Nothing delighted Tommy Lasorda more than people — Frank Sinatra, Don Rickles, sportswriters who rolled with his jovial or salty punches, right on down to the guy who parked cars.
He also savored a plate or three of pasta. Lasorda would shovel in the eats before home games, sometimes in his long johns, then after, inviting all comers to dig in, napkins optional. His managerial office was equal parts lounge and buffet, the walls covered with portraits of presidents, comedians and athletes.
And baseball. Lasorda lived for it, and he died a Dodger, of a heart attack last Thursday night. He was 93.
Dusty Baker can relate to much of the Lasorda charm and bombast, the man’s cheerful veneer or rapid-fire vulgarity and sneer. He played for Lasorda from 1976-83, brought in from Atlanta because Lasorda wanted him on his side.
Baker grew up in Riverside County, a Dodgers fan, and he held onto that Dodger blue fondness throughout his teenage years as a multisport star at Del Campo High School. A three-time manager of the year, Baker now manages the Houston Astros. It’s been an emotional weekend for those who loved Lasorda, and it was clear in Baker’s voice.
“Tommy taught me a lot, how to deal with people, positive thinking, defending your players — a lot,” Baker said by phone. “Tommy knew everybody. He knew the wives of players, the names of your kids. He loved people. He enjoyed life. We always tried to figure out where he got all that energy fun.
“What you saw in Tommy Lasorda is what you got: never boring.”
Lasorda was more of a master motivator than a shrewd strategist. He won 1,599 games before stepping down in 1996. He was tied to the Dodgers organization as a player, scout, manager and front-office man and ambassador for 71 years. Lasorda won four pennants and World Series championships in 1981 and 1988.
The son of an Italian immigrant, Lasorda’s four brothers got into the restaurant business. This Lasorda fed off game action. His temper and histrionics made him one of the great characters in sport.
Lasorda spoke to Baker when he was with the Braves, dropping hints.
“He’d say, ‘We’ve got to get you with the Dodgers where you belong,’” Baker said. “Back then, a manager could make that trade. He rescued my career. The reason I wanted to leave Atlanta is because I was tired of losing. I got a chance to finally come home.”
Baker said Lasorda was more of a master motivator than a shrewd game strategist. He said he learned from Lasorda that it’s OK to have a spread of good food after a game, and he adopted that tactic throughout his own managing career because it helped bring players closer together.
Lasorda was a hugger who could become an F-bomber in quick order. But he could keep his tongue in check. He never cursed around his wife of 70 years, Jo.
Baker said Lasorda was big on believing. The 1988 Dodgers won the World Series in large part to Lasorda’s sheer will to inspire. He instilled confidence in players with words, with love and with backing, Baker said.
‘YOU HAVE TO BELIEVE!’
In 1977, Baker was attempting to become the fourth Dodger that season to hit 30 home runs. He was stuck at 29 heading into the final game of the regular season.
He faced Houston’s J.R. Richard, a 6-foot-8 flamethrower whom Baker had long called “my nemesis.” Baker struck out in the fourth inning. He wondered if he’d achieve the milestone.
Baker was mumbling under his breath in the dugout. Lasorda picked up on it and fumed — “Dusty! I don’t want to hear that! Do you think the children of Israel were going to die before the parting of the Red Sea? If they didn’t believe, they would have perished!”
Baker wasn’t in the mood. Lasorda added, “You have to believe!”
In the seventh inning, Baker got that 30th homer, recalling how the 100 mph pitch seemed to arrive in slow motion. He believed he would crush it. It landed well over the center-field fence. Baker rounded the bases and was greeted by on-deck hitter Glenn Burke, who raised his hand to greet him. Baker smacked the hand with his own, resulting in the first high-five.
“Tommy taught you to believe,” Baker said. “It’s a powerful thing.”
Sacramento native and resident Steve Sax played for Lasorda from 1981-88. He told KCRA-3 TV’s Michelle Dapper that Lasorda was the target of many player shenanigans, but players loved their boss so much that they “would run through wall for him,” Sax said.
Sax added, “We did some things to Tommy Lasorda. We stripped him down and scribbled our names all over his body before a game. We locked him into a room in spring training. We sent his clothes on a road trip to Hawaii. We did terrible things. He was giggling as much as he loved every minute of it.”
ONE LAST ZINGER TO GIANTS FANS
Giants fans surely remember the rotund Lasorda over the years at Candlestick Park. He was an easy target, impossible to ignore.
They booed him, cursed him, gave him the bird. Lasorda rolled with it, like a comedian on stage dealing with hecklers. He would respond by pointing to the LA logo on his blue cap. He’d wave and blow kisses.
Before the final game at Candlestick Park in 1999, Lasorda, no longer the manager, said in a microphone to the crowd, while getting booed, “I finally figured it out. You don’t hate me. You hate yourselves because you LOVE me.” At one point during the game, Lasorda, in a blue Dodgers jacket with his name splashed across the back, threw his arms up to the booing crowd.
Lasorda wasn’t just the life of the party, as noisy as a bowling alley, as LA Times columnist Jim Murray once wrote. He knew how to exit with a bang.