Hi friends. Here’s how I see baseball on this Friday, January 8. I might say “Here we go again.” 7 Hall of Famers died in 2020, and one has passed away as 2021 dawns. Former Dodgers’ manager Tommy Lasorda died last night.
Nobody would remember Lasorda, a native of Norristown, PA for his pitching career. He went 0—4 with an ERA of almost 6.5. He will be remembered, and is in fact in the Hall of Fame because of his 1599—1439 record as manager of the Dodgers. He played in Brooklyn, then with the Kansas City Athletics. Starting in 1973, he was a coach for the Dodgers under Walter Alston. That lasted 4 years, after which he took over the reins. After his teams lost the 1977 and 1978 World Series, they won in 1981 over the Yankees and again in 1988, this time beating the Oakland A’s. That win led to his second Manager of the Year award. He was also manager of the year for the 1983 Dodgers. After joining the Hall of Fame in 1997, he led the United States Olympic baseball team to a gold medal in Sydney in 2000.
While playing with the Yankees’ AAA farm team in Denver, Lasorda’s manager was Ralph Houk, who made a big impression on the 30-year-old future manager. Talking with legendary Los Angeles journalist Bill Plaschke, Lasorda said “Ralph taught me that if you treat players like human beings, they will play like Superman.” Nobody could deny Lasorda treated his troops like human beings. Decades before the term “social distancing,” much was made on TV of the manager’s way of hugging his players. One NBC reporter said “The way to stop the Dodgers’ winning is to get them to stop hugging.”
Even when Lasorda was mad, you wanted to laugh because of his antics. He could get away with saying anything to his troops, including a lot that the FCC won’t permit even now in 2021. Whatever he said, they would go through walls for him. During game 4 of the World Series, with his team down 3-0 early and nobody ready in the bull pen, he told a trusted coach “Give me a sign when I’m out there. I’ll mess around for some time.” Turned out, by “messing around,” he meant giving a very stern fatherly lecture to his starting pitcher. Trying to head his boss off, said pitcher claimed “I feel good, Tommy.” Yes, he didn’t have to call him “Boss,” or “Skip,” as was more common then, even a young pitcher could call Lasorda “Tommy.” As the Dodger Stadium organ played, Lasorda and his starter wrangled, thus giving his reliever time to finish warming up. Unlike Mets’ manager Terry Collins with Matt Harvey in 2015, Lasorda stood his ground and ushered his starter off the hill when his relief was ready.
His final answer (or rather, the printable version of it) was “I’m the manager, I make the decision. Even if it’s the wrong decision, it’s my job to make it.”
Lasorda got into rhubarbs with umpires, and on one memorable occasion with a hapless member of the media. In May of 1978, KLAC reporter Paul Olden asked Lasorda “What did you think of Kingman’s performance,” after the Cubs’ mighty outfielder had launched 3 home runs in the game. While his response was sulfurous enough to take the paint off the clubhouse wall, it was still hilarious to listen to this big, friendly man cursing a blue streak. Los Angeles sports icon Jim Healy used a bleeped version of Lasorda’s response, and it got so many laughs he kept using it as long as he was on the air. Other broadcasters have used it through the decades, and it appeared on one of Rhino Records’ compilations of Baseball’s Greatest Hits, a 2-volume series I believe is now sadly out of print. As for Olden, instead of ruining his career, he only went onward and upward. Where Orson Welles went from New York to Hollywood after “The War of the Worlds” sparked panic, Olden took the reverse route from Los Angeles to the Big Apple. Since 2009, he’s been the public address announcer at Yankee Stadium.
For every tirade story, there’s a dozen stories about the hugging, nice side of Lasorda. I’ll share one story I can’t back up and one I can because I was there. The one I can’t back up was told to me by a listener to Paul Finebaum’s sports talk radio show. According to Finebaum, a caller of his wrote a fan letter to Lasorda from a small place in rural Mississippi, telling the famous manager how his town didn’t have money for lights so the kids could play ball. Again according to Finebaum, Lasorda flew to Mississippi, brought the locals their own baseballs, bats and gloves, and donated enough for the lights to be installed.
The moment I witnessed happened when our Charleston Riverdogs team, (South Atlantic League) was playing the Dodgers’ affiliate. Tommy Lasorda was there. Our manager, former big leaguer Buddy Biancalana knew we did an interview segment between the top and bottom of the first inning of every game. With my broadcast partner Jim Lucas’ help, Buddy’s son Bryn, age 14, got the chance of a lifetime to meet Tommy Lasorda. The Hall of Famer said the sentence which makes me remember the encounter. To Bryn, he said “I like you, and you know why? Because you’re Italian!”
R I P Tommy Lasorda.2