One of Tommy Lasorda’s several stops over 14 seasons in the minor leagues was the Denver Bears, the Triple-A American Association affiliate of the New York Yankees.
Lasorda pitched in 22 games for the Bears at the end of the 1956 season and the beginning of the 1957 season. He won three and lost six before he was traded back to the then-Brooklyn Dodgers, with whose Triple-A Montreal farm team he spent the last three years of his playing career.
Lasorda, who died Thursday of heart problems at the age of 93, spent the rest of his life tattooing himself as a Dodger. “Bleeding Dodger Blue” was such a Lasorda tagline that no one would have blinked an eye if he requested it for his epitaph.
Still, he often cited a major takeaway from his time with the Denver Bears: the managerial style of Ralph Houk, who would go on to manage the Yankees.
From Houk, said Lasorda, he learned that praise worked better than criticism as motivation for baseball players.
When Lasorda became a manager himself, taking over the Dodgers in 1977 and keeping the job for the next 20 years, he built a reputation as a players’ manager, someone the guys felt had their backs.
Call it another of life’s little ironies, then, that one of Lasorda’s most enduring moments in the memory of many fans had a slightly different tone.
In Game 4 of the 1988 National League playoffs, the Dodgers were playing the heavily favored New York Mets. By the 12th inning the Dodgers had clawed back from a late deficit and taken a 5–4 lead. If they held on, they would tie the series at 2–2.
Trouble was, the Mets had loaded the bases with one out in the bottom of the 12th with two dangerous hitters coming up: Darryl Strawberry and Kevin McReynolds.
Jesse Orosco was pitching for the Dodgers, and his first pitch to Strawberry was a ball, which was not a good sign.
Lasorda, who rarely left the dugout to talk with pitchers, flew out as if he had been sitting on an ejection seat.
In a voice loud enough to be heard by nearby spectators over the roar of 57,000 Mets fans, and lip-read by reporters and TV commentators, Lasorda yelled to Orosco, “What the — — is wrong with you?”
Okay, some situations apparently dictate alternative management strategies.
So while we’re at it, let’s also acknowledge Tommy Lasorda was a little more complicated than a guy who just bled Dodger blue.
Which, in the end, makes his place in Dodgers history no less important or impressive.
Lasorda came off to the world as a boisterous, upbeat guy who loved the Dodgers and loved baseball. He hated to lose, like all athletes, and when he did, his language could become colorful. Otherwise he almost always seemed to be in a good mood, friendly to all. He was a great raconteur, never without an entertaining and often self-deprecating story.
Reporters who covered the Dodgers said it wasn’t quite that clear-cut — that he was very nice to the big guys in the media and could be not so nice to those he considered less important.
Similarly, his image was genuine, but a little more complicated. Becoming and remaining Mr. Dodger was a strategic campaign that worked, because he had both the legitimate affection and the personality.
On the baseball side, the Dodgers teams he managed won eight division titles, four National League titles and two World Series. At least one Dodgers scout in those years said there might have been more if Lasorda hadn’t had such a rigid attitude about pitchers. In his own career he’d had a rubber arm, with no injury problems. So when pitchers said something didn’t feel right, he’d tell them it was nothing, just keep throwing. He lost several good ones that way.
All this, if true, didn’t make him a bad manager or a bad person. It made him human. No manager gets everything right, and few human beings are as convivial as they seem in their public moments.
Lasorda managed a lot of winning teams, including the U.S. squad in the 2000 Olympics, and he lifted the spirits of millions of fans. Baseball, and sports in general, could use more of that unapologetic cheerleading.
Lasorda reveled in the joy of baseball and reminded anyone who would listen that baseball is part of the American cultural fabric.
Baseball historians will at some point chronicle the full Tommy Lasorda. Baseball fans, especially Dodgers fans, will remember the guy who loved their team and their game.
(Footnote to the Orosco moment: After Lasorda’s motivational talk, Orosco threw three strikes, Strawberry popped out and the Dodgers took the game en route to winning the World Series.)