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AP Photo/Mark Duncan Former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda

The Big Dodger in the Sky

Life, death, and Tommy Lasorda

In the beginning … Tommy Lasorda was managing Spokane, the Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate. This was during the first Nixon administration. Lasorda was in his early 40s and somewhat slimmer, but already beginning to sneak food off his players’ plates. Lasorda talked a lot about God. The Big Dodger in the Sky, he called him. The Big Dodger was Lasorda’s lodestar, guiding him through a life that would make him the Dodgers’ manager and, now, the team’s greatest salesman.

Lasorda remembers the first time he invoked God in Spokane.

“I had a little left-hand pitcher named Bobby O’Brien,” Lasorda says. “He was on the mound. And we’ve got the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning. I thought, Let me go out and talk to this kid. Let me go out and make him believe he can get this guy out.

“So I ran out to the mound and I said, ‘Bobby, if the heavens could come apart right now and you could hear the voice of the Big Dodger in the Sky, and he says to you, ‘Bobby, this is the last hitter you’re gonna face on earth. You’re gonna die and come with me …’

“I said, ‘Son, how would you like to go facing the Lord? Giving him a base hit or getting this guy out?'”

O’Brien, the little left-handed pitcher, listened to the Last Pitch on Earth scenario and said, “Skip, I wanna go facing the Lord getting this guy out!”

“So I went back to the bench,” Lasorda says. “Before I got in the dugout, he threw the ball and the guy got a base hit and two runs scored.”

Lasorda was distraught when he strode back to the mound. “I’m walking and I think, Where the hell did I fail, man? The guy had him right where he wanted him. When I got there, I said, ‘What happened, Bobby?’

“He said, ‘Skipper, you had me so afraid of dying I couldn’t concentrate on that hitter!'”

Lasorda smiles. “Little did I realize I was that good.”

At age 85, Tommy Lasorda is wearing a baseball uniform. Every piece of it: loose-fitting Dodgers pants, a Dodgers jersey buttoned over his belly, and an uncreased Dodgers cap. In Phoenix, where I find him in March, Lasorda rises early each morning and drives a rental car to the Dodgers spring-training facility. When he pulls into the parking lot, he can’t help but notice there are reserved spaces marked OWNER and MANAGER. Then there’s a single space with a proper name: LASORDA. The other guys are replaceable; Lasorda — pending a roster move by the Big Dodger — is eternal.

Lasorda slumps in a chair in the team cafeteria. He’s still a big man with bags under his eyes and a lot of white hair. How you feeling, Tommy?

“I feel good,” Lasorda says very slowly. “Thank you.”

You get tired of people asking you that?

“Uh-uh,” he says. “I don’t get tired of it. I like it when they ask me how I feel.”

Lasorda’s official title is “special advisor to the chairman.” But his real job is to be a sage-in-residence, preserved like an ’80s trading card in a Mylar sleeve. It’s to embody, in his portly form, every childlike fantasy we have about baseball men. For instance, we think a baseball man should be excited about what he’s doing. “You ever watch Pete Carroll on the USC sidelines?” asks Jay Johnstone, who played for the Dodgers in the early ’80s. “‘Yeah, congrats, everybody!’ That’s the way Lasorda was. A lot of people think that was a put-on. But that’s just the way he was.”

And yet we also like our baseball men humble before the “game.” Lasorda is humble. “Everything I have I owe to baseball and the Dodgers,” he once wrote. He’s still repeating the line even when it’s clear baseball and the Dodgers owe a shitload to him.

Our fantasy is that baseball men will be funny. Lasorda has jokes. The one he tells today is about other mascots: “If somebody says they’re a Cardinal, you’d say, ‘Work hard and the next step is to become the Pope.’ If somebody says they’re a Twin, you’d say, ‘Where’s your brother or sister?'” Etc., etc., and har, har, har. But Lasorda not only tells jokes; he is eagerly the butt of them, like the time he was de-cleated by Vladimir Guerrero’s broken bat at the 2001 All-Star Game. “I was following the ball,” Lasorda explained.

We like our baseball men hawking. That’s how we interact with them nowadays, through their new gear. There was a Lasorda Sega game. There is a Lasorda wine label. And only Lasorda could handle the intellectual disconnect of being a pitchman, in the span of a few years, for Hungry-Man frozen dinners, Slim-Fast, and Rolaids.

