By Mark Langill
Special to the Review
My Master’s Class at Tommy Lasorda University began in spring training 2007 with one day’s notice and a late-night phone call that sounded like the opening of an action movie. The unlikely supporting actor was a somewhat mild-mannered team historian who wasn’t scheduled to appear at the team’s Vero Beach training facility until a few weeks later for his publicity department assignments.
“Can you be in Florida tomorrow morning?” asked a Dodgers executive. “Tommy’s assistant has taken a leave of absence and you’re the only one who can do his job.”
For the next 28 days, I had a front-row seat to the world of a baseball icon, who died last week at age 93. I still marvel at his behind-the-scenes energy during that month in Florida where I learned to have nine meals per day and squeeze every appointment into a calendar book that somehow held the line at 24 hours. I even became a deputy sheriff of Montgomery County, the territory that includes Lasorda’s hometown of Norristown, Pennsylvania.
My lack of natural directional skills when driving around Southern California greatly improved when handed the keys to a minivan that was going to transport a Hall of Fame manager who liked to loudly sing along to 1940s music on the satellite radio system. This was an era in which Tommy’s “flip phone” didn’t include caller ID or driving directions. If the phone rang, my “Tommy Lasorda’s office” greeting could be for anyone ranging from a military general to a hospital foundation trying to book a summer appearance in Idaho.
The first rule in spring training was realizing Tommy didn’t like to eat alone at his table at the Dodgertown dining room, where except for Tommy’s reserved table in the corner, there were no seating assignments. Johnny Carson always had Ed McMahon at his side, so the 7-10 a.m. window for breakfast meant three waves of shows at Tommy’s table, the guests randomly picked from the line that had to pass Tommy’s table before entering the buffet.
This was the same Vero Beach training camp that Tommy had first arrived in 1948 among more than 600 minor leaguers in the Brooklyn Dodger system. Tommy never forgot the feeling of wanting to sit close to the Major Leaguers during meals, even though he was an unheralded Single-A pitcher drafted from the Philadelphia Phillies organization. “I’d ask (pitcher) Ralph Branca if he had an extra workout shirt and then I would listen to his stories with other players,” he said. “Then I would write home and say I had dinner with Ralph Branca. Of course, Branca didn’t know he was having dinner with me.”
Nearly 60 years later, Lasorda savored his role as the organization’s Welcome Wagon. Tommy used those meal sessions to make a nervous prospect or a new employee feel they belonged in pro baseball and encouraged everyone to maximize their potential.
Our mode of transportation around the 300-acre training complex was more conspicuous than the unmarked van for road trips. Plastered in front of his golf cart was “Tommy Lasorda” painted in the Dodgers-style uniform script. Lasorda basked in the attention of the crowds that gathered, posing for photos and signing autographs.
But away from the very public pomp and circumstance, Lasorda was a workhorse behind the scenes. We were together from breakfast until midnight, the last few hours spent in his room at the Dodgertown conference center. There was always a pile of mail to be sorted, mostly autograph requests. Tommy never learned email or texting, so hand-written notes and the telephone were his means of communication. If asked, he would call random strangers to encourage someone who wasn’t feeling well or needed a boost.
Tommy also kept the television blaring in the background so he could listen to the news. The man who in post-Dodger retirement coached the United States Olympic baseball team to a gold medal during the 2000 Summer Games in Australia was very patriotic, even when nobody was looking. If Tommy didn’t like a news story involving the government or politics, he’d start yelling at the screen like an umpire who had just missed a call.
That passion also carried over that same month when the then-79-year-old Lasorda was invited to tag along and watch members of the Baseball Operations Department at the local Vero Beach bowling alley on a Saturday night. Tommy Lasorda does not “tag along” to anything, so it was not surprising to see the grandfather and former scout eyeing just the right bowling ball a few minutes into his arrival. When asked, Tommy said he would be happy to play if there were enough lanes for everyone.
What unfolded during the next 10 frames still gives me goosebumps and actually mirrors his path in professional baseball. He was embarrassed when the first couple of practice balls either rolled into the gutter or barely picked off a couple corner pins. The rolls were getting better early in the game, but Lasorda quietly confided to minor league instructor Terry Collins that he was trying to “snap” the bowling ball like throwing a curve with his rolling motion. Collins nodded his head like this was ninth-inning dugout strategy in a World Series instead of a social event with friends.
During the middle frames, Lasorda often flicked his wrist and muttered under his breath while walking back to his seat. The ball wasn’t snapping. The manager’s temperature was rising.
The 10th frame arrived and Tommy’s first strike of the night — a perfect roll that snapped into the 7-10 pocket that lifted every pin off the waxed wooden surface in violent unison — meant two bonus throws. The fact Tommy threw two subsequent strikes to the deafening cheers of his startled colleagues took a back seat to Tommy’s reaction when a lone pin unsuccessfully tried to wobble in place after his third roll. Tommy pointed at the shaky pin and screamed with all his might, “YOU’D BETTER FALL!”
Mark Langill has worked for the Dodgers for three decades and serves as the official team historian.