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Cooperstown Is Tommy's Town | MIKE DOWNEY

Hall of Fame Adds Blueblood to Ranks

March 06, 1997|MIKE DOWNEY

Once, between baseball seasons, Tom Lasorda traveled to Tollo, Italy, the birthplace of his father. A band was waiting, beneath a banner stretched across the road that read, "Benvenuto Tomas Lasorda, Figlio de Sabatino Lasorda," meaning that the city was officially welcoming Sam Lasorda's son.

Except for meeting his wife, Tom Lasorda called this the greatest thing that ever happened to him, away from a baseball field.

Wednesday morning, the second of Sabatino and Carmella Lasorda's five sons was elected to baseball's Hall of Fame. There already has been a "Tom Lasorda Day" in a small Italian village, as well as a "Tom Lasorda Day" in the Canadian metropolis of Montreal, where in 1958, Tommy and his wife, Jo, were presented the keys to a new automobile.

But today is "Tom Lasorda Day" here in his adopted city of Los Angeles, or it sure ought to be. Alert the mayor. It is time to give Tommy the key.

At 14, he lugged hundred-pound sacks of potatoes around a Philadelphia suburb, door to door, for a dollar a day. Today, he is a name known in households throughout North America, who doesn't work because he doesn't have to, but misses it, nonetheless. Tom Lasorda is a grown man who still longs to put on short pants.

He could not conceive of not managing the Dodgers, any more than he could imagine not managing. In as lyrical a description as anything a man in his profession has ever said, Lasorda once compared managing a baseball team to handling a dove. Squeeze it too hard, and it will die. Squeeze it too softly, and it will fly away. Managing a baseball team is knowing how hard to squeeze.

For 40 years, give or take, men in uniforms with "Dodgers" in script across the chest understood how it felt to be squeezed by Tom Lasorda. They were hugged, they were harangued, they were coddled like infants and scolded like brats. The players were Lasorda's extended family.

When his wish to be buried under the pitching mound was denied, Lasorda instead received a gift from Dodger owner Peter O'Malley, a 50-pound granite tombstone, painted with droplets of blue blood, bearing the epitaph:

*

TOM LASORDA

Dodger

Dodger Stadium

Was His Address

But Every Ball Park

Was His Home

*

Were it not for a murmuring heart, Lasorda's room at Dodger Stadium would still be downstairs, not upstairs. Yet it remains his address. He is not young anymore, this man who so often enjoyed jokes at the expense of his veteran players, such as when he described Manny Mota and Rick Monday as being so old, "they were waiters at the Last Supper." One needn't be a spring chicken, however, to be at spring training, so Lasorda's still there.

He's in Vero Beach, where today is Tom Lasorda Day.

The singular blessing of retirement came Wednesday, when the Hall of Fame reached out to a pitcher who won 511 games fewer than Cy Young. Yes, it's true, Tommy Lasorda, the man who never won one big league game and got only one base hit, is about to be bronzed in Cooperstown, right alongside Ty Cobb, the Babe, Willie, Mickey and the Duke.

Jerry Reuss pitched a no-hitter for the Dodgers one night, after which Lasorda said, "It couldn't happen to a nicer guy. Well, yes . . . it could have happened to me."

He was 0-4 as a pitcher and one for 13 as a hitter. Tom Lasorda has one more major league hit than the clubhouse attendant. How remarkable, then, that he finds himself gaining residence in the