Our greatest fantasy is that baseball men will never, ever quit. Retirement ceremonies steal our childhoods and make us age like the guy in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Lasorda will never quit, and thus never make us face adulthood. When Lasorda’s first heart attack forced him to retire as Dodgers manager, in 1996, he took the first office in the executive suite at Dodger Stadium. Now, his only formal duty is to keep talking Dodgers baseball, to keep being Dodgers baseball. Just as he’d advised Bobby O’Brien, he is crafting his final moments on earth so they please the Big Dodger in the Sky.

“I’m 85 years old, pal,” Lasorda says, very slowly. “Guys my age are either dead or they’re in old-folks’ homes.”

Tommy Lasorda is at spring training wearing a baseball uniform.

Until last spring, the Dodgers were out of the postseason and in divorce court. Lasorda got on just fine during this period. Not when the Dodgers missed the playoffs for the third year in a row — Lasorda can’t stand losing, even by proxy. But the abuse directed at owners Frank and Jamie McCourt never reached Lasorda. He might be the last person in Los Angeles who admires Frank McCourt, including Frank McCourt’s family. “He treated me good,” Lasorda says.

Ditto Rupert Murdoch, who owned the team from 1998 to 2004, and with Lasorda practiced a benign neglect he’d offer a newspaper editor. Murdoch and Lasorda only met a few times. “He didn’t know anything about baseball,” says Lasorda. “All he knew was about business and soccer. But a man like Murdoch, you have to have so much admiration simply because he’s put a lot of people to work. He’s made a lot of people be able to work and feed a family.”

Last spring, the Dodgers were sold for the third time in 15 years, for $2 billion. The new ownership group, fronted by Magic Johnson, was eager to spend money. The Dodgers acquired Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett and Zack Greinke. Now, they seem ready to give pitcher Clayton Kershaw the full Verlander. Yet through all this upheaval, nobody thought to disturb Lasorda. He still works out of the first office on the right. He still has a twentysomething assistant, who keeps his schedule and answers his mail. Lasorda stopped being consigliere to Rupert and Frank, and became consigliere to Magic.

Tommy and Magic sit together at home games when Tommy doesn’t have a speaking engagement and Magic doesn’t have TV or business duties. Magic asks Tommy questions about baseball. “He didn’t know a whole lot but now he’s learned,” Lasorda says. They sit together in the owner’s box, Lasorda patiently teaching the new boss, who might be his final pupil.

Former manager Tommy Lasorda of the Los Angeles Dodgers

Last June, Lasorda had his second heart attack. It was a mild one. The details aren’t very interesting.

What’s interesting is the schedule Lasorda kept before the heart attack. Days before his heart attack, Lasorda flew across the country to watch the Indy 500. After the race, he flew back to California. Eight days before his heart attack, Lasorda was shown on the Dodgers video board sitting with Mickey Hatcher, who hit two home runs in the ’88 World Series. (Hatcher had just been fired as the Angels’ hitting coach.) Three days before his heart attack, Lasorda attended a Mitt Romney fundraiser in Riverside, California. The morning before his heart attack, Lasorda flew across the country and rang the opening bell at the NASDAQ with Joe Torre. Then he had his heart attack.

“It was just a mere inconvenience,” says Steve Sax, his old second baseman, who talked to Lasorda in the hospital. “He had to get out of there and give a speech.”

You were too busy to die, weren’t you, Tommy?

“That’s right,” Lasorda says. “I got too many things. I can’t leave those things. I can’t leave my family now.”

The funny thing is, Lasorda was evangelizing for the Dodgers with equal fervor when he was managing. “You’d get the phone call in the winter from him, and he’d always be out somewhere speaking,” says Mike Scioscia, the ex-Dodgers catcher who is now the manager of the Angels. Indeed, when Lasorda was managing he estimates he made more than 100 appearances between the end of a baseball season and the first pitch of spring training. That amounted to delivering a speech to a Rotary Club or marching with a Little League team in a parade or giving away Christmas hams at Dodger Stadium three out of every four days.

“He never likes to be alone,” says Derrick Hall, a former Dodgers executive who’s now the president and CEO of the Diamondbacks. “He likes to have an audience before him so he can perform. I would say Tommy is a performer — it’s a very attractive quality about him.” In March, Lasorda left spring training and flew to New York, where he’d had the heart attack nine months before. Lasorda lit the Empire State Building with the colors of the World Baseball Classic. He posed for a picture with Justin Timberlake.

Later, he went to a barbecue joint and tweeted at Timberlake: “Where are you?”

Later, Lasorda was guest manager of a Dodgers spring training game in Rancho Cucamonga. Later …

You can’t tell anyone no, can you, Tommy?

“That’s what my wife said,” Lasorda says. “She said, ‘Don’t you ever say no?’ I said, ‘Yes, when they asked me if I had enough to eat. Then I say no.””

