On the heels of a year in which a record seven Hall of Famers died, the baseball world couldn’t get a full week into 2021 without losing another. Tommy Lasorda, the charismatic and voluble manager who piloted the Dodgers to four National League pennants and two championships during a run of 19 full seasons (1977-95) and two partial ones, died of cardiopulmonary arrest on January 7.
The 93-year-old Lasorda had returned home earlier in the week after being hospitalized since mid-November due to a heart condition. He had been the oldest living Hall of Famer since Red Schoendienst passed away on June 6, 2018; that title now belongs to 89-year-old Willie Mays.
For over 60 years, as stars and even Hall of Famers come and went from the Dodgers, Lasorda remained a constant. Including the final years of his professional career as a pitcher, he had been continuously employed by the team in one capacity or another since 1957, their final year in Brooklyn. He spent the past 14 years as special advisor to the chairman during the ownership tenures of Frank McCourt and Guggenheim Baseball Management. He professed a loyalty to the franchise that transcended his own mortality, a subject on which he spoke with frequency. “I bleed Dodger blue and when I die, I’m going to the big Dodger in the sky,” he often said.
As the manager of the Dodgers from September 29, 1976, when he replaced Walter Alston with four games remaining in the season, to June 24, 1996, when he suffered a heart attack and left the team in the hands of Bill Russell, Lasorda won 1,599 games, the 22nd-highest total in major league history; he’s 21st in losses (1,439, for a .526 winning percentage), and he’s the runaway leader in both categories among managers who were primarily pitchers during their playing careers. The Dodgers won seven NL West titles during his run, in 1977, ’78, ’81 (via the split-season format necessitated by the players’ strike), ’83, ’85, ’88, and ’95. They won pennants in the first three of those years, losing to the Yankees in the World Series in 1977 and ’78 before beating them in ’81; those teams were powered by the legendary Longest-Running Infield of first baseman Steve Garvey, second baseman Davey Lopes, shortstop Russell, and third baseman Ron Cey, all of whom Lasorda managed in the minors. In 1988, with an already-meager offense hamstrung by the limited availability of MVP Kirk Gibson, they upset the heavily-favored Mets in the NLCS and then the A’s in the World Series, a victory that is widely considered Lasorda’s greatest triumph.
Stylistically, Lasorda was less a tactician than an emotional leader, one who broke down the traditional walls that separated a skipper from his crew. He hugged his players, ate dinner with them, pulled pranks with them. “I brought a whole new philosophy of managing into the major leagues,” he told Steve Delsohn, author of True Blue, an oral history of the Dodgers published in 2001. “I wanted my players to know that I appreciated them. I wanted them to know that they were responsible for whether I’d even stick around or not.”
“Lasorda came to me and said, ‘I need you,’” outfielder Reggie Smith told Delsohn. A four-time All-Star with the Red Sox and Cardinals, Smith was traded to the Dodgers in the middle of a comparatively modest 1976 campaign. He earned All-Star honors in three of his first four full years in Los Angeles, his three best years as a hitter. “No one in baseball ever said that to me. How could I let him down?”
Lasorda was able to coax big seasons out of other veterans who came to Los Angeles after subpar showings elsewhere, such as Dusty Baker and Jerry Reuss, but he was even better with young players, no surprise given his apprenticeship in the minors, where he managed dozens of future major leaguers coming through the Dodgers’ prolific player development system. With the Dodgers, he managed nine NL Rookies of the Year, including Fernando Valenzuela, Mike Piazza, and Hideo Nomo. He also nurtured a handful of managerial proteges, including Baker, Lopes, Russell, Valentine, Phil Garner, Johnny Oates, and Mike Scioscia.
“His greatest attribute is helping players develop,” Lopes — who moved from the outfield to second base under Lasorda in Spokane in 1970 and ’71 — told Sports Illustrated’s Larry Keith in 1977. “He has the gift of juicing players up and making them do things they don’t even know they have in them.”
