Tommy Lasorda

After 50 years of baseball, the legendary manager swears he bleeds Dodger blue.

Published October 17, 2000 7:37PM (EDT)

It's a wonder Tommy Lasorda didn't spontaneously combust while he was in Sydney guiding the U.S. baseball team to its first gold medal in three attempts.

"I have tasted it all! Manager of the year! Sixty-three playoff games! Two world championships! The Hall of Fame! And there's nothing bigger than this! Nothing!" Lasorda crowed, even before Team Tommy had won the big one. "This is bigger than the World Series! This is bigger than the Dodgers! This is bigger than Major League Baseball!"

Bigger than the league you've given most of your 73 years to? Bigger than the team you've spent nearly a half-century with as a player, scout, coach, manager and now VP of Whatever You Want To Do? Don't even try to stop the Tommy train: Moments after trouncing the Cubans 4-0 in the gold-medal game, he proclaimed, "When the Dodgers win a championship, the Dodgers fans were happy. Today, the United States of America is happy!"

What he didn't know, of course, was that most Americans hadn't bothered to tune in to the 27th Olympiad, so they probably had no idea that he was even involved in another one of his huge upset victories.

Upset victory? Shouldn't American baseball players be powering through the Olympics like the Dream Team basketball players, the gold medal almost an afterthought to the consistent obliteration of opposing teams? After all, as Lasorda said, "This is our game. We can't let those people beat us."

"Those people" were the Cubans, Koreans and Japanese, who all sent their most talented players to the Games while America stuck with a bunch of washed-up has-beens and rejected minor leaguers who practiced together for only three days before heading Down Under. "I want 24 players who play baseball the way my wife shops: all day long," Lasorda said -- and that's what he got, a bunch of basically unknown gamers, as hardscrabble win-at-all-costs types of players are known. To this group, the gold medal wasn't an afterthought.

Only one loss came for the Americans, from the Cubans, the class act of international baseball in recent years and the winners of the first two baseball gold medals in 1992 and 1996. Lasorda has special memories of Cuba. During his minor league days, he found himself in the kingdom of the mojito cocktail during the changing of two governments, in 1952 when Fulgencio Batista took over and again in 1959 when Fidel Castro overthrew Batista. "Yeah, I met Castro," he says, "But now I'm sorry I did. I have a lot of friends living in Miami. I just hope and pray before I die, I see a free Cuba."

And yet here were the Cubans, pummeling America's team 6-1. The teams nearly ended up in a full-out bench-clearing brawl after an American player was "accidentally" beaned. All this extracurricular excitement just helped Lasorda -- who is clearly not applying for work as a diplomat anytime soon -- fuel the team's fervor when they reached the gold-medal game against our new baseball arch rivals. He simply said then that he wanted to beat the Cubans as a favor "to all the exiles living in Florida." So that's what they did.

A lot of the victory can be credited to Lasorda's pure motivational ability, a skill he's honed with the Dodgers and in the 100-plus inspiring speeches he gives annually. He's often quoted as saying, "I bleed Dodger blue and when I die I'm going to the Big Dodger in the Sky." This verbal dexterity has helped bring him '81 and '88 World Series victories, not to mention four pennants, seven Western Division titles and a slew of manager of the year awards from all different organizations. The man compiled a 1,599-1,439 record during his 20 seasons managing the Dodgers, and as he once said, "About the only problem with success is that it does not teach you how to deal with failure." So he just kept winning.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

In June 1948, after a two-year stint in the army, Thomas Charles Lasorda, then a promising 21-year-old lefthander in the Philadelphia Phillies farm system, pitched the game of his life: He struck out 25 Amsterdam Rugmakers in a 15-inning game. He even drove in the winning run for his Schenectady (N.Y.) Blue Jays.

Lasorda caught the eye of the Brooklyn Dodgers when he followed up his effort with another 15-strikeout affair and then a 13-strikeout game. The team picked him up from the Phils for a little cash, and Lasorda headed to Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla., in the winter of 1949, joining more than 700 other players: "I walked into my room, and there were five other guys there, three double bunks. The next morning, the line for breakfast stretched out to the street. I thought, Oh my God, how am I going to survive here? I went to Fresco Thompson, the general manager, and told him I wanted out of there."

Lasorda was sent to the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers' top farm club, where he spent nine of the next 11 years except for a few unimpressive call-ups to the majors and his two-year stint with the Kansas City Athletics' organization. In Lasorda's three short appearances in the majors as a player (two with Brooklyn, one with K.C.), he went 0-4 in slightly more than 58 innings. But he did set a then-major league record; unfortunately, it was for most wild pitches in an inning: three. In 1955, he was sent down for the final time as a Dodger to make room for eventual fellow Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax.

