Tommy Lasorda spent his life prophesying his death. His most famous sayings, the wisecracks that he repeated until they became Dodgers lore, were all about mortality: the flesh and the divine.
If you were to slit his wrists, Lasorda said a million times, he would bleed Dodger blue. Examine his heart, which doctors did after he suffered coronaries in 1996 and 2012, and you’ll find “Dodgers” tattooed on it. He put his faith, of course, in the Big Dodger in the Sky. And he cautioned everyone—me included, the one time I interviewed him—that if you don’t love the Dodgers, there’s a good chance you won’t get to heaven.
The line that’s been trotted out lately, since Lasorda went into cardiac arrest one final time on January 7 at the age of 93, is the one about his tombstone—how he wanted it to say, “Dodger Stadium was his address, but every ballpark was his home.” As a tribute to his loyalty and enthusiasm, the Dodgers actually presented Lasorda with just such a grave marker. The team festooned it with a bleeding heart, its secretions painted blue. “I’m the only guy in America with his own tombstone!” Lasorda shouted with delight.
Lasorda was a quote machine, a gloriously profane raconteur.
What’s extraordinary, and perhaps forgotten, is that Lasorda did not receive the tombstone as an old man. It was not a retirement gift or a birthday gag. He had not yet been enshrined in baseball’s Hall of Fame. He had not yet even taken the helm as the Dodgers’ manager. It was the late 1960s—Lasorda still in his early forties, managing the club’s minor league team in Ogden, Utah—when the life-and-death adages he’d begun adopting earned him a marble slab.
There was some religiosity to it. The son of blue-collar Italian immigrants, Lasorda was a devout Catholic. But he was also a showman, a pep talker, a quote machine, and a gloriously profane raconteur. If loving the Dodgers meant trafficking in the sepulchral, it was not because Lasorda was so solemn—it was because the here and now mattered so damn much. He wasn’t about to squander his time on earth, and he didn’t want you to either.
In the vast, fractured sprawl of Los Angeles rendered even more disjointed by the pandemic, there are few things we all agree on, even fewer that make each of us—Northridger and Long Beacher, Santa Monican and Pomonan—all feel like Angelenos. Sports come closest to giving us a common vocabulary. It supplies the small circle of first-name-basis figures who transcend our geography, bridge our cultures, and translate our emotions. Chick was one. Vin, bless him, remains another. Magic probably fits into that pantheon. Kobe, a more complicated figure, abruptly claimed a spot.
Tommy—who started out as Thomas and entered baseball as Tom—has united us for most, if not all, our lives. More motivator than tactician, he led the Dodgers to the World Series four times during his 20 years as manager, winning it all in 1981 and 1988. If you count the decades before and after, as a pitcher, scout, coach, senior adviser, and global ambassador—a career that spanned the move west from Brooklyn—Lasorda spent an incredible 71 years championing the Dodgers, which made him close to a permanent fixture on the L.A. landscape. Even if you cared little for baseball, you knew his name and understood the contagiousness of his devotion. That he was imperfect—loud, brash, melodramatic, even cartoonish—only made him more lovable.
In a sport so steeped in tradition that it requires managers to dress in the same uniforms as their players, Lasorda couldn’t help but let it all hang out; lumpiness became his brand. When the pot-bellied Phillie Phanatic mascot mocked him between innings during a 1988 game in Philadelphia—clutching a Dodgers effigy as the P.A. system played Weird Al Yankovic’s “I’m Fat”—a steamed Lasorda charged the furry green creature, dropping it to the Astroturf. “That’s the quickest Tommy’s moved all year,” the TV announcer deadpanned.
Embracing the moment, Lasorda soon became a SlimFast pitchman—a decision he attributed to his third plate of linguine and clams during spring training in 1990. Egged on by Dodgers stars Orel Hershiser and Kirk Gibson, who wagered $20,000 that he couldn’t shed 20 pounds by the All-Star break, Lasorda chugged enough diet shakes to shrink himself from 218 to a svelte 182. Before gaining it all back, he used his winnings, plus his endorsement fees and powers of persuasion, to help fund a new convent for the Sisters of Mercy in Nashville.