Beyond the wins and losses, Lasorda was a larger-than-life presence in baseball, a master storyteller who was jovial but with a fierce temper, alternately reverent and profane, and seemingly ubiquitous. Other managers may have found more success, left a larger imprint with their strategies and tactics, or lasted longer at the helm, but none transcended the sport in the same way. Which isn’t to say that his reach was uniformly positive. While his role as a family man was an important part of his public persona, particularly his enduring, 70-year marriage to wife Jo, he refused to publicly acknowledge both the sexuality of his younger child, Tommy Jr., as well as the real cause of his death from AIDS-related pneumonia in 1991, this at a critical juncture in the public’s understanding of the disease and the community it most affected.
It’s difficult to know how broadly an honest reckoning with Tommy Jr.’s life and death might have resonated, but given Tommy Sr.’s reach and place in the larger culture, it isn’t hard to imagine such an acknowledgement being meaningful. Lasorda had already become such a celebrity by the time he took over the Dodgers that Frank Sinatra made good on a promise to sing the national anthem at Lasorda’s first Opening Day in 1977. Among his famous friends were the likes of Milton Berle, Jimmy Carter, Kirk Douglas, Cary Grant, Danny Kaye, Don Rickles, and Ronald Reagan; his office wall had more stars than the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was a pitchman for Ultra Slim-Fast, a weight-loss product (“A healthy, delicious shake for breakfast, one for lunch, and then a sensible dinner”); a turbaned Dugout Wizard on the instructional children’s show The Baseball Bunch; a recurring guest on late-night talk shows opposite Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, and David Letterman; an instantly recognizable presence who hammed it up in television comedies such as Police Squad and Silver Spoons, and dramas such as Fantasy Island, Hart to Hart, and CHiPs; and the nemesis of mascots such as the Phillie Phanatic, the San Diego Chicken, and Youppi.
“If you had a license from God to construct yourself a baseball manager, you would probably begin with one with a big belly and short legs that were slightly bowed or pebbled with lumps so that they looked like sacks of walnuts,” wrote the Los Angeles Times‘ Jim Murray in 1988. He continued:
You would want one who had his own syntax, a voice that sounded like an oncoming train in a tunnel. It’d have to be a nice part for Vincent Gardenia.
“He wouldn’t have been a big star in his youth. A .500 pitcher, perhaps. A .260 hitter who made a lot of noise. He’d have to know how tough this game is. He’d never have a self-doubt or a moment’s anxiety. He’d come into a room as if he were leading a parade. Everybody would be his best friend. He’d talk to shoeshine boys, parking lot attendants. He’d sell baseball. He’d be sure God was a baseball fan. He’d know that America was the greatest country in the world, otherwise how could a poor boy like him grow up to be part of the greatest organization in the world?”
Remembering a baseball legend. pic.twitter.com/rutsuogHyf
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) January 8, 2021
Thomas Charles Lasorda was born on September 22, 1927 in Norristown, Pennsylvania, the son of Italian immigrants. He was the only one of five sons of Sabatino and Carmella Lasorda who did not go into the restaurant business, but food, particularly pasta, was central to his persona. “When we win, I’m so happy, I eat a lot,” Lasorda once said. “When we lose, I’m so depressed, I eat a lot. When we’re rained out, I’m so disappointed, I eat a lot.”
The Phillies signed Lasorda, an undersized left-handed pitcher (5-foot-10, 175 pounds) out of high school in 1945, but after just one professional season in which he went 3-12 with a 4.09 ERA and 7.4 walks per nine (!) for the Class D Concord Weavers, he spent two years in the Army, missing all of the 1946 and ’47 seasons. He spent just one more year in the Phillies’ organization, pitching for the Class C Schenectady Blue Jays, a stint notable for his record-setting 25-strikeout performance in a 15-inning start. “Bobby Valentine and I one night tried to figure out how many pitches I made in 15 innings,” Lasorda told broadcaster Tim Hagerty. “We figured over 300 pitches.”
In November 1948, Lasorda was plucked away by the Dodgers in the minor league draft; Branch Rickey’s scouts must have seen something they liked. After a year at A-level Greenville, South Carolina, where he met future wife Joan (Jo) Miller, Lasorda spent the better part of six seasons with the team’s Triple-A Montreal Royals, the first four under Alston and alongside several players who would help the Dodgers win multiple pennants such as Sandy Amoros, Joe Black, Carl Erskine, Jim Gilliam, and Johnny Podres. From 1950-55, he went a combined 82-45 with a 3.31 ERA, with a 17-8, 2.81 ERA showing in 208 innings in 1953 his best showing. Yet all he had to show for it besides a reputation as a cocky and pugnacious portsider were a few cups of coffee in Brooklyn for a grand total of 13 innings. He debuted on August 5, 1954, allowing three runs in three relief innings in a 13-4 blowout by the Cardinals. He made three other appearances in losing causes in September, and then was cut in spring training the following year because the Dodgers were obligated to keep lefty Sandy Koufax on the big league roster under “bonus baby” rules lest they lose him via waivers.
