The news that Tommy Lasorda had passed away hit us all very hard. Fans that weren’t even around when he was managing through the middle of 1996 understand how important he was to baseball and the Dodgers. To borrow a phrase, “he was bigger than life.” I started following the Dodgers way back in the middle of 1973 when Tommy was the 3rd base coach for the Dodgers. This article will talk about my memories of Tommy from those days until now.
The Early Days
My first dose of Tommy Lasorda was when he was the 3rd base coach for the Dodgers. Since I was just getting familiar with baseball (it was also my first year of Little League) I was just learning about things like 3rd base coaches. Tommy acted more like the coaches in Little League with his enthusiasm and excitement than the others I saw on TV. He was standing out already.
Tommy Lasorda was mic'd up for Joe Ferguson's clutch home run in Game 2 of the 1974 World Series!??
— Baseball Quotes (@BaseballQuotes1) January 9, 2021
The above highlight from the 1974 World Series introduced Tommy to the rest of baseball. It also was becoming apparent that he would eventually replace Walter Alston, the current manager at that time, at some point. When Alston retired just before the end of the 1976 season, Tommy Lasorda got his dream job as the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. For me, this was great news and I was excited that Tommy was the manager.
A New Era
Right out of the box, we started hearing, for the first time things like “bleeding Dodger Blue”. For kids like me, I ate it up. Even before the 1977 season started I was very excited by this new manager. Check out this dialog with the owner of the Dodgers at that time, Walter O’Malley:
“I’m so grateful to you, Mr. O’Malley,” Lasorda said, “that I want to continue working for the Dodgers even when I’m dead and gone.”
“And just how do you plan to do that?” the startled owner asked.
“Just put the Dodgers’ schedule on there each year,” Lasorda said, pointing at the tombstone. “When people are visiting their loved ones at the cemetery, they can come by my grave and see if the Dodgers are at home or away.” – from Sports Illustrated, 1977
It was a big deal at the time but Frank Sinatra agreed to sing the National Anthem on Opening Day of 1977 for Tommy.
Unlike most managers at that time, it looked like Tommy actually liked his players as he balanced the friendship and authority figure mode of managing versus just the authority figure. Also unlike many managers, he was fun to watch. He was a great interview whether he was pitching the Dodgers propaganda or if he was mad. Some of his rants are epic and are not safe for work. Just Google “Tommy Lasorda rants” and you’ll get your fill.
First World Series Win
In Tommy Lasorda’s first two seasons with the Dodgers, they went to the World Series both times but lost to the Yankees in six games each time. In 1979, his third season as the manager they were decimated by injuries and finished under .500 and followed that with a second-place finish after losing a playoff to the Astros. Now key players were getting old as the team was getting to the end of a window that consisted of many players Tommy managed in the minor leagues.
Dodgers legend Don Sutton left as a free agent after the 1980 season and the Dodgers infield was going into their eighth and, it turns out, last season together. Some players were beginning to age and the Dodgers had some prospects like Steve Sax that deserved an opportunity to play. The time for this group was getting to now or never.
Fernando Valenzuela took baseball by storm in 1981. One little-noticed item was that Tommy was fluent in Spanish and was able to be there for Valenzuela who was just 20 years old. The 1981 season was broken apart by work stoppage due to a players strike, so there was a new playoff format. The Dodgers beat the Astros and Expos in a very difficult playoff series to make it to the World Series against the Yankees again. After the Dodgers were down two games to none they rolled through four straight wins to claim their first championship since 1965.
After the 1981 World Series win the Dodgers began to dismantle the team. Within 13 months they moved on from stalwarts Davey Lopes, Reggie Smith, Steve Garvey, and Ron Cey. They were replaced with players like Steve Sax, Mike Marshall, Greg Brock, and Pedro Guerrero. There were mixed results as Brock was a big disappointment and Guerrero was terrible as a third baseman. Sax and Marshall were pretty good. There was also an emergence of new stalwarts like Orel Hershiser and Mike Scioscia. They made the playoffs in 1983 and 1985 but were eliminated. The 1984, 1986, and 1987 seasons were awful but they made some key offseason moves after 1987 including getting Kirk Gibson as a free agent.
The 1988 team had a lot of players that were recent American League players that had barely any experience against the National League. Remember, this was before the inter-league regular-season games so the Dodgers had some guys that needed to adjust. Throughout the season there were injuries and even the trade of their starting first baseman, Pedro Guerrero. Trading Guerrero would be the equivalent of trading someone like Max Muncy in the middle of the season. Through it all, Tommy Lasorda kept the team together and was the Manager of the Year. He continued his best season as manager by pulling so many of the right strings during the playoffs and the World Series as he and Orel Hershiser lead them to the championship.
I still get caught up in Tommy’s speech to his players as that was really one of the biggest upset playoff runs baseball has ever seen.
The Rest Of His Time As A Manager
It was no surprise that the 1989 team fell back to earth. After 1988 Steve Sax left as a free agent and the Dodgers traded for Eddie Murray. Some pitchers fell back to earth and the magic of 1988 was gone. Over the next few years, there were a lot of big free-agent signings and trades but the team just never gelled. They didn’t even make the playoffs again until 1995 when they were swept by the Reds in the first round. Little did we know that Tommy Lasorda had managed his last playoff game.
In 1996 he suffered from heart issues and decided to retire. He managed his last game against the Astros which was a 4-3 win on June 23, 1996. His replacement was one of his former long-term players, Bill Russell. The next year he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee. His Hall of Fame speech is legendary.
The Interim General Manager
The Dodgers were sold by the O’Malley family to the News Corporation after the 1997 season and chaos ensued. The Dodgers ended up trading future Hall of Famer Mike Piazza due to them not figuring out how to re-sign him before he hit the free-agent market. Then General Manager, Fred Claire ended up leaving as the ownership was making all the decisions. They decided to hire Tommy Lasorda as an interim General Manager to guide the ship. Regretfully the 1998 season was a disaster as some of the moves the Dodgers made were not ones to recover from. Imagine if the Dodgers kept Mike Piazza and Paul Konerko. The new ownership was a disaster and I bet Tommy was glad to be done with that season.
The Legend Grows
Tommy Lasorda was hired to manage the 2000 USA Olympic baseball team. At the time the US team was a bunch of minor leaguers and washed-up players and the Cuban team was filled with seasoned professionals. It echoed the 1988 World Series and Tommy guided a team of a bunch of guys he barely knew to the Olympic Gold Medal. It is truly an amazing job and was an unexpected cherry on top of his career. He called it the proudest moment of his career.
As Tommy worked as a Vice President for the Dodgers he became an even bigger ambassador for baseball. Worldwide, he was instrumental in elevating baseball to the rest of the world. For us Dodgers fans he became the most popular person to see and visit with at the stadium or in Spring Training. He was always someone I wanted to meet and I finally met him at a book signing before a game at Dodger Stadium in 2015.
Really, how many of you were able to get a picture or autograph from Lasorda. Some people never saw him manage but wanted to meet him. The legacy he left as an ambassador for the game of baseball and for the Dodgers is beyond understanding. I was privileged to be able to follow him since 1973 and I’ve spent the days since we lost him watching and listening to everything with him and about him. The last few times I saw him at the stadium or Spring Training I treasured it just in case it was the last time. The last time I saw him in person was on February 25, 2020, at Spring Training as he was leaving the game. There will never be another.