Column: Felipe Ruiz took the ride of his life working as Tommy Lasorda’s assistant
He was always there, but he was never there.
For the last six years of Tommy Lasorda’s life, Felipe Ruiz accompanied him from the shadows.
He would drive the black SUV that ferried Lasorda to countless public appearances.
He would stand near Lasorda and keep the line moving during endless autograph sessions.
He would sit near Lasorda next to the dugout during games at Dodger Stadium, later helping him navigate the stairs and crowds when it was time to leave.
Look closely at photos of the gregarious, white-haired Lasorda and you will often see a gently smiling dark-skinned man looming behind him, always behind him, always there to laugh at his jokes and brush food off his collar and smooth the increasingly rocky path for baseball’s aging ambassador.
The 33-year-old former home security salesman did his job so quietly and efficiently that few knew his role, and fewer knew his name. Lasorda didn’t even call him by that name, referring to him as “Flip,” or “My right-hand man,” or simply, “My guy.”
Tommy Lasorda, who won two World Series championships in 20 years as Dodgers manager, died Thursday night of a heart attack after a long illness.
For six years Felipe Ruiz was an anonymous part of the rich pageant that was life with Lasorda, the unknown half of the Dodgers’ oddest of couples, officially his executive assistant, unofficially his prop master and set dresser.
Then came the evening of Jan. 7, when it became clear this relationship was about much, much more.
Lasorda was resting at his Fullerton home after an extended hospital stay for a failing heart. He was suddenly hungry. He craved ice cream. He called for his guy.
Ruiz was there. Of course he was there. He slept in a chair next to Lasorda during Lasorda’s extended hospital stays. He later moved in with Lasorda to help care for him during the pandemic.
On this night, as always, Ruiz heeded the call. He ordered out for the ice cream. He procured a cup of rainbow sherbet. He carefully spoon-fed it to Lasorda, who kept asking for more, and more, until he finished the entire serving of the brightly colored dessert.
Shortly thereafter, Lasorda’s heart stopped. An ambulance rushed him to St. Jude Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead at the age of 93. Driving frantically behind the flashing lights, Ruiz broke down in tears upon realizing the magnitude of the moment.
He was losing more than a boss, he was losing family. While it seemed like he was behind him, he was really by his side. All this time everyone thought Ruiz was behind the curtain, Lasorda had actually been pulling him onto the stage.
In the end, Felipe Ruiz was so connected to Tommy Lasorda that the world’s greatest eater called upon him to share his last meal.
“He was my best friend, my life mentor, my father, my grandfather,” Ruiz said. “He didn’t treat me like an employee, he treated me like a son.”
No shadows here, only light.
This unlikeliest of partnerships began, appropriately, as a joke.
“A total joke,” Ruiz said.
In the summer of 2015, Ruiz was installing a security system in a modest Fullerton house when Lasorda came home. Ruiz, a former junior college baseball player who was born in Torrance and had Dodgers season tickets, was star-struck.
“I couldn’t believe I was actually standing in his house and that this was actually him,” Ruiz said.
The old manager was impressed with the security setup and asked the dazed kid a bunch of questions. Before the dazed kid left, he handed Lasorda his business card and impulsively made a crazy offer.
“I told him I lived in Fullerton and had season tickets and if he ever needed a ride to Dodger Stadium, just call,” Ruiz recounted. “I said it for fun. I never dreamed he’d ever call.”
It was Tommy’s show, and I was lucky to be there. Besides, I was getting the best education in the world. I was learning at Lasorda University.
— Felipe Ruiz
A week later, Lasorda called. He needed a ride to a game. Ruiz ran out of work and drove him to Dodger Stadium in the company minivan. A few days after that, Lasorda called again. He needed a ride to the doctor. Ruiz left work again and drove him.
For the next six months, as many as three times a week, Ruiz drove Lasorda all over Southern California. He did it for free. Frank Sinatra would be blaring from the dashboard, Lasorda would be telling stories from the backseat, and that was compensation enough.
“Are you kidding me?” Ruiz said. “I was living my dream.”
Little did Ruiz know, Lasorda was in the process of changing executive assistants, and one day he put his prospective employee to the test.
Ruiz picked up Lasorda in Fullerton at 7 a.m., drove him to breakfast, drove him to his Dodger Stadium office to answer fan mail, drove him down to Manhattan Beach for lunch and an appearance, drove him to Ontario to hang out with friends, stayed there with him during a long and late Italian dinner, and was finally driving him back to Fullerton at 2:30 a.m. when a question was shouted from the backseat.
“Lemme ask you something,” Lasorda said. “Are you tired?”
“Yeah Tommy, we’ve been going all day, I’m pretty beat,” Ruiz said.
“Damn it, at your age I was never tired!” boomed Lasorda.
A few minutes later Lasorda asked the question again. This time, Ruiz was ready.