Recalled from Montreal, Lasorda made his lone start for Brooklyn on May 5, 1955. He lasted just one inning, and while he struck out Stan Musial, he tied a major league record by throwing three wild pitches in that inning, and was spiked while covering home plate to the point of needing to be removed from the game due to the bleeding. He made just three more appearances for the Dodgers over the next month before being sent down, and was sold to the Kansas City A’s in March 1956. In five starts and 13 relief appearances totaling 45.1 innings, he went 0-4 with a 6.15 ERA while walking 45 and striking out just 28. In July, he was traded to the Yankees for right-hander Wally Burnette.
Lasorda spent parts of two seasons at the Yankees’ Triple-A Denver affiliate under manager Ralph Houk. “Ralph taught me that if you treat players like human beings, they will play like Superman,” he recalled in his 2009 autobiography, I Live For This: Baseball’s Last True Believer. “He taught me how a pat on the shoulder can be as important as a kick in the butt.”
Sold back to the Dodgers in May 1957, Lasorda returned to Montreal. In 1958, he went 18-6 with a 2.50 ERA, but the returns diminished over his next two seasons, and he never got another a taste of the majors. The Dodgers released the 32-year-old Lasorda as a player on July 7, 1960, with scouting director Al Campanis immediately hiring him. Among the players he scouted was University of Southern California pitcher Tom Seaver, whose fastball he graded a 73 on the 20-80 scale, and whose curve he gave a 63; the Dodgers drafted Seaver in the 10th round in 1965, a few months after Lasorda saw him, but refused to meet his $70,000 asking price.
In 1965, Lasorda began his managerial career with the Dodgers’ Pioneer League affiliate in Pocatello, Idaho, and he stuck with the team as it moved to Ogden, Utah the following year. Under Lasorda, Ogden won three straight Pioneer League championships with future Dodgers such as Russell and Charlie Hough (1966), and Garvey, Bill Buckner, Tom Paciorek, and Bobby Valentine (1968), on one of the most talent-laden minor league squads ever.
Already his devotion to the organization was so clear that in the spring of 1968, Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley presented him with a marble tombstone engraved with the manager’s preferred epitaph, “DODGER STADIUM WAS HIS ADDRESS, BUT EVERY BALL PARK WAS HIS HOME.” Lasorda told that story to Keith for the aforementioned 1977 SI feature, including the ensuing reaction:
“I’m so grateful to you, Mr. O’Malley,” Lasorda said, “that I want to continue working for the Dodgers even when I’m dead and gone.”
And just how do you plan to do that?” the startled owner asked.
“Just put the Dodgers’ schedule on there each year,” Lasorda said, pointing at the tombstone. “When people are visiting their loved ones at the cemetery, they can come by my grave and see if the Dodgers are at home or away.”
In 1969, Lasorda began a four-year run with the Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate in the Pacific Coast League, first as the Spokane Indians (1969-71) and then the Albuquerque Dukes (’72). At those stops, Lasorda again oversaw all of the aforementioned players as well as Cey, Joe Ferguson, Doug Rau, and Rick Rhoden, all of whom would play key roles with his future Dodgers teams, plus dozens of longtime major leaguers including Doyle Alexander, Bobby Darwin, Larry Hisle, Tom Hutton, Von Joshua, Fred Norman, Ted Sizemore, Bob Stinson, and Geoff Zahn, who would carve out careers elsewhere. He won championships in 1970 — another powerhouse whose eight position-playing regulars averaged 14 years in the majors — and again in ’72. Additionally, he managed the Dominican Winter League’s Tigres del Licey to victory in the 1973 Caribbean World Series.