Lasorda has friends who have already met the Big Dodger in the Sky. He misses them very dearly.

Al Campanis, his general manager, now remembered for his racial observations on Nightline: “He died with a black mark that he didn’t deserve.”

Tommy’s dad, Sabatino Lasorda, an Italian immigrant who was the ur-skipper of the Lasorda family: “He had a piece of ground he farmed,” Lasorda says, “and after he got through working at the quarry for Bethlehem Steel, he would go to this farm and raise vegetables that we would live on all year.

“So one hot day I went with him. It was really a hot day and he was working on the farm, planting things. He said to me, ‘See that empty milk bottle over there?’

“I said, ‘Yeah, Pop.’

“He said, ‘Get it and come over here. I want to talk to you.’

“He said, ‘About a quarter of a mile from here, there’s a spring. I want you to fill this bottle up with water. That’s the only bottle I have, so don’t break it.’

“Boom!” Tommy’s right hand swings across the table in Arizona. “He hit me upside the head! I said, ‘What did you hit me for, Pop?’ He said, ‘Because if you break that bottle it’s too late to hit ya.'”

Lasorda used the same strategy on his players. Sax remembers a few spring trainings — what Lasorda called “refinement of capabilities camps” — when Lasorda would turn on the stadium lights and keep the team into the evening. Sax says this regimen got a bunch of players put on the DL, but it all worked out in the end.

Today is the birthday of Lasorda’s wife, Jo. How old is she, Tommy?

“Whatever I am, she’s three years younger,” he says. “She won’t tell anybody her age.”

In the same way Lasorda honors our fantasies about baseball men, he honors them about married men, too. Tommy married Jo in 1950. In 2010, on the occasion of their 60th anniversary, Tommy wrote a letter to the Big Dodger in the Sky:

Dear God,

I thank you every day for blessing me with my beautiful wife, Jo …

Together we danced the dance of life, and through the good times and the bad, I am so thankful that Jo carried me with her grace and her faith. Where there was darkness she gave me light. Where there was despair she gave me hope. Where there was doubt she gave me faith. It’s your love that I want, but it’s hers that I need …

“Why me?” he says in Arizona. “I don’t know.”

Then Lasorda pauses, noting an irony that never occurred to him. “But most of our players got divorced.”

Manager Tommy Lasorda of the Los Angeles Dodgers

Lasorda’s old players worry about him. “Of course you worry,” says Kirk Gibson, the former Dodgers outfielder who’s now the manager of the Diamondbacks. “He had such a substantial influence on my life and my family and my career. He’s the greatest ambassador we have of baseball.”

“We’re always worried about him,” says Burt “Happy” Hooton, a pitcher on three Dodgers World Series teams. “He’s probably lost and gained more weight than anybody on the planet.” Some of the ex-Dodgers think the weight comes from Lasorda’s nights on the rubber-chicken circuit and his litany of friends who inevitably direct him to the local Italian restaurant.

Lasorda, of course, has told more fat jokes on himself than anyone has told on him. He once changed the name on the back of his jersey to “Lasagna.”

Can you still eat linguini and clams, Tommy?

“I can eat anything,” he says.

A whole plate of it?

“Yeah, oh yeah. I eat a plate of pasta.”

But he exercises with the Dodgers training staff, pushing weights and doing work underwater. After all, this spring Tommy is scheduled to receive an honorary degree from the University of La Verne, and he intends to keep the appointment.

Do you remember, Tommy, when Kirk Gibson hit the homer in Game 1 of the ’88 World Series?

“Do I remember?!” Lasorda says.

I mean, can you recall what you saw? The images of Gibson you saw that night from the dugout?

“Well, first of all,” he says, “he didn’t come out for the introductions.” Gibson had hurt both legs in the playoffs. “Secondly, I ran in the clubhouse every inning and I stood at the door of the training room. ‘How do you feel, big boy?’ And he’d go like that.” Gibson gave Lasorda a double thumbs-down.

In the ninth inning, Oakland was leading L.A. 4-3, and Lasorda was trying to find someone to bat for the pitcher. “Now Mitch Poole, the clubhouse boy, he said, ‘Tommy come here, come here!’ I said, ‘Mitch, leave me alone, man. I’m trying to get this thing straightened out.'”

“He said, ‘Come here, it’s important!'”

