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      W A L L   O F   F A M E

JUNE 12, 2001

Tommy Lasorda
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 tenure—Steve 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 skepticism—these 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?

Lasorda's penchant 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.

Lasorda also 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.