In 1973, Lasorda joined Alston’s staff as a third base coach, an unorthodox choice given his background as a pitcher, but he had already spent time as Alston’s first base coach in Montreal on days that he wasn’t pitching. The heir apparent to Alston achieved a visibility like no other coach, not only due to his friendship with Hollywood royalty but thanks in part to his predicting a Cey home run while wearing a microphone during a June 1, 1974 NBC Game of the Week. “You’d be hard-pressed to find an analogous situation,” the Rocky Mountain News‘ Mike Littwin told Delsohn. “Here’s this guy in one of the legendary sports franchises who had accomplished nothing before 1977. Yet within the organization he is already semi-legendary.”
Lasorda rebuffed offers from the Braves, Expos, and Pirates while waiting for Alston, who had helmed the Dodgers since 1954, to retire. “I was willing to wait because I always felt I’d be the man,” he told Keith. When the Dodgers offered him the job, he called it “the greatest day of his life” and compared it to “being presented with the Hope Diamond.”
In taking the reins, the 49-year-old Lasorda inherited a team had averaged 94 wins from 1973-76 but had won just one NL West title while the Big Red Machine dominated. With better pitching than Cincinnati — their depth had driven the regular use of a five-man rotation featuring Don Sutton, Tommy John, Burt Hooton, Rhoden, and Rau — and a lineup powered by the Longest Running Infield and a resurgent Baker and Smith, the Dodgers bolted from the gate, going 17-3 in April, winning 33 of their first 44 games, and finishing with 98 wins, 10 more than the Reds. Baker, Cey, Garvey, and Smith became the first quartet of teammates to hit 30 homers. The Dodgers then beat the Phillies in the NLCS to take their first pennant since 1966, but lost to the Yankees in a six-game World Series capped by Reggie Jackson’s three-homer performance in Game 6.
That was the first year of a nine-year stretch over which the Dodgers won more games (780, an average of 90 per 162 games) than any NL team. In addition to their five NL West titles, they took things down to the final day of the season two other times. The Longest Running Infield peaked, won its championship and began scattering to the four winds as Lasorda welcomed a newer generation of Dodgers, highlighted by slugger Pedro Guerrero, fireballer Bob Welch, and four straight NL Rookies of the Year from 1979-82 (starter Rick Sutcliffe, reliever Steve Howe, Valenzuela, and second baseman Steve Sax).
In 1978 — this scribe’s first year of following baseball closely — the Dodgers won 13 of their first 18, and closed a 4 1/2-game gap on the Giants in seven days in August, ultimately winning 95 games and again beating the Phillies before falling to the Yankees in six games, that after winning the first two in Los Angeles. The season included one of Lasorda’s moments for the ages, after he swore a blue streak when asked about slugger Dave Kingman’s three-homer performance in the Cubs’ 15-inning win over the Dodgers on May 14 (warning: NSFW):
In 1979, after losing John to free agency, trading Rhoden for Reuss, and enduring several injuries to the pitching staff, the Dodgers split their first 52 games, and lost 31 of their next 41, but tied for the majors’ second-best record (43-26) after the All-Star break. In 1980, they overcame a three-game deficit in the final weekend of the season by winning three-straight one-run games against the division-leading Astros, but lost a Game 163 tiebreaker.
When Reuss tweaked a calf muscle ahead of his Opening Day start in 1981, Lasorda turned to Valenzuela, a 20-year-old screwball-throwing lefty who had shown outstanding poise and stuff in the heat of the 1980 race. He threw a five-hit shutout, the first of five he would throw in an eight-game span while going 8-0 with an 0.50 ERA to start the year. The Dodgers won 26 of their first 35 games, and Lasorda shepherded his young Spanish-speaking southpaw through his sudden celebrity. Amid Fernandomania, the Dodgers cooled off but were half a game ahead of the Reds when the seven-week players’ strike hit, which qualified them for the three-tiered playoff format that fall. The team seemingly had its backs to the wall for all of October, overcoming a two-games-to-none deficit to beat the Astros in the best-of-five Division Series, a two-games-to-one deficit to oust the Expos in the best-of-five NLCS, and a two-games-to-none deficit to beat the Yankees in the World Series for their first championship since 1965. Valenzuela won Rookie of the Year and Cy Young honors.
