The Man Who Bled Dodger Blue
WHEN I FIRST AWOKE
TO THE CONCEPT of baseball as a professional team sport, Tommy Lasorda was in
his rookie season managing the Los Angeles Dodgers. When I left home for college,
Tommy Lasorda was gearing the Dodgers for the stretch run which would lead to
an unlikely World Championship, the second of his distinguished career. When I
moved to New York City over six years later, Tommy Lasorda was about to take the
Dodgers to the playoffs for the seventh and final time. I doubt Tommy will be
at the Dodgers' helm the next time I reach one of life's crossroads (he did, after
all, retire as a manager in 1996), but there's a part of me that would be afraid
to bet against it.
More than the
parade of superstars who wore Dodger blue during his tenureSteve Garvey,
Fernando Valenzuela, Pedro Guerrero, Kirk Gibson, Mike Piazza Tommy
Lasorda WAS the Los Angeles Dodgers. To me, to my Dodgers-rooted family,
and probably to several million other Dodgers fans as well. Twenty years
on the job will do that. With Lasorda came a myth that combined the magnetism
of Hollywood celebrity with the evangelical zeal of a preacher. He was
friends with Frank Sinatra and Ronald Reagan; he spoke of bleeding Dodger
blue and revering the Great Dodger in the Sky. He was eminently quotable,
especially when it came to the subject of Italian food. He could curse
a streak as blue as any sailor might offer. But underneath that bluster
was a skilled macro- and micro-manager who provided stability and continuity
while deflecting attention away from the shortcomings of his teams.
And his teams were
usually in the hunt. In Lasorda's 20 years at the helm, the Dodgers won two World
Championships, reached the World Series four times, and took the NL West flag
seven times (they also won the wild-card spot in 1996, after Lasorda had stepped
down due to a mild heart attack). Additionally, they went down to the final weekend
of the season in contention three other times. In 1980, they lost a one-game playoff
to the Houston Astros. in 1982, they lost out to the Joe Torre-led Atlanta Braves
on the final day of the season; San Fransisco's Joe Morgan hit a dramatic 3-run
homer to beat the Dodgers, who needed a win to force a tie. In 1991, they went
down to the final weekend against the Braves.
Much to my satisfaction,
they even got to play the spoiler once, exacting some vengeance in the process.
In 1993, the Giants needed a win against the Dodgers to force a tie with the Braves.
Lasorda, quizzed about his historical grasp the night before, put forth the usual
homilies about this being just another ballgame, and revenge having nothing to
do with it. But the Dodgers trounced the Giants 12-1 behind two Mike Piazza home
runs, and SportsCenter highlights showed Lasorda cursing a (Dodger) blue streak
at the excitement. Giants fans later accused both Lasorda and choirboy Orel Hershiser
of crossing the line into taunting an opponent. This accusation can be taken with
equal parts skepticismthese are Giants fans, after all--and satisfaction.
Who better than a devotee of the culinary arts such as Tommy Lasorda to know that
revenge is a dish best served cold?
for bullshit made for entertaining copy and often had the benefit of loosening
his teams. But it did conceal some of the man's more subtle skills as a manager.
His starting lineups were more stable than most, but he was masterful at deploying
his bench. The 1988 World Series was a perfect example of this. In a lineup without
MVP Kirk Gibson except for one well-timed swing, with three key players hitting
under .225, Lasorda plugged his holes in such a way that his #3 and #4 hitters
hit as many home runs in the Series as they did all year (a whopping three). In
general, his benches were always well-stocked, with a veritable Who's Who of pinch-hitters
at his disposal. He got by with some defensive maladies of horrendous proportions:
Steve Sax's throwing disorder, Pedro Guerrero's hair-raising tenure at third base,
Jose Offerman's iron glove. He was especially good with young players; the Dodgers
tallied no less than nine Rookies of the Year during his tenure, including Fernando
Valenzuela, Steve Sax, Mike Piazza, Raul Mondesi, and Hideo Nomo.
Lasorda was once
a promising left-hander in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization alongside another
notable lefty, Sandy Koufax. Long story short, Koufax found control of his fastball
and Lasorda did not. In fact, Lasorda's big league record as a player stands at
0-4, with an ungodly 6.48 ERA. But he was a star for the Dodgers' top farm team
in Montreal, winning 98 games in 9 seasons there. After his playing days, he found
his true calling as a manager. He won five league championships during eight years
of managing in the Dodger organization, at stops such as Pocatello, Idaho, Ogden,
Utah, Spokane, Washington, and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Beating the bushes,
Lasorda oversaw the development of a talented nucleus which formed the basis of
the Dodgers for a decade. Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey
all saw his tutelage, and formed the longest-lasting infield in baseball history.
An amazing 75 players he managed in the minors made the big show. His 1970 Spokane
team, generally recognized as one of the greatest minor league teams of all time,
won the Pacific Coast League pennant with a lineup including Garvey, Lopes, and
Russell, as well as league MVP Bobby Valentine, pitchers Charlie Hough and Doyle
Alexander, catcher Bob Stinson, infielders Bill Buckner and outfielder Tom Paciorek.
All enjoyed lengthy major league careers. You could look it up.
nurtured more than his share of future managers and coaches. At the start
of the 2001 season, six major league managers Valentine, Lopes, Dusty
Baker, Mike Scioscia, Phil Garner, and Johnny Oates had played under
Lasorda. Dozens of his former players can be found up and down the coaching
ranks of baseball, including Joe Ferguson, Mickey Hatcher, Hough, Russell,
and Reggie Smith.
Lasorda was not
universally loved. Non-Dodger fans often disliked him intensely because of his
love for the spotlight, as did opposing players. He clashed with some of the Dodger
greats whom he managed, and nurtured feuds with some of his former coaches. After
assuming a mostly-ceremonial front-office position for the Dodgers, he oversaw
the team's shakeup when the Fox Broadcasting Company bought the team from the
O'Malley family. Stepping in as Acting General Manager for the fired Fred Claire,
he dropped the axe on his successor, Bill Russell.
In 2000, Lasorda
pulled off a triumph which may be the equal of his 1988 World Championship. Pulled
out of retirement to serve his country, he managed the United States national
team to an unlikely Olympic Gold Medal over the heavily favored Cubans. It comes
as somewhat less surprising to see that team's current major leaguers, such as
Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Ben Sheets and Minnesota Twins first baseman Doug Mientzkiewicz
flourishing this season.
I trace my own
waning interest in the Dodgers to the end of Lasorda's managing career. It marked
the passing of a remarkable run of competitiveness and continuity, and set the
stage for the Dodgers' corporate takeover. Over a 44 year span, the job of Dodger
manager belonged to just two men: Lasorda and his predecessor, Walter Alston.
Since then, four men have filled the job, but none of them has done it with the
panache or the level of success that Tommy Lasorda brought to the job.