VERO BEACH, Fla. – It was the second inning at the little ballpark in the corner of Dodgertown and the short, oval-shaped manager was displeased with the call at first base.
From his place beside the dugout, he bellowed at the umpire. He gestured, his arms sweeping broadly along the horizon. He was so disgusted, he strongly considered getting off his chair.
Not five minutes later, a second call went against him on the first-base line.
And then Tommy Lasorda shot – well, slid – from that chair and charged – well, slogged – across the field, into the chest of that tall, angular and terribly misguided umpire. The overflow crowd stood and cheered while Lasorda, going on 12 years since a heart attack took him from the Dodgers' dugout, blew smoke and spittle in the general direction of Gary Cederstrom's neck, which just slayed the grinning umpire.
Eventually, Lasorda's mouth having gone dry and the clouds rolling in from the south, they wandered together toward Lasorda's chair, Cederstrom dropping him off near the on-deck circle with a subtle nod.
Say what you will about the Los Angeles Dodgers, and it hasn't been a great couple decades, but they do have wonderful depth in iconic Italian managers.
As Joe Torre was trundling north on I-95, leading a bus caravan toward the club's journey to Beijing, Lasorda jammed a blue lineup card in his right back pocket and ran the games Torre left behind. At 80, Lasorda managed Tuesday afternoon's game against the Florida Marlins and will manage seven more, until Torre's return.
"Am I 80?" he shrieked. "Jesus Christ, 80? Eighty? Can't be. I can't be 80."
His theory is all those flights to the East Coast, losing three hours a trip over the years, cost him a decade.
As of September, yes, he's 80. A couple months later, the Dodgers hired Torre. And mid-morning Tuesday, Torre turned over the games to Lasorda. Between them, they won 3,666 big-league games, six World Series titles and made 10 World Series appearances.
While Torre has been the star of the Dodgers' 61st – and, probably, last – spring training here, Tuesday was all Tommy's, from the clubhouse to the dining hall to the diamond, and on all the narrow concrete pathways in between.
In the morning, he spoke to his players, lined in their folding chairs along the perimeter of the clubhouse.
"Yeah," Torre said, smiling, "but you don't want to hear it."
Lasorda poked a crooked forefinger into the air, framing his message.
"I'm looking forward to winnin'," he growled. "We want to be the team that walks off winnin'. They'd better start preparing themselves to win."
And then, a couple hours later, he sent Brad Penny to pinch-hit with second and third with none out in the sixth. Seems when they divvied up the China and U.S. squads, somebody forgot to leave a few hitters behind.
He concluded a morning press debriefing from the seat of his golf cart, a conversation that covered the travesty of pitch counts for starters ("You want to be the manager to tell Koufax, 'That's it. The 'pen's got it. Get the hell off the mound.'?"), his departure from the game at a time he feared going out like Don Drysdale in a hotel room or John McSherry on a baseball field ("Simply because I got scared."), and his appreciation for the chance to run a ballclub again, even for a week, even when it didn't really count.
"It just goes to show people remember you," he said, "remember what you did."
Then he stomped on the gas pedal, the parking brake disengaging with a clunk.
"Boys," he said, "I don't know how Joe did it, but I gotta go eat."
The people in their blue T-shirts and caps, the security guards in their yellow windbreakers, even the interlopers in their Angels red, they waved and shouted his name as he motored past. Lasorda smiled and waved and touched some of their extended hands. He always seemed to love this part, where he was Tommy and they were adoring, and this afternoon he drew energy from what he once was, what the Dodgers once were.
Lasorda left the cart with a bound, and led several friends toward the double glass doors that open into a low-slung building that once housed the business offices, press room and clubhouse. He spoke loudly, retelling a story in the language of the ballpark, and was in mid-sentence when he reached for the doorknob and pulled hard.
His mouth hung open for a moment, then his hand shot out.
"Well, look-it here," he said, the story stashed for a moment. "Hello, monsignor!"
He lunched with Mike Fratello, the former NBA coach who has a home three hours south of Vero Beach, and a handful of friends. As he ate – ham and swiss, no bread, vegetable soup – he signed mock-up tickets the organization would frame and present to the players shipped to China for two exhibition games. Torre had signed along the bottom. And as he added his autograph at an angle in the upper-left-hand corner, Lasorda mused, "Huh, looks like Joe used a bigger pen."
For another water-colored afternoon, in a place Lasorda did a lot of his growing up and growing old, he walked the foul line, from the pole to the plate. The miniature ballpark was nearly full. He handed over his lineup card and clapped his hands and took his place, over by the bat and helmet racks, by the players and the coaches. He'd feel the game again. He'd stand and shake hands with a happy ballplayer. Yeah, he'd argue a little.
"First of all," he'd say later, "the guy was safe at first base."
He smiled and added, almost sheepishly, "Put on a little show, you know?"
In the end, the Dodgers lost by a run. But, Lasorda wouldn't get too worked up. He'd thought about some things during his game. And they were good, mostly. As he leaned on a stucco column outside his office, he considered all that had led him to there, to a few hours on a ball field before the sun went down.
"Went by too fast," he said. "Went by too fast. Before I knew it, I was retiring."
"By golly," he said, "I enjoyed it. And I'm going to enjoy it the rest of the games. But we'll get 'em tomorrow, and we'll get 'em the next day, and get 'em again the day after that."