That was the last hurrah for Lopes, who was traded to the A’s to make way for Sax. In 1982, the Dodgers nearly overcame the Braves’ run of 13 straight wins to take things down to the season’s final day, but Joe Morgan’s three-run homer for the Giants prevented them from tying the Braves. With Cey traded to the Cubs and Garvey departing for the Padres in free agency, the new-look team won the NL West in 1983 as Lasorda stuck with Sax through an epic bout of the yips; they lost the NLCS to the Phillies. After a 79-83 finish in 1984, the Dodgers won 95 games and the NL West title in ’85, as Orel Hershiser — whom Lasorda nicknamed “The Bulldog” to inspire him to pitch more aggressively — emerged as an outstanding starter alongside Valenzuela and Reuss.
In the 1985 NLCS against the Cardinals, Lasorda’s late-inning decision-making came under scrutiny. With the series even at two games apiece, closer Tom Niedenfuer served up a walk-off homer to Ozzie Smith, the light-hitting shortstop’s first ever homer from the left side of the plate. In Game 6, with the Dodgers leading 5-4 in the ninth, Niedenfeur gave up a single, a steal, and a walk while getting two outs. With first base open, he elected to have the righty-throwing Niedenfuer pitch to righty-swinging slugger Jack Clark instead of walking him and bringing in the left-handed Reuss to face lefty-swinging Andy Van Slyke. Clark hit a three-run homer, and the Dodgers were soon eliminated.
“If you want to second guess me, go ahead,” Lasorda said afterwards. “All I know is that I had to make the first guess, and when he hit that ball, it tore my heart out. This was one of the toughest losses in my life.”
The Dodgers sputtered to back-to-back 73-win seasons in 1986 and ’87, the team’s first consecutive sub-.500 seasons since 1967 and ’68. The 1987 season’s misery was compounded by the sudden firing of Campanis after a disastrous April 6 appearance on Nightline in anticipation of the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut. Asked why the game had so few Black managers and no Black general managers, the 71-year-old Campanis — a pivotal figure in the Dodgers’ organization during integration — told host Ted Koppel that they “may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager, or, perhaps, a general manager.” The response “flabbergasted” Koppel, shocked the nation, and ended the long-lasting executive’s career in disgrace. While it led Major League Baseball to make stronger efforts in pushing for diversity, today the sport’s shortcomings in that area are still apparent, and the incident is still cited. Campanis had planned to step down after the 1988 season and recommend Lasorda as his successor, but his sudden departure thwarted that plan. Owner Peter O’Malley would not let Lasorda serve as both manager and GM at the same time, so he remained in the dugout while Fred Claire, the team’s vice president of public relations, became GM.
The Dodgers rebounded by winning 94 games and the NL West title in 1988. Though Valenzuela got hurt and Guerrero was traded to the Cardinals for pitcher John Tudor in August, Gibson, who had arrived the previous winter via free agency, turned in an MVP-winning season, and Hershiser a Cy Young-winning one, capped by a record-setting streak of 59 consecutive scoreless innings; Lasorda sent him back to the mound in the 10th inning of a September 28 game (which the Dodgers eventually lost in 16) so he could surpass Don Drysdale’s record.
In the NLCS, the Dodgers faced the Mets, who had beaten them in 10 of 11 regular season meetings, and they fell behind after Hershiser and closer Jay Howell faltered in the ninth inning, turning a 2-0 lead into a 3-2 loss. In an article in the New York Daily News under his byline, Mets starter David Cone called Hershiser “lucky” to pitch eight shutout innings, and said Howell’s curveball was that of “a high school pitcher.” The article turned into bulletin-board material for Lasorda and the Dodgers, who thanks to more heroics by Hershiser overcame Howell’s suspension for using pine tar and Gibson’s left hamstring and right knee injuries to win the series in seven games. In the World Series, Lasorda’s ragtag lineup, featuring just two regulars who were above-average offensively, somehow upset the Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire-driven A’s, thanks in part to a pinch-homer for the ages by Gibson off Dennis Eckersley and timely performances from “Stunt Men” like Mickey Hacher, Rick Dempsey, and Franklin Stubbs. The championship was Lasorda’s crowning achievement.
The run-up to Gibson’s Game 1-winning home run was where Lasorda’s emotional and tactical acumen peaked. Recounted Lasorda to ESPN’s Arash Markazi in 2013, “Every inning I’d go into the clubhouse and stand at the door of the trainer’s room and say, ‘How are you feeling, big boy?’ Maybe he’d feel better and come back out, and each time he put his thumbs down and I’d go back out.”