“No, Tommy, I’m not tired, because we don’t get tired!” Ruiz hollered.
Test passed. Relationship forged. At the start of spring training in 2016, at Lasorda’s insistence, Ruiz was given a full-time job by the Dodgers and accompanied Lasorda to Camelback Ranch.
“It’s amazing that Tommy took a chance on me,” Ruiz said. “I wasn’t some famous former ballplayer or somebody with connections. All I had to offer him was loyalty and love.”
For Lasorda, that was always enough, and thus began the ride of Felipe Ruiz’s life.
It was a journey that took him to 30 states, 20 baseball stadiums, and included a trip to Cuba that featured a Havana ditch digger who recognized Lasorda, dropped his shovel and ran into the street to greet him.
It was a ride that featured late-night calls to Ruiz when the remote didn’t work, impromptu calls to Ruiz for rides to the hospital to visit cancer patients, and eventually a request that Ruiz answer his flip phone when he got calls from strangers.
“Felipe was Tommy’s security blanket … he was his bench coach,” said Mark Langill, Dodgers historian. “He took care of this older icon with such dignity, any vulnerability Tommy ever felt, as long as he had Felipe, he knew he wasn’t alone.”
Through it all, few noticed Ruiz, but he never cared.
“It was Tommy’s show, and I was lucky to be there,” he said. “Besides, I was getting the best education in the world. I was learning at Lasorda University.”
Felipe would take a bullet for my dad. Him coming into our lives was surely some sort of divine intervention. I truly believe he is an angel.
— Laura Lasorda, daughter of Tommy Lasorda
There were lessons about manners. Lasorda once scolded Ruiz for getting off an elevator ahead of two women, and Ruiz constantly heard him reminding autograph seekers to say “please” and “thank you.”
There were lessons about toughness. Ruiz accompanied Lasorda into the Dodgers clubhouse before every home game and listened to him act like he was still managing as he scolded and praised and exhorted even the biggest of Dodgers stars.
Every famous Lasorda speech, Ruiz has heard dozens of times. Every inspirational story, he can repeat verbatim. In fact, when Lasorda’s memory began fading in his final months, he would sometimes ask Ruiz to repeat those stories for him.
“The great man took me under his wing and taught me in so many ways that I’ve got to believe in myself, that I can do anything I want to do,” Ruiz said.
Finally, in those last months, in the last baseball experience of Lasorda’s hardball life, he taught Ruiz about resilience.
Remembering Tommy Lasorda
Ruiz accompanied the ailing and frail Lasorda to Texas for Game 6 of the 2020 World Series. After the Dodgers beat the Tampa Bay Rays and clinched their first title since Lasorda managed them in 1988, Ruiz helped take him to the hotel to rest for the return flight home. At least, he tried.
“Are you crazy!” Lasorda shouted when he realized what was happening. “We just won the World Series and we’re going to bed? No way! I’m not missing the party! We’re going back out.”
So Ruiz took him back out to the team hotel where, with all the players in quarantine, Lasorda pretty much was the party. He held court. He kept the bar open. They did not return to their hotel until 6:30 a.m., barely in time to pack and prepare for their 9 a.m. flight home.
“That was Tommy’s last hurrah, showing his love for the Dodgers until the end,” Ruiz said.
Lasorda also showed his love for Ruiz until the end, eventually adopting Ruiz’s family as his own. He showered Ruiz’s three children with gifts, spoke to their youth league teams and even stopped by mother Irma’s house on his 93rd birthday.
“God has a special place reserved for you for giving me this man,” Lasorda told her. “Thank you for him.”
Today it is Ruiz who gives thanks, for the lessons from the back of the car, for the experiences of associating with presidents and superstars, for Tommy being Tommy.
“I realize that all this time, he was coaching my life,” Ruiz said.
Meanwhile, the Lasorda family gives thanks for Ruiz.
”Felipe would take a bullet for my dad,” said Lasorda’s daughter Laura. “Him coming into our lives was surely some sort of divine intervention. I truly believe he is an angel.”
Tommy Lasorda, who died Thursday night of a heart attack at age 93, bled Dodger Blue nearly his entire life, spilling it across every corner of the world.
Shortly before Lasorda’s death, the old manager made one last request of the dazed kid. Lasorda asked him to watch over wife Jo, Laura and granddaughter Emily.
“Whatever you do, take care of my girls,” Lasorda asked him.
“I will, Tommy, I will,” Ruiz said.
And so he remains today amid the immense silence of Lasorda’s Fullerton home, helping to care for Jo.
“I don’t know if this is my job,” he said, “but I know it’s my responsibility.”
He was driving Jo on the freeway recently when, stuck behind traffic in the middle lane, he suddenly heard a familiar voice.
“Get your butt over there in the diamond lane!” barked the spirit of Tommy Lasorda.
Felipe Ruiz cried, then laughed, then veered left.
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