The history of baseball is filled with “characters”. Looking back over 100+ years, these eccentric ballplayers brought a quality to the game that can’t be duplicated. Rube Waddell, Babe Ruth, Dizzy Dean, Satchel Paige, Casey Stengel, Yogi Berra, Bob Uecker, Mark Fidrych and so many others have added an indelible mental snapshot of this sport we love.
It seems, however, that “characters” have become somewhat of an endangered species in today’s game. Maybe it’s political correctness, maybe it’s an average salary of almost $4 Million or maybe it’s the fault of Crash Davis when he taught all those clichés to Nuke LaLoosh. Nuke may have been a character in Durham, but by the time he got to the “show”, he was saying, “We gotta play it one day at a time”.
We lost one of the great characters of the game last week when Tommy Lasorda passed away at age 93. His personality, presence and charisma may never be equaled again. You know much of the story in that he never won a major league game as a Pitcher but was a member of the Dodger organization for over 70 years including a 21-year stint as the team’s Manager from 1976-96 which yielded four pennants and two World Series championships.
Dozens of articles and retrospectives have been done in the last week and this humble scribe won’t attempt to compete with all that information. Instead, I’ll attempt to give a personal perspective as a baseball fan that lived in Los Angeles while Tommy was the skipper of the Dodgers. While he was a great guy with fans and the ultimate ambassador for the game, like most “characters”, he had other facets to his personality.
Tommy took over the reins of the Dodgers in late 1976, after managing in the Minor Leagues and serving as 3rd base coach under Walter Alston. In his first full season (1977), the team won 98 games with a roster that included many players who came up through the ranks like Davey Lopes, Steve Garvey, Ron Cey and others. He demanded loyalty (bleeding Dodger Blue) and regaled them with motivational stories that were of questionable authenticity. He also wasn’t hesitant to use criticism as a motivator…
- After losing a game in which Garvey struck out multiple times on pitches in the dirt, he told reporters in the clubhouse that “Garvey would make a great frickin’ Cricket player, trying to hit pitches on the first bounce”.
- One year at Spring Training, a reporter asked if he would try to make the team more aggressive on the base paths that season. He replied that if Mike Scioscia (the team’s Catcher) “was in a race with a pregnant woman, he’d finish third”.
If you were a SoCal sports fan during Tommy’s managerial era, you understand clearly that his legacy will always be intertwined with a radio broadcaster of the time named Jim Healy. His show was on the air every week night from 5:30 to 6:00 PM while all of us were working our way home on the dreaded L.A. freeways. His broadcast made the trip tolerable because there was nothing else like it anywhere. He used noise from a teletype machine, background music and a collection of audio tapes he’d acquired over the years. As sportswriter Bill Dwyre once said, “Healy threw them all together in a bouillabaisse of sports fun”.
In those days, writers & reporters had nothing more than a tape recorder to capture comments from players, coaches, mangers and executives and it seemed like anything funny, stupid or interesting ended up on Healy’s show. He had sources everywhere and most of them considered it a compliment to get these quotes fed to Healy. His studio had a sound board with all the clips and he’d insert them at his discretion during the show. Embarrassing comments would pop up from the likes of Howard Cosell, Richard Nixon and others but Tommy Lasorda’s tirades were the coin of the realm for Healy.
The first was from May of 1978 when the Dodgers lost an extra-inning game to the Cubs thanks to three Home Runs from Dave Kingman. A young reporter named Paul Olden (who is now the public address announcer for the Yankees) was at the post-game Q & A in the clubhouse and asked Tommy what he thought of Kingman’s performance? Tommy started slowly and built his way up to a crescendo of profanities that became legendary…”What the (expletive) do you think my opinion is of it? I think it was (expletive). What’s my opinion of his performance? (Expletive). He beat us with three (expletive) home runs. What the (expletive) do you mean? How can you ask me a question like that?”
If that tape was the appetizer, the one from 1982 was the entrée. Lasorda’s Dodgers and Dick Williams’ Padres got into a brawl after San Diego’s Joe Lefebrve was hit by a pitch thrown by Tom Niedenfuer. After the game, Kurt Bevacqua accused Lasorda (he called him the fat little Italian) of ordering the pitch. Here is Tommy’s response…
“I’ll tell you what I think about it. I think that it is very, very bad for that man to make an accusation like that. That is terrible. I have never, ever, since I managed, ever told a pitcher to throw at anybody, nor will I ever. And if I ever did, I certainly wouldn’t make him throw at a (expletive) .130 hitter like Lefebvre or (expletive) Bevacqua, who couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a (expletive) boat.”
“And I guaran-(expletive)-tee you this. When I pitched and I was going to pitch against a (expletive) team that had guys on it like Bevacqua, I sent a (expletive) limousine to get the (expletive) to make sure he was in the (expletive) line-up because I kicked that (expletive’s) (expletive) any day of the week.”
In today’s Internet age, a little searching will give you the opportunity to listen to both of these classic speeches. Two warnings, however…1) don’t have any liquid in your mouth and 2) make sure the youngsters are in another room.
None of this is meant as a criticism because Tommy Lasorda was an “old-school” ballplayer who lived by a code. He stood up for his players and expected nothing less from them. And, once the umpire said “Play Ball”, the guys in the other dugout were the enemy. So, we’ve seen a number of sides to this baseball “character”, let’s look at his heart through some quotes.
- “About the only problem with success is that it doesn’t teach you how to deal with failure”
- “Always give an autograph when somebody asks you”
- “80% of the people who hear your troubles don’t care and the other 20% are glad you’re having them”
- In respect to Fernando Valenzuela’s contract demands in 1981, “He wants Texas back”
- “I believe managing is like holding a dove in your hand. If you hold it too tightly, you kill it, but if you hold it too loosely, you lose it”
- “Listen, if you start worrying about the people in the stands, before long you’ll end up in the stands with them”
- “No, we don’t cheat. And even if we did, I’d never tell you”
- “The difference between the impossible and the possible lies in a person’s determination”
- “When we win, I’m so happy I eat a lot. When we lose, I’m so depressed, I eat a lot. When we’re rained-out, I’m so disappointed I eat a lot”
- “Tommy Lasorda will eat anything, as long as you pay for it” (attributed to Joe Torre)
- “There are three types of baseball players: those who make it happen, those who watch it happen, and those who wonder what happened”
- “I bleed Dodger Blue and when I die, I’m going to the big Dodger in the sky”