Tommy Lasorda died yesterday at the age of 93. It’s almost hard to say anything that matters. I only know that he was the manager of the Dodgers in 1988, when the Dodgers had an improbable victory over the feared Oakland A’s, led by Tony LaRussa. When I looked back over the dates that Lasorda was the manager of the Dodgers – 1976 to 1996 – I realized that it encompassed my entire life, up to the age of 16.
The Dodgers won the World Series twice with Tommy Lasorda at the helm, but it is that victory in 1988 which stands out. Lasorda called a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning of game 1 of that 1988 World Series, the hobbled Kirk Gibson. Gibson guessed right on a hanging slider, and sent it over the wall for perhaps the most memorable home run in the history of the World Series. My father and my uncles had long ago worn out the tape.
On many occasions, I heard Lasorda say that God was a Dodger. I think I can forgive that bit of syncretism, or at least presumption, because I don’t think I ever saw anyone who loved baseball more than Tommy Lasorda. It was interesting, because he never seemed young to me, but he never seemed old, either. There was always a joy in his face, to be at the ballpark, to be around the guys, and the fans.
I read something earlier saying that Lasorda’s main contribution or insight into managing a baseball team was to find out what motivated his guys, and to let them know that they mattered to him. It’s not the first time I’ve heard that, but every time I do hear it, I note that I have heard it from someone who will be regarded as a legend in the profession. When I read that little snippet, it contained another incredulous person, asking if men who make millions of dollars to play a children’s game need to be motivated. Lasorda knew the answer: yes. You can’t buy your way into passion; you can’t purchase the reckless abandon of true zeal.
The Dodgers have always symbolized family to me. Their victory in the most recent World Series was the occasion of an outpouring of emotion on my part. I knew my father would have been happy, as would my Uncle Jim. I knew Lasorda was in the park when the last out was made. I don’t even root for the Dodgers; I’m a Cardinals fan. Yet baseball has always been about more than itself, more than the games and the scores, more than the winning and losing. There is a special magic to baseball, in its ability to connect us to one another. Baseball is the fulcrum of memories, of joys and sorrows shared, even if those joys and sorrows are relatively insignificant.
The Dodgers family goes on, without one of its celebrated sons. Baseball goes on, missing one of its greatest ambassadors. Social media and the speed of the Internet give us all a chance to grieve more publicly, and more widely. As some of those memes and posts might say, ”Somebody better check on Koufax, and Vin Scully.” I think Lasorda would wonder about the fuss. He might even go away intentionally, if he thought it would help the Dodgers win.
I certainly hope that our leaders and medical professionals can get the coronavirus pandemic under control, so that Lasorda, and many others that have been lost, may be honored in full ballparks, with roaring crowds.
The Dodgers today are young and talented, though led by the thirtysomething legend pitcher, Clayton Kershaw. I hope that along with his leadership, he instills in the other players the memory and appreciation for those who gave meaning to Dodgers baseball.
I think they knew that they were carrying around someone else’s monkey, when they finally broke a curse of 30 odd years of failing to win the championship. Prior to that drought, however, their leader was Tommy Lasorda. I certainly hope that the unbridled joy for the game that characterized Tommy Lasorda never leaves the Dodgers dugout. The fans know that there will be a void, one only partially filled by the crack of the bat, and the thrill of a Dodgers victory.
I don’t think we’re asking too much, on the off chance that God is a Dodgers fan.