Now that we can sweep the college football season away, much like Alabama did to Notre Dame, it is time to set our sporting sights forward.
There is the NBA, college basketball, even a hockey-light season. Or is that a light hockey season?
Nor should we forget that spring training is approaching. To that end, we spend a day with Tom Lasorda, Mr. Dodger Blue Heaven. Need a baseball boost, see Tommy. He is the Viagra of enthusiasm.
“When people ask me about spring training,” Lasorda says, “I tell them I have a weight problem. I can’t wait for it to get here.”
Lasorda is 85 but says he feels younger. We tell him he doesn’t look a day over 841/2.
“I’m just shooting for 15 more,” he says.
He has been in the Dodgers organization for 64 years. He has been a minor league pitcher, major league pitcher (cup of coffee), coach, manager and holder of various front-office titles. His current title is assistant to the chairman. The chairman is one of those Guggenheim guys who grossly overpaid for the Dodgers to rid us of Frank McCourt. So we like him.
Lasorda’s actual title over all these 64 years can be summarized in three words: Chief Dodgers cheerleader. It doesn’t matter where he is, or with whom. There is only one topic and one color. Dodgers and blue. On this day, he is at Santa Anita to present the trophy after a big race. Any gathering of 20 people or more that includes a microphone, he will be there.
He says he doesn’t go to the track much, makes a few bets that prove it, and then rolls out the stories.
“I was at Arlington Park [in Chicago] one time with Don Zimmer,” Lasorda says. “I see a horse running named Blue Blanket. I’ve got to bet that one. . . . The horse is like 50-1. I bet it anyway. It not only wins, it sets a track record.”
The engine is purring and he shifts into overdrive.
“Another time I’m in New York to make a speech. I see Zimmer in the audience and I talk about the time he had a dream before he went to the track. In the dream, he sees lots of hats walking around. He thinks it’s an omen, so he goes to the track and looks for any horse named Hat. All he can find is one named Hat Rack, so he figures that’s the one.
“Zimmer’s horse takes off and is nine lengths in the lead. Same thing as they turn for home. He’s seeing a new boat, a Mercedes. Then his horse is caught from behind and beaten by a nose by a 90-1 shot. He is miserable and depressed and he asks the name of the winning horse.
“ ‘Sombrero,’ they tell him.”
There is no situation, nor will there ever be, for which Lasorda lacks a story. He is the master of hot air, and it is delightful, because he knows that you know, and you know that he knows that you know.
He gets a visit from Bob Baffert, one of the more famous horse trainers in the world. They have never met. Each is a master of the one-liner, but they have a more serious thing to discuss: their respective heart attacks.
Where was your pain? Did you get the sweats?
Each agrees he was in denial and each says he had a savior. Baffert says his wife, Jill, went to the computer, started ticking off symptoms “and when I had them all, she said we were going to the hospital.”
Lasorda, who was at baseball meetings, says, “They had me in a side room. I told them I wasn’t going to the hospital, that I was fine. The commissioner [Bud Selig] came in and said I was going to the hospital. So I went to the hospital.”
Lasorda meets Baffert’s youngest, 8-year-old Bode, and tries his Dodger Blue Heaven routine. The kid, smart like his mother, buys none of it and tells Lasorda he wants to be a golfer.
We ask Lasorda what he would do if he were still the Dodgers’ manager.
“I’d sleep like a baby,” he says.
“Last year, when the Angels got [Albert] Pujols and that other guy, that left-handed pitcher [C.J. Wilson], I called up Mike [Scioscia] and asked him to put aside two World Series tickets for me. This year, both teams are gonna be good. This is the best chance we’ve had in a long time for one of those, whatcha call ‘em . . . ?”
Freeway Series, we say.
“Yeah, one of those,” he says.
At trophy-presentation time, Baffert’s horse wins, naturally. Lasorda presents the hardware to his new best friend. HRTV’s Kurt Hoover hands Lasorda the microphone with full knowledge he may never get it back. Lasorda is in full sales pitch in seconds. The Dodgers need fans and the game belongs to those fans, he says.
The fans love it, and him. There will be a handful calling for Dodgers tickets soon. He has blown his hot air and warmed their hearts. There is nobody better at it.
Departure is a slow waltz. No autograph is turned down. Baby No. 246 is kissed.
It is hard to see the fun end. We consider asking him what he thought of Dave Kingman’s performance, but we resist.