“I went over. He said, ‘Gibson wants to see ya up in the tunnel.’ So I go up there, and he’s got his uniform on. He said, ‘I think I can hit for ya.’ Well, god, this guy had been giving me thumbs-down every inning and to see him in uniform … ”

With a power hitter in Mike Davis coming to the plate, Lasorda did something sneaky. He put infielder Dave Anderson in the on-deck circle. Anderson had hit .249 that season. So A’s reliever Dennis Eckersley pitched around Davis to get to the weaker hitter. Lasorda then pulled Anderson and sent out Gibson. Dodgers fans just lost it. “I’ve never heard anything like that,” Lasorda says. “I got goose bumps, really.”

A few pitches later, Lasorda was waddle-running out of the dugout with his arms raised, and Jack Buck was on the radio yelling, “I don’t believe what I just saw!” Do you remember seeing the ball, Tommy?

“I didn’t even look at the ball, ya know?” Lasorda says. “I did not look at where the ball went. I looked at [Jose] Canseco. I watched him and I saw him go back, back. I saw his back to the wall and I said, ‘That ball is outta here.'”

There’s a story that so brilliantly captures the doctrine of the Big Dodger in the Sky that you almost can’t believe it. The Votive Candle Incident is too perfect. Too pat.

“Four or five of us are in Cincinnati,” says Johnstone. “It’s Sunday morning. We can walk over to the Catholic church, which is a short walk over to the stadium. Steve Garvey is there. Bill Russell. Burt Hooton I think was there. And myself. We’re in the Catholic church. We walk in and sit in the back.”

“One of the guys notices that John McNamara, the Reds manager, was sitting in the front pew up there on the right-hand side. We’re sitting back on the left. Before the Mass is over, Lasorda is watching him and says, ‘Russell, go see what he’s doing.’

“Russell says, ‘He was down there lighting a candle, skip.’

“Lasorda says, ‘Show me. Which one did he light?’

“Russell says, ‘The top spot, upper right.'” He pointed at McNamara’s chosen votive.

“Lasorda says, ‘You sure?’

“‘Yeah, skip!’

“Lasorda walks up and he blows it out.”

Johnstone continues, “Now, we go to the ballpark. The dugouts are pretty close in Cincinnati. You could hear each other. And by the second inning, Lasorda’s yelling at McNamara, ‘It isn’t going to work, John! It isn’t going to work!'”

When we evaluate the veracity of the Votive Candle Incident, we have to note some inconsistencies. When Lasorda tells the story, he and McNamara are alone in the church. Johnstone’s version has half the Dodgers starting lineup there, in the same way fans retroactively claimed to be at Dodger Stadium when Gibson hit the home run.

Hooton insists he was not in the church, and he doesn’t think it even happened. “I wouldn’t put it past him,” Hooton says, “but I don’t think he’s that irreverent.”

In fact, the only trustworthy source on the Votive Candle Incident is McNamara, Lasorda’s alleged victim, who now lives outside Nashville. When I remind him of the story, McNamara sighs. “Oh my god. Every time I’m with him he tells that story.”

McNamara doesn’t know if Lasorda blew out the candle. But his complaint goes deeper than that. “If I went and lit a candle, it wasn’t for a win on the baseball field. It was for something else.” Which goes to show we don’t all pray to the same Big Dodger.

Tommy Lasorda won his first World Series in L.A. in 1981. It broke a drought in which the Dodgers had gone more than 10 years without a title. Lasorda won his second World Series in 1988. Since then, the Dodgers have gone 25 years without a title.

This gap is perhaps the only thing on earth that makes Lasorda unhappy. “It hurts me when I see that they’re not putting that championship flag out there,” he says. “Yeah, absolutely. Before the Big Dodger in the Sky calls me, I want to see that flag fly once again.”

You believe in heaven, don’t you, Tommy?

“Yes, I do,” he says.

What will heaven be like?

“You’re going to go to some place where you’re gonna meet people there through spirit … I firmly believe that there is a God. I firmly believe that there is a heaven. And I firmly believe that if you go there, it’s gonna be great.”

What follows may be a childlike question. But to the man who made the Big Dodger in the Sky into a deity we can all worship without thinking too hard about the dark corners of adult life … well, a childlike question has to be asked. Tommy, will there be baseball in heaven?

Here Lasorda tells the story of the two Italians. One Italian is headed to heaven. “The other guy said, ‘Come back and tell me what’s goin’ on there.’

“So he finally comes back and told his friend, ‘There is baseball here. With great players, great teams. It’s so exciting.’

“And he says, ‘You’re slated to pitch Friday.'”

This article has been updated to correct an erroneous implication that former Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley has met the Big Dodger in the Sky. Sorry, Mr. O’Malley!

Bryan Curtis is a staff writer for Grantland.

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