While his major league career was a bust, Lasorda's minor league adventure was a different story. The southpaw compiled a 98-49 record, going 17-8 in 1953 and 18-6 in 1958, when he led the International League in victories, complete games and shutouts. And the Royals took five league championships while he was there. Probably his minor league high point (other than the 25-inning marathon) occurred with Montreal when Lasorda borrowed $500 from Dodgers head honcho Branch Rickey to get married. Buzzie Bavasi, the general manager, gave Lasorda the cash from Rickey and never took a nickel out of his paycheck. On Lasorda's anniversary every year, Bavasi still sends flowers to Tommy's wife, Jo, with the same note, "I'm sorry." So far he's sent 50 bouquets.

Lasorda kicked around the minors till 1960 and then became a Dodger scout for four years before he discovered his true talent: managing. He won five pennants during his eight seasons managing in the minor leagues, spending time with the Pocatello (Idaho) Chiefs; the Ogden (Utah) Dodgers; the Spokane (Wash.) Indians, where he won the 1970 Pacific Coast League championship as well as the minor league manager of the year award; and the Albuquerque (N.M.) Dukes, who won the Pacific Coast League championship in '72.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

As the second oldest of five brothers growing up in an Italian-American neighborhood in Norristown, Pa., a western suburb of Philadelphia, Lasorda's father once took him to the doctor because he feared the boy had a tapeworm. How else to explain Tommy's mighty appetite? No dice. This boy could simply put the food away. His mother would pack him monstrous lunches for school: 10 sandwiches (the fried egg and pepper were a favorite), a banana and Philly-favorite Tastykakes for dessert. He would often put several sandwiches away before he even got to school. As Lasorda has said, "When we win, I'm so happy I eat a lot. When we lose, I'm so depressed I eat a lot. When we're rained out, I'm so disappointed I eat a lot." It's been long rumored (but never confirmed) that Lasorda once had a bumper sticker on his car that read "Honk if you have groceries."

He doesn't drink alcohol or smoke (or sleep that much, actually). But Lasorda is constantly going on and off diets and exercising. (He even represented Slim-Fast from 1989 to 1993.) He often swims 50 or more laps at a time. His 1996 heart attack helped him put some of his Weekly World News-worthy eating choices behind him (100 oysters during an '86 pregame meal!), but he's still a dietary dabbler. "Tommy will eat anything," says New York Yankees manager Joe Torre, "as long as you pay for it."

Another childhood passion of Lasorda's that's still present: his fighting spirit. One of his former neighbors has said that Lasorda's two favorite things to do were fight and play baseball. If he heard there was a new tough guy in town, he would go find him. "And he never lost," his brother Morris has said. While Lasorda isn't known for his fisticuffs these days, he can still give a mean verbal jab. "Like Tommy says," says Bill Russell, Lasorda's longtime pal and eventual Dodgers managing successor, "he doesn't get ulcers, he gives them. By blowing off steam, he gets rid of all those frustrations." While some of Lasorda's steam-blowing scenes are legendary, much of it amounts to, well, in the words of broadcaster and former major leaguer Joe Garagiola: "You can plant 2,000 rows of corn with the fertilizer Lasorda spreads around." But the fertilizer tends to keep his players loose. A Dodger clubhouse with Lasorda at the helm could have kids, girlfriends, even dogs roaming around, and in the middle of it all, Lasorda would lean down and motion to one of the children: "Come to Uncle Tommy."

This kind of paternalism is part of the reason Lasorda managed nine major league rookies of the year: Rick Sutcliffe, '79; Steve Howe, '80; Fernando Valenzuela, '81; Steve Sax, '82; Eric Karros, '92; Mike Piazza, '93; Raul Mondesi, '94; Hideo Nomo '95; and Todd Hollandsworth, '96. Not too shabby. In fact, Piazza probably owes his career to Lasorda's fondness for kids. Piazza's pop, Vince, is one of Lasorda's best friends from Norristown. Mike started taking tips from Tommy when the kid was just 11. No wonder the Mets catcher is so damn good.

Lasorda had that fatherhood gene kicking all the way back when he was playing for the Schenectady Blue Jays under manager Lee Riley. Riley's 3-year-old son, Pat, found a consistent dugout playmate in Lasorda (and eventually found himself the co-owner and head coach of the NBA's Miami Heat). "I used to hold Pat in my lap," Lasorda has said. "Every time I see him now, I think of his father. He looked just like Pat does now. He combed his hair straight back, too. He didn't dress like Pat, of course, because he couldn't afford to."

Lasorda also had kids of his own: a daughter, Laura, and a son, Tom Jr., who died in 1991 of "probable acquired immune deficiency syndrome," according to the death certificate. Lasorda, who doesn't bring God up too often unless it's followed by a few choice epithets, told a Tampa (Fla.) television reporter in 1993, "If I could've seen God the day I got married and God said, 'Tommy, I'll give you a son, but I'm going to take him back after 33 years,' I would've said immediately, 'Give him to me, Lord.'"

