on the next. Salads and pizzas fill the table, and so do meatballs.
“There has to be meatballs,” he says.
Lasorda’s health is good. He has arthritis in his hands, but not enough to keep him from signing autographs. His heart is strong and he periodically visits patients at the Tom Lasorda Heart Institute at Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood, Calif.
His calendar is full with speaking engagements scheduled through the spring and summer and well into the fall. But tomorrow he again gets to spend a day his favorite way: pulling on his Dodgers uniform, popping the brake on the golf cart and heading off to the fields.
Fans and players await. And Tommy Lasorda at his most genuine plans to deliver.
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