Spurred by broadcaster Vin Scully observing Gibson’s absence on the bench and remarking that he wouldn’t play, the injured slugger got into his uniform, began hitting off a tee, and then sent clubhouse assistant Mitch Poole to summon Lasorda, telling him, “Hit [Mike] Davis eighth and I’ll hit for the pitcher.” Lasorda told him to stay in the clubhouse, then sent up light-hitting Dave Anderson as a decoy in the on-deck circle, leading Eckersley to pitch around Davis, who walked.
Said Lasorda, “After Davis got on, Eck probably figured Anderson doesn’t have a f—ing chance against me. That’s when he got the surprise of his life. Anderson didn’t walk in that batter’s box, Kirk Gibson did.
The remainder of Lasorda’s managerial tenure was less remarkable. The Dodgers finished below .500 in both 1989 and ’92, losing 99 games — the franchise’s highest total since 1908 — in the latter season. They won 93 games in 1991 but finished one game behind the upstart Braves after losing three of their final four to mediocre Padres and Giants teams. They finished at .500 in 1993, but played the spoiler in that year’s NL West race. The Giants and Braves headed into the final day of the season deadlocked at 103-58, with the former set to face the Dodgers. Lasorda, quizzed about his historical grasp the night before, put forth the usual homilies about this being just another ballgame, and revenge having nothing to do with it, but when the rookie Piazza’s two homers led a 12-1 rout, SportsCenter highlights showed Lasorda cursing a (Dodger) blue streak at the excitement, and both he and Hershiser were accused of crossing the line into taunting an opponent. Perhaps, but who better than a devotee of the culinary arts such as Lasorda to know that revenge is a dish best served cold?
Personal tragedy hit Lasorda during this time, as Tommy Jr. (nicknamed “Spunky”) — the younger of his two children with wife Jo — died of complications related to AIDS in 1991 at the age of 33. Lasorda not only refused to acknowledge his son’s sexuality but also his cause of death; while pneumonia was indeed the immediate cause (as the elder Lasorda maintained), it was related to his ongoing battle with AIDS. “My son wasn’t gay,” Lasorda told GQ’s Peter Richmond. “No way. I read that in a paper. I also read that a lady gave birth to a fucking monkey. That’s not the truth.”
The tragedy exemplified the deeply ingrained homophobia that both complicated and worsened the struggle gay people and their families faced at the height of the AIDS crisis, and it represented the darkest chapter of Lasorda’s public life. He had already demonstrated some measure of homophobia in dealing with outfielder Glenn Burke, who played for the Dodgers from 1976-78, and who came out publicly in 1982, after his playing career ended. Several of Burke’s teammates were aware of, and accepting of, his sexuality and his outsized personality, but management was not. Per Michael J. Smith’s 1982 profile in Inside Sports, Burke refused Campanis’ offer of a cash bonus to marry a woman, and Lasorda — whose son befriended Burke — at one point threatened to “take you in the bathroom right now and kick your ass.” Campanis traded Burke to the A’s in May 1978.
For what it’s worth, the Los Angeles Blade’s Karen Ocamb reported that, “Years later, at some charity event, not in an interview, Lasorda admitted that Tommy Jr. was gay and had died of AIDS — and he apologized for his homophobia.” She did not offer specifics, writing, “I can’t find a story on the apology though I must have written about it somewhere,” but suggested that Lasorda may have been following the lead of Magic Johnson, HIV-positive Basketball Hall of Famer and part-owner of the Dodgers, and father of gender-fluid son EJ Johnson. Still, the lack of public acknowledgement of the reality of Tommy Jr.’s life and death looms large.