When Lasorda retired from managing the Dodgers in 1996, it was partly to play with his granddaughter, Emily Tess, now 4, and to spend more time with his wife, Jo, in their small home in a residential neighborhood of Fullerton, Calif. But most of it had to do with his heart attack that year. He just couldn't keep up the energy level he once had. "I was getting tired really fast, and there was no way I was going to go back if I couldn't manage the way I wanted to. I didn't know if I could go through the effort it would have taken because I have to manage with a great deal of enthusiasm and a lot of excitement. I couldn't do it any other way."

But when he was doing it, he was a rolling ball of energy, 90 percent of the time (OK, forget the 1992 season), pulling completely unconventional managerial magic tricks out of his well-worn Dodgers cap and producing yet another winner. In the '88 World Series, he was part of one of baseball's mythmaking moments, one that ranked up there with Babe Ruth's 1932 "called shot" and Ted Williams' home run in his last at-bat, in 1960.

To say Kirk Gibson hit a game-winning home run in the first game of that Series is like saying, well, that Lasorda likes linguine. Gibson had spent the game on the trainer's table in the clubhouse, watching his extreme-underdog teammates work back from a 4-0 deficit against the Oakland A's. Lasorda called on him in the bottom of the ninth with two out and a man on base with the Dodgers down 4-3. Gibson could barely walk, let alone swing at a pitch. He worked All-Star closer Dennis Eckersley to a full count. Then the magic moment every little kid dreams of came true: Gibson smacked the ball over the fence, paving the way for the Dodgers to win the Series four games to one. In sports bars across America, you can still find "Where were you for Gibson's homer?" conversations from time to time.

And, frankly, for Dodgers fans, that moment is only minutely sweeter than Rick Monday's National League Championship-clinching home run against the Montreal Expos in 1981, which led the Dodgers to Lasorda's first World Series win. To true Lasorda lovers -- and to Lasorda himself right now -- both those dingers suddenly take a back seat to Olympian (and Minnesota Twins reject) Doug Mienkiewicz's bottom-of-the-ninth game-winning smash against Korea (his second such slam of the Games) in the semifinals. Where were you for that one? (Sleeping, I am certain.)

Lasorda seemed to manufacture such drama on a regular basis. Even if the Dodgers were losing, you could at least revel in his shouting from the dugout, sometimes seemingly apropos of nothing, "I've seen more life in a mortician's office!" or "Wear the uniform with pride!" Or, if you were lucky, you'd get old No. 2 (a number now retired by the Dodgers) charging onto the field to contest a call and getting thrown out. Lasorda never just walked away. He'd go right back in for more, maybe even throwing the resin bag on the mound or leaving his cap on the field after it somehow got tipped off in his rage. And he loved every second of it: "Guys ask me, don't I get burned out? How can you get burned out doing something you love? I ask you, have you ever got tired of kissing a pretty girl?"

For 20 years, the portly, white-haired Lasorda sat in his office, walls covered with celebrity photos, and filled out the lineup card for the Dodgers. Meanwhile, for all the other teams in the bigs, more than 210 men passed through the major league managing turnstile. Since Lasorda stepped down in 1996, the Dodgers have gone through three field leaders and are now looking for their fourth. He may have seemed unstable while he was out there throwing tantrums and cursing to high heaven, but he was always there the next day, ready to talk.

His secret? "A patient owner. Understanding general managers. Good players. Not necessarily in that order," he's said. That little formula puts Lasorda fourth on the longest-managed list. He's only topped by his predecessor Walter Alston (23 seasons), Connie Mack (the Philadelphia A's, a whopping 50 seasons) and John McGraw (31 seasons with the New York Giants). But McGraw and Mack were also the team owners -- a little difficult to fire. Also since Lasorda traded in his spikes, the O'Malley family, who had owned the Dodgers for his entire career with the team, sold the whole shebang to Rupert Murdoch's Fox Corp. in 1998, taking away a certain old-school charm that fewer and fewer clubs can claim anymore.

So what's next for Lasorda? He's got himself a pretty sweet deal right now: helping scout and train, assisting players and coaches, and going out and talking up baseball and the Dodgers to whomever will listen. Although, from the sound of it, you can hear the manager in him itching to breathe free. As the U.S. team prepared for its gold-medal game, Lasorda got so charged by his team that he seemed to have the old managerial thinking cap back on. "If you don't love this team, then you don't like Christmas," he shouted. "If you gave me this club right here with me managing, in two years we'd win the World Series!"

By Mark Miller

Mark Miller is a writer in Brooklyn, N.Y. He has written for ESPN magazine, and the Washington Post.

MORE FROM Mark Miller

Related Topics ------------------------------------------