Sometimes, Tom Lasorda called me “Terence.” Mostly, despite our 42 years of chatting up close and personal (including during a ride that went into extra innings on a golf cart), he called me “Clarence.”
This guy was never boring.
“Well, you know, we had only two managers in 43 years,” Lasorda once told me, referring to the 23 seasons Walter Alston ran the Los Angeles Dodgers before he took over for the next two decades through 1996.
“When I replaced Walt, (legendary Dodgers broadcaster) Vin Scully interviewed me, and he said, ‘You’re taking the place of a future Hall of Famer. You’re replacing one of the greatest managers in the history of baseball. Don’t you feel there’s going to be a lot of pressure on you?’
“I didn’t even hesitate, and I said, ‘You want to know something? I’m worried about the guy who’s going to have to replace me.’ ”
Lasorda laughed. We laughed.
Let’s just say Bill Russell, Lasorda’s successor and former player, lasted three years. The Dodgers have hired seven managers since Russell, including Dave Roberts, who finished last season with the first World Series title for the franchise since 1988.
Thomas Charles Lasorda was in charge back then as “Tommy” or as the plump guy with the ever-flapping tongue who invented Dodger Blue.
According to Forbes, only the New York Yankees are more valuable as a Major League Baseball franchise at $5 billion than the Los Angeles Dodgers at $3.2 billion. It’s a little of Clayton Kershaw and Mookie Betts, along with a lot of Jackie Robinson and Sandy Koufax, but it’s plenty of Lasorda, who spent 71 of his 93 years on earth before departing Friday to The Big Dodger In The Sky turning his baseball obsession as a player, coach and manager into the most famous team ever.
He’d tell you as much.
He told me a lot of things.
Even though I always worked as a sports journalist in cities featuring an opponent of Lasorda’s Dodgers in their National League West (Cincinnati, San Francisco and Atlanta), we bonded well through the years.
There were several Tommy Lasordas, which is why he was one of the most wonderfully complex persons in sports history.
He could be nasty out of nowhere, especially if he had a crowd.
During the 1978 season, I asked Lasorda behind the batting cage in Cincinnati about his hard-throwing rookie named Bob Welch. After glancing around, Lasorda snatched former Dodger pitching great and team broadcaster Don Drysdale and shouted, with arms waving, “You know what this kid just asked me? He asked me if Bobby Welch is the greatest pitcher I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen Drysdale. I’ve seen Koufax. I’ve seen (Bob) Gibson. And he asks me about Bobby Welch.”
That wasn’t the only Tommy, though.
There was Tommy, the entertainer, starting with his shockingly tiny office at Dodger Stadium, filled with pictures and memorabilia involving Frank Sinatra, Don Rickles and his other Hollywood pals.
Once, during a trip to baseball heaven, otherwise known as Dodgertown in the team’s former spring training home of Vero Beach, Florida, Lasorda gave me what Dodger beat writers dubbed “The Danny Kaye Tour.”
Here’s how it worked: You’d walk into Lasorda’s Vero Beach office as an out-of-town guy, he’d recognize you between chomps on his Italian dish, and then he’d drive you around Dodgertown in his golf cart, while stopping to chat with Dodger icons, ranging from Koufax to Maury Willis to Don Newcombe.
Afterward, Lasorda would say something like, “You had enough?”
If you looked at your notebook, and if you answered “no,” he presumably would take you for several more miles.
Here was my favorite Tommy: The always giving Tommy, frequently when the national spotlight wasn’t shining. He’d serve as a guest speaker at a banquet to help a historically black college raise funds for things such as a batting cage, or he’d do what he did in March of 1993 in Winer Haven, Florida, where he delivered one of the best eulogies I’ve ever heard.
During that spring training, Cleveland Indians pitchers Tim Crews, Steve Olin and Bobby Ojeda rocked the baseball world with a boating accident that led to the deaths of Crews and Olin.
Many of the game’s who’s who packed into the Winter Haven convention center for a memorial, and Lasorda strolled to the podium for a few words.
They were touching. They were soothing. They were inspiring.
Lasorda ended by saying folks wish to know “why?” after tragedy strikes instead of concentrating on “what?”
“What? What? What do you believe?” Lasorda said, stressing the need for those among the hurting to believe evil will give way to good and sorrow will morph into joy through the help of a higher power.
You know . . .
Like The Big Dodger In The Sky.