Lasorda had one particularly notable misjudgment pertaining to baseball during the early 1990s as well. In September 1992, 20-year-old Pedro Martinez debuted, joining older brother Ramon — once the staff ace and still an effective pitcher by that point, albeit one already contending with arm troubles — on the roster. Listed at 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds, but likely smaller, the younger Martinez spent the 1993 season in the Dodgers’ bullpen, striking out an eye-opening 119 batters in 107 innings while posting a 2.61 ERA. Because the Dodgers had adequate rotation depth, Martinez had no clear path to a starting spot, and his chances of the team clearing one for him were undercut by Lasorda’s assessment that he didn’t have the size or stamina to start. Lasorda was not alone in that viewpoint; Dr. Frank Jobe had surgically repaired Pedro’s left shoulder, which he injured while swinging a bat, and expressed to the team his belief that Martinez couldn’t withstand the rigors of throwing 95 mph regularly. When the team needed a second baseman because incumbent Jody Reed departed in free agency after the 1993 season, Claire traded Martinez to the Expos for Delino DeShields, who flopped, while Martinez — who spent the rest of his career with a sizable chip on his valuable but fragile shoulder — went on to win three Cy Youngs and earn a spot in the Hall of Fame. “Tommy could be the greatest manager ever,” Martinez said in 1999. “But he was dead wrong when he said Pedro will never go five innings as a starter.”
Lasorda was wrong, but given his track record for wearing his aces down, it’s reasonable to wonder what would have happened to Martinez had he stayed a Dodger. Valenzuela, Hersiser, and Ramon Martinez were all worn down to the nub by high pitch counts and heavy annual workloads, and wound up on the operating table, needing Jobe to work his magic. Thereafter, they did more surviving than thriving at the major league level. Had Pedro not been traded, he may well have met the same fate sooner rather than later.
The Martinez gaffe aside, the Dodgers fortunes improved thanks in part to the arrivals of five straight NL Rookies of the Year (first baseman Eric Karros in 1992, Piazza — whose older brother was Lasorda’s godson — in ’93, right fielder Raul Mondesi in ’94, Nomo in ’95, and left fielder Todd Hollandsworth in ’96). They led the newly-reorganized five-team NL West when the strike hit in ’94, albeit at just 58-56, then won the division with a 78-66 record in ’95, only to be swept by the Reds in the Division Series.
The Dodgers were two games ahead of the pack at 41-35 when the 68-year-old Lasorda suffered a heart attack on June 24, 1996. He underwent an angioplasty while Russell, then on the coaching staff, managed the team on an interim basis (they claimed the NL Wild Card spot but were swept by the Braves). On July 29, Lasorda announced his retirement as manager, saying, “For me to get into uniform again as excitable as I am I could not go down there without being the way I am… I decided it’s best for me and the organization to step down as manager of the Dodgers.” O’Malley reassured him that he would always have a place in the organization, promoting him to vice president.
In March 1997, Lasorda was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee alongside Nellie Fox and Negro Leagues star Willie Wells, both of whom were deceased. To date he is the only former pitcher to be elected primarily as a manager (Clark Griffith and Rube Foster, both of whom pitched and managed, were elected as executives). Addressing rumors that Lasorda had mulled a comeback, committee chairman Joe Brown joked, “We told him that if he managed again, we’d tear down the statue.” On August 15, 1997, the team retired his uniform no. 2.
On June 22, 1998, Lasorda took over as interim general manager after Claire was fired by News Corporation, which had purchased the Dodgers from O’Malley in the spring. When the team hired Kevin Malone as GM in September, Lasorda became a senior vice president. In 2000, he came out of retirement to manage the U.S. national team to a gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia; they dethroned Cuba, which had won the previous two gold medals. In 2001, Lasorda served as third-base coach for the NL during the All-Star Game, a stint memorialized by his dodging a bat that slipped out of Vladimir Guerrero’s hand, and one that still plays on blooper reels everywhere.
Upon purchasing the Dodgers in 2004, McCourt named the 77-year-old Lasorda as special advisor to the chairman, a position involving scouting, evaluation, instruction and ambassadorship. He remained in that capacity as the franchise changed hands again in 2012, though he was sidelined for awhile that year after suffering another heart attack. Fittingly, his last public appearance was on October 27, 2020 at Game 6 of the World Series in Arlington, Texas, where the Dodgers clinched their first championship since 1988.
In the quarter-century since Lasorda left the dugout, the job of managing has changed considerably, as front offices wield a stronger hand in playing time decisions and provide analytical blueprints for their skippers. Even so, the position still carries with it the duties of being a face of a franchise, and particularly in the age of television, no manager ever served as the face of a franchise to a greater degree than Tommy Lasorda.