By Hal McCoy
Tommy Lasorda always referred to The Big Dodger in the Sky. And now Lasorda is with the Big Dodger in the Sky, regaling him with baseball tales while they enjoy a huge plate of spaghetti, linguine and meat balls.
Lasorda was as Italian as a Ferrari. As he sat in his office during post-game interviews with the media, he always was plunging a fork into a huge plate of something Italian. And if you wore a white shirt, most likely you’d leave the office with orange stains from the spaghetti sauce sprayed while he talked fast and furiously.
Lasorda was so Italian some of us called him Tommy Lasagna.
Although I covered nearly every game Lasorda managed against the Cincinnati Reds, he never remembered my name. He always called me Bucky.
The first couple of years I covered the Reds for the Dayton Daily News, Bucky Albers covered them for The Journal Herald. Bucky quickly left the beat and for some reason Lasorda confused us. That was an insult to Bucky because we look nothing alike.
And I never corrected him. No big deal. It was just fun being around Lasorda, who passed away last week at age 93.
Lasorda used to drive around the Dodgers spring training complex in Vero Beach, Fla. in a golf cart. One day, Earl Lawson of the Cincinnati Post and I were walking from the quonset hut clubhouse to the field, a trek of a couple hundred yards.
Lasorda pulled up and told us to hop in. We could have walked it faster. Lasorda kept stopping to talk to fans and sign autographs.
That was Lasorda, one of baseball’s all-time ambassadors to the game. But it was always Dodgers, Dodgers, Dodgers. He always said he bled Dodger blue and told fans, “If you aren’t a Dodger fan, you probably won’t get into heaven.”
Lasorda may have been the only manager who was the face of a baseball franchise. He took over from another managerial icon, Walter Alston. When asked if he felt sorry for himself for trying to replace a legend, the always confident Lasorda said, “No, I feel sorry for the next guys,” meaning the guy who replaced him.
Former Los Angels Times columnist Mike Downey has a great story about Lasorda explaining how easy it is to recognize a Dodger.
“If someone says he’s with the Padres, I’d say, ‘When did you become a priest?’ If someone says he’s with the Indians, I’d ask what reservation he came from. If he says he’s a Twin, I’d ask, ’Where’s your brother?’ If he says he’s a Cardinal, I’d say, ’Work hard, the next step up is to be Pope.’ But if someone comes up to you and says he’s a Dodger, you know he’s in Major League Baseball.”
Los Angeles was the perfect place for Lasorda because it so close to Hollywood. Lasorda was Hollywood through-and-through.
His office was draped with photos of him with celebrities. And it was not uncommon to see Frank Sinatra or Jonathan Winters or other celebrities.
Lasorda once asked Sinatra about advice for a diet. Sinatra told him to cut his portions in half. “It didn’t work,” said Lasorda. “I just ordered double portions.”
Did Lasorda love baseball? His wife, Jo, once told him he loved baseball more than he loved her. His answer? “Well, I love you more than football and basketball.”
While he was all Dodgers all the time, he was a con man. Cincinnati Reds manager Sparky Anderson called his Walking Eagle. Why? “Because he is so full of it he can’t fly.”
One day I walked into Charley Gitto’s, a famous Italian restaurant in St. Louis. Hanging on the wall was a check signed by Lasorda.
I later told the story of seeing the signed check on the wall to a member of the Dodgers traveling party and they said, “He always pays for meals with a check, hoping they’d keep it as a souvenir and not cash it.”
It worked at Charley Gitto’s.
But it was pure joy to sit in his office and listen. He would fill your notebook, minus the profanities. He was as fiery with umpires as Earl Weaver or Bobby Cox, but much more profane. And the profanities flew in his post-game comments.
And you didn’t dare ask Lasorda what he considered a foolish question. Then the profanities flew like a conversation in a sailor’s barracks.
When Mexican pitcher Fernando Valenzuela was negotiating a contract, Lasorda was asked what Valenzuela wanted and said, “Well, for starters he wants Texas back.”
He was a left-handed pitcher who spent most of his time in the minor leagues. He made up for his missed major league time, though. Nearly every time I arrived early at Dodger Stadium, Lasorda, even though overweight and elderly, would be on the mound, shirtless, pitching batting practice.
Lasorda was baseball through and through. Last year Heaven gained Hall of Famers Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver. Joe Morgan, Al Kaline, Lou Brock and Phil Niekro.
Now they have a manager.