Tommy Lasorda, On and Off a Writer’s Hook

I was reading Steve Henson’s charming profile of a spring training day in the life of Tommy Lasorda this morning. Now 84, Lasorda puts in twelve-hour days as perhaps the Dodgers’ number one ambassador on and off the field, touring around the gathering fans and driving his golf cart from spot to spot checking the major and minor leaguers alike. (“You couldn’t hit my curveball,” Lasorda, a one-time relief pitcher, needled Dodger outfielder Matt Kemp. “You know what I used to say when they played against me? ‘Your heart belongs to mama but your behind belongs to me’.”)

Lasorda (front and center, at the base pad) still loves to teach . . .

And I rued, just for a moment, the afternoon I could have had a chance to talk to Lasorda even briefly if I’d wanted the chance.

December 2006. I still lived in southern California, writing free-lance, including what I thought was a pleasant (if that’s the right word) obituary for Larry Sherry, the one-time Dodger relief ace (he nailed a World Series and its MVP for the Dodgers in 1959), who had just lost a long battle with cancer. To my surprise, the piece (for a long-since-defunct Web journal) attracted a pleasant note from Sherry’s son-in-law, who a) was delighted to learn of a spring training incident involving his father-in-law*, of which he’d had no prior knowledge, and b) invited me to come to the old righthander’s funeral.

I accepted the invitation. And I sat in the absolute rear of the sanctuary, having no wish to intrude further. When the affectionate service concluded at last, I could see Lasorda milling about with a few other baseball figures easily enough recognisable. (Sparky Anderson was among them; even those whose knowledge of baseball equals mine of animal husbandry would have recognised him, too.)

Sherry’s son-in-law found me (my mugshot accompanied my piece, so I wasn’t that difficult to spot) and we shook hands, exchanging a few muted condolences. Then he invited me to join the company at his home in a short while. I sensed that Lasorda and the other baseball men (Anderson, Sherry’s catching and coaching brother Norm, other assorted Dodgers past) would be there as well, but I sensed, too, that there might be some discomfort about if it were to be known that a writer was among them. I couldn’t be certain, absolutely, but I didn’t think these men had gathered around for the prospect of chatting with a writer.

So I declined politely enough, saying something along the line of it wouldn’t seem proper for me, since I never met Sherry or knew him anywhere as well as his family and his baseball fraternity. His son-in-law accepted that, and we exchanged likewise pleasant goodbyes and God-speeds before I returned to my car and drove home. As I traveled back up the notorious 405 freeway to my then-home in Huntington Beach, I began to have a second thought or two. Had I really blown a shot at Lasorda, who’s said to be just about the single most accommodating man in baseball in Pacific Coast captivity? For that matter, had I really blown a shot at Anderson, who would die four years later?

By the time I arrived home, I shook it off. I’m still sure I did the right thing. It probably would have been an experience and a half getting a dose of live Lasorda, maybe in any circumstance, even if he’d blown me to one side questioning my manhood, my sanity, my taste, and my manners. (There are those, I’m sure, who would swear that a dressing-down from Tommy Lasorda is worth a hundred motivational speeches from just about anyone else.) Another time, another place, I thought to myself as I re-entered my apartment.

I suppose I could have allowed a moment of hubris and told myself, “Tommy Lasorda and Sparky Anderson? They’re baseball’s Energizer bunnies. They keep going . . . and going . . . and going . . . ”  Anderson would be gone in 2010, alas. Lasorda doesn’t exactly seem mortal, and you have to ponder whether an octogenarian post-coronary (Lasorda’s 1996 heart attack prompted his retirement as the Dodgers’ manager), who finishes his twelve-hour days with a vigorous treadmill-in-the-pool workout and seems less worn for it than men two-thirds his age or younger, hasn’t found some elusive longevity secret.

Lasorda has made his career on the premise of doing what he thinks the Right Thing, for and by the Dodgers, for and by the game. He’s come a very long way from the marginal relief pitcher who was finally cut by the Brooklyn Dodgers to make room for a talented but wild lefthanded kid about whom he snorted, “He’ll never make it.” (The kid was Sandy Koufax.) He’s long survived the worst day of his major league life, the day he decided—with the Dodgers one out from going to the 1985 World Series—that it was absolutely safe to allow relief pitcher Tom Niedenfeuer to pitch to St. Louis bombardier Jack Clark with two on and first base open. This son of an immigrant stone quarry truck driver, who used storytelling to teach and discipline his children, has long established himself as baseball’s O. Henry, if you can imagine O. Henry carrying eight division titles, four pennants, two World Series rings (one before and one after Jack the Ripper wrecked his ’85 plans), and a Hall of Fame plaque on his resume.

Maybe I’ll bump into him yet, one of these days.


* — The incident involved the spring 1961 day on which Sandy Koufax, freshly relieved of a windup flaw that had kept him from seeing the full strike zone when he delivered his hard-flaring fastballs and voluptuous curve balls, landed the starting assignment in a B-squad game against the Minnesota Twins in Orlando, where the Twins then trained. With Norm Sherry behind the plate, and veteran first baseman Gil Hodges managing the squad for the day, Koufax—whom Hodges had told would need to pitch seven innings—wiggled out of a first-inning bases-loaded jam by striking out the side, en route to throwing seven hitless shutout innings with eight punchouts.

Knowing Sherry and clubhouse man Nobe Kowano would alert the Dodger brass to what they now had on their hands, after six seasons of frustration that the raw talent wasn’t getting the warranted results, Koufax was in the mood to celebrate. Big time. Upon their return to Vero Beach, Koufax and Larry Sherry ducked into nearby Port St. Lucie for a late pizza and some youthful revelry. The problem was that they arrived back well past curfew, enraging manager Walter Alston—whose room in the spring barracks just so happened to be across from Koufax’s and Sherry’s rooms. Koufax was the first to feel Alston’s wrath until Sherry plodded around afterward; Alston forgot Koufax for the moment and went after Sherry, pounding on Sherry’s door and, in the process, smashing his diamond-encrusted 1959 World Series ring.

The following day, Koufax, Sherry, and Alston were aboard a team bus. The early silence was broken when Koufax—who has always had a playful if not always well-chronicled sense of humour—couldn’t resist. “Hey, Larry,” he called to Sherry, “had your door appraised for diamonds yet?”

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