Walking into the office of Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda in the 1980s was like walking into a tiny neighborhood Italian restaurant, the back room of a shady saloon, the green room of a television studio, the hold of a ship in which sailors wielded profanity the way watercolorists use paint, the confessional of a worn cathedral, and sometimes–if you timed it just right–actually a place to talk baseball.
I would stand on the threshold of that room and have no idea which realm I would be entering. Lasorda sat behind his desk to the left of the open door, so you had to stick your head in and turn to the left to see if the maestro was in and conducting today’s symphony of entertainment.
Before you saw Lasorda you saw the steaming pot of hot pasta on the hot plate on the apartment-sized refrigerator. Then you caught sight of him clad in his long johns, swiping away sauce from his chin with a towel between forkfuls of pasta. The wood-panel walls were covered nearly floor to ceiling with grip-and-grin pictures and publicity portraits, as some kind of celestial map of the Lasorda universe. Frank Sinatra, Al Campanis, Cary Grant, Mike Wallace, Hank Aaron, Roy Campanella, Monte Hall, Gregory Peck, Jesus Christ … not necessarily in that order.
I thought of that room today upon hearing that Tommy Lasorda passed away at the age of 93. Suddenly, against the backdrop of a clinical, more corporate game, that room and Tommy himself seemed centuries away, not just years. It was the place where Lasorda not just met the press, but it also was where Lasorda did Lasorda.
It is hard to imagine many people could have lived a fuller, happier baseball life than Tommy. No nickname. No “Mr. Lasorda.” Just say “Tommy” and you knew the subject. “Tommy”–as in a boy’s name that fit still into the ninth decade of his life.
That a room and manager like that could exist today is stuff of creative fiction. It only took one trip into the lair to understand that whatever questions you brought to the Dodgers manager were irrelevant. Lasorda didn’t so much answer questions as much as he simply delivered his lounge act. His good buddy Sinatra didn’t entertain requests.
In the footsteps of Casey Stengel, Earl Weaver, Billy Martin and his numerical idol, Leo Durocher, whose number 2 became Tommy’s number, Lasorda was the last celebrity manager. He hung with stars, sold products to millions of people who could not care less about baseball, and embraced the camera as if it were another in a long list of family friends.
Lasorda is known as one of the greatest managers in history not because he was a superb strategist, baseball genius or innovator. Instead he carved a unique place in baseball history as something more familiar to other sports: motivator. What he did with the 1988 Dodgers became legend for the power of belief. And then he did it again with the 2000 United States Olympic baseball team.
Lasorda often is identified as an ambassador of the sport, though that minimizes what baseball meant to him. He was a zealous acolyte. Let there be no doubt that in his inexhaustible selling of baseball Lasorda made sure to sell himself. But it was this game that was the very root of his passion.
Lasorda was the son of an Italian immigrant who barely spoke English and worked various blue-collar jobs around the coal country of Eastern Pennsylvania. He was one of the five sons of Sabatino and Carmella Lasorda. Four of them went into the restaurant business. Tommy did his best to support the restaurant business, as his famous paunch proudly attested. There was a time when you could hardly watch an hour of television without seeing Lasorda selling a weight loss program. It didn’t seem right, no more than Pavarotti pitching a vegan diet and yoga program. Lasorda didn’t take long to revert to proper form.
His hardscrabble upbringing prepared Lasorda for a life of striving that brought him all the way to Hollywood. He started out pitching in Class D ball for the Connor (NC) Weavers, managed by a man who was born in 1903, John Lehman. Lasorda spent 11 years just in Triple A.
Pitching for the Schenectady Blue Jays one day in 1948, he threw a 15-inning complete game with 25 strikeouts and 12 walks. He was estimated to have thrown about 300 pitches. He ended the game with a walk-off single.
He pitched briefly for the Dodgers in 1955 until one day in June the team sent the little lefty back to the minors to make room on the roster for another left-hander: Sandy Koufax.
After 14 seasons he turned to coaching and then, in 1965 in Pocatello, Idaho, managing. The gig tapped all of Lasorda’s greatest talents. He filled people with confidence. He made them laugh. He came to the ballpark every day expecting something wonderful to happen in a game that is built on the lessons of failure.
None of that changed, even when Lasorda stopped managing in 1996. He didn’t have the prop of that wood-paneled managers office any longer, so Lasorda made the world his office. I served on a Hall of Fame veterans committee with him, and he cracked jokes, called me paisan, over-salted his speech with profanities, told stories he had told a hundred times before and generally carried on being the same Lasorda that made him famous. Few people were more comfortable in their own skin.
I think of that wood-paneled office as something of a time capsule, not just the physical manifestation of all things Lasorda. It was a time when baseball had a place for storytelling (maybe some of it even true), laughter, ruminating, off the record conversations and, when it came to baseball managers, a personality so big you could be a national celebrity.
Years after Sinatra died somebody took hold of his small leather phone book. Lasorda was listed on the same page as Jerry Lewis. The Chairman of the Boards listed two numbers for Tommy: one for his residence and the other for that wood-paneled office. A direct line to baseball’s back stage.
Tommy saw the Dodgers win one more World Series before he passed. Each October I would see him in his Dodgers jacket seated somewhere near the field and I’d think of the richness of his baseball life. He spent 71 years with the Dodgers. Sabatino and Carmella’s kid is in the Baseball Hall of Fame, won two World Series, won an Olympic gold medal and has his portrait hanging in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. That someone could love what he did for so long is truly a baseball life well lived.