For decades, no one has embodied the spirit of the Los Angeles Dodgers more than Tommy Lasorda. As a player, his heart far outstripped his talent, despite his oft-repeated (and hilarious) claims that the Dodgers would have been better off optioning off Sandy Koufax and keeping him on their major-league roster. As a talent scout and a minor-league coach, he developed some of the Hall of Fame talent that he later coached to two World Series with Walter Alston, and himself led the team to four World Series appearances in twenty years, winning two of them.
But more than his impressive record, Lasorda has imprinted his personality on his beloved Dodgers and the Los Angeles region. He still lives with his family in the middle-class neighborhood of Fullerton instead of tony digs in Bel Air or Beverly Hills, and rather than shut himself off from baseball’s fans, he seems to light up in their presence. I met him briefly twenty-three years ago after his first World Series win, late at night at a Los Angeles hotel with his family waiting for him. Instead of just graciously shaking my hand and moving on — which I would have understood entirely — he spent at least 20 minutes talking to me and my friends about the Dodgers and the Fernando Valenzuela phenomenon. He clearly loves the Dodgers, the fans, and Los Angeles itself.
Unfortunately, during the brief ownership of Fox, the organization appeared almost ashamed of Lasorda. They gave him a title but obviously never felt comfortable with him, giving him almost nothing to do. Lasorda never said a word about it but his enthusiasm noticeably dimmed for the team and organization that he spent a lifetime building and promoting. Now that Frank McCourt has taken over the ownership of the Dodgers, the Los Angeles Times reports that Lasorda almost seems reborn:
In one week alone, he led the pitchers through bunting practice, coached first base in an extra-inning game, tossed high-decibel motivational gems at minor leaguers as he walked around the clubhouse, hit ground balls to infielders during batting practice and chased foul balls during a simulated game.
He mingled with fans, signing autographs and posing for pictures. He entertained the 14-month-old son of General Manager Paul DePodesta, granted numerous interviews and appeared via satellite on Fox News and CNN to discuss steroids in baseball.
The Dodgers appointed their Hall of Fame manager senior vice president in 1998, after he served as interim general manager. The ill-defined position sometimes left Lasorda wondering what to do, and vulnerable to charges of forcing himself on a baseball operations department that did not seek his advice.
But new owner Frank McCourt has embraced him, and Lasorda has returned the embrace. McCourt last month asked Lasorda to serve as a senior advisor, reporting directly to the owner, and to represent the Dodgers whenever needed.
“There are so many things he can do for us,” McCourt said. “Nobody loves the Dodgers more. There is so much knowledge Tommy has. He knows everybody. I can learn a lot from him.”
I know that some baseball fans have never felt much affection for Lasorda, considering him something of a clown or a fool with his many motivational stories of his years in baseball which often transform themselves into rather tall tales. No one can question his lifetime commitment to the game, however, or his heart. He continues to demonstrate why so many more people continue to hold so much affection and respect for the man who swears he bleeds Dodger Blue. Three cheers for Frank McCourt for understanding how to honor Lasorda — by allowing him to keep contributing meaningfully to the game and the team he loves so much.