It’s hard to think of a skipper in any sport more recognizable or ubiquitous than Lasorda. He hawked Rolaids, Econo Lodge, Honda lawn mowers, Yoplait, Glad, Skechers, and, in the saddest of his endorsements, the law firm of personal-injury attorney Larry H. Parker. Because he spoke exuberant (if inexact) Spanish, he even did a Budweiser commercial en español—playing off the literal translation of his last name: “the deaf one.”
“Por favor, no grite,” says Lasorda— “Don’t shout”—“Aquí estan dos Budweisers frías.”
He appeared on Everybody Loves Raymond, Fantasy Island, Police Squad!, and CHiPs; lunched at the White House; raised money for sick kids and wounded cops; presided over countless banquets and fantasy camps; came out of retirement to lead the underdog U.S. baseball team to a gold medal at the Sydney Olympics; and earned a new following on YouTube with old footage of his expletive-laden rants.
Delivered with the conviction of a Joe Pesci character, Lasorda’s greatest f-bomb hits included his 1982 takedown of Padres infielder Kurt Bevacqua, who had blamed that “fat little Italian” for ordering his teammate beaned the day before.
“Fucking Bevacqua,” countered Lasorda, relishing the opportunity to dish it out. “Couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a fucking boat.” In a clip that has amassed more than a million views, Lasorda added: “And I guaran-fucking-tee you this: when I . . . was going to pitch against a fucking team that had guys on it like Bevacqua, I sent a fucking limousine to get the cocksucker to make sure he was in the motherfucking lineup. Because I kick that cocksucker’s ass any fucking day of the week.”
It is a testament to Lasorda’s goodwill—and the theatricality of his shtick—that Bevacqua became an admirer. “Anytime you heard Tommy talk,” he said in a television interview the day after Lasorda’s death, “he was talking about what a great game baseball was.”
Only once did Lasorda’s bluster fall flat. When his 33-year-old son and namesake, a denizen of West Hollywood’s club scene, died of AIDS in 1991, Lasorda refused to acknowledge the cause. In an uncomfortable portrait in GQ about their complicated but undeniably loving relationship, Lasorda was quoted as saying: “My son wasn’t gay. No way. No way. I read that in a paper. I also read in that paper that a lady gave birth to a fuckin’ monkey, too. That’s not the fuckin’ truth. That’s not the truth.”
It’s hard to believe that Lasorda, a man with incomparable instincts for what made people tick, didn’t know the truth. But he was still an old-school Italian American from the industrial borough of Norristown, Pennsylvania, who settled in Fullerton and stayed married to the same woman for 70 years; given the chance to destigmatize a plague, he chose to protect the myth of Blue Heaven.
Not content with a mere tombstone to commemorate his fealty to the Dodgers, Lasorda came up with a campy addendum. For a half a century or so, he’d been telling anyone who would listen that he wanted to continue working for the Dodgers even when he was dead and gone. The punch line: “When I die, I want my wife to put the Dodgers home schedule on my tombstone. And when the people are in the cemetery visiting their loved ones, they’ll say, ‘Let’s go to Lasorda’s grave to find out if the Dodgers are playing at home or on the road.’ ”
Lasorda recounted that story some years ago on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, eliciting cheers from the audience and a pained, quizzical look from his host.
“Wow, wait—” said O’Brien.
“Now that’s pride,” insisted Lasorda.
“That’s pride, but—” said O’Brien.
Lasorda was determined to have the last word. Jabbing a finger at O’Brien and cocking his head, his saggy eyes now sparkling, he asked: “Can you honestly tell these people tonight that you want to do this job when you’re dead and gone?”
It was not so much a question as a challenge, an admonition, a dare: to find purpose in life and to pursue it with every cell of your being. As Lasorda had reminded us, year in and year out, season after season, across coasts and generations, it’ll all be over sooner than we think.
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