Column: Tom Lasorda still brandishes his fighting spirit even without an opening day
The scene is as familiar as the seventh-inning stretch.
At almost every game played at Dodger Stadium, Tom Lasorda makes an appearance on the video scoreboard.
Lasorda waves. The audience serenades him with a standing ovation.
The former Dodgers manager lives for moments like that. He lives to sign autographs and pose for pictures, to shake hands and spread the gospel of what he calls the greatest organization in baseball.
Now, the coronavirus outbreak has separated him from the public that adores him. On a Thursday that was supposed to mark the start of the new season, Lasorda won’t be in his customary seat in the owner’s box at Dodger Stadium, but with his wife in the modest Fullerton home they have shared for seven decades.
“Opening day ain’t going to be,” he said.
But don’t think for a second that Lasorda is down. He didn’t become one of baseball’s greatest motivators by pouting in moments of hardship.
“I’m 92,” he said with a hearty laugh, “but I can still fight.”
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And fighting he is, with the same contagious optimism that fueled the Dodgers to their last two World Series championships.
Reached by phone, Lasorda was in vintage form, his combination of hyperbole and humor in overdrive.
“You’re talking to the most grateful man on the face of the earth,” said the Hall of Famer, who is a special advisor to Dodgers chairman Mark Walter.
While perplexed by what is happening in the world — “I don’t even know what it’s all about,” he said — Lasorda and his wife, Jo, are taking the advice to remain at home. Groceries and other necessities are delivered to them by an assistant.
“Luckily, I do have TV,” he said. “More than ever.”
He laughed again.
“I left high school, 11th grade, to go to spring training with the Phillies,” he said. “Never got my diploma. But I got the opportunity to live in this great nation.”
In his view, a life like his is possible only here.
He spent one season in the Phillies system, after which he served in the Army for two years. His playing career didn’t unfold as he envisioned: He pitched in only eight games for the Dodgers over two seasons. He played in one more major league season, with the Kansas City Athletics in 1956 and never logged a major league victory. To this day, he believes he was denied a fair opportunity.
“But I said, ‘Something good will come out of it,’” he said.
Lasorda was right. He went on to manage the Dodgers for 21 seasons and win four pennants.
And this is why he said he has continued speaking to as many people as he has since managing his last game in 1996.
“I love to tell them what they have the opportunity to accomplish,” he said. “If they want it, they can get it.”
The mission has also provided him with a sense of purpose.
“I’ll tell you the truth,” he said. “I’d be really lost. I wouldn’t know what the hell to do. But doing that gives me the opportunity of staying with the people, trying to help the people, trying to help the Dodgers. That’s what I’m here for.”
His enthusiasm as the Dodgers manager from 1976-1996 and ambassador since then has made him one of the city’s most beloved and enduring sports figures. When he attended a Lakers game in December, he received a warm welcome from the Staples Center crowd. The same audience had no reaction when Cody Bellinger and Kenley Jansen appeared on the video scoreboard.
“I just tell you, I’m privileged and honored to be here among the fans,” he said. “The fans are the greatest thing in the world. They love to come out and see the Dodgers play. We’re at a point now where we’re not going to be able to enjoy that. We’ve got to get back to the right track.”
He is certain that a country that created a Tommy Lasorda can overcome a pandemic.
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“I’m privileged, I’m thankful and I believe this country will come out of this,” he said. “It’s too strong, too big.”
Lasorda is also confident baseball will be played this year. Asked if he thinks this will finally be the year the Dodgers win a championship, Lasorda again exploded with laughter.
“Hey, I say that every year,” he said. “What are you talking about?”
Still chuckling, he continued, “For about 20 years, I’ve been saying that every year. Nobody seems to listen.”
Lasorda spoke highly of manager Dave Roberts and Andrew Friedman, president of baseball operations.
“Those are two guys I think the world of,” he said.
Lasorda once said God could take him after the Dodgers win their next World Series. But he now has other ideas. He still enjoys watching the team. He still likes talking to people. And he is still enamored with his wife.
“I’m going to see if I can make it to 120,” he said.
And for that, Los Angeles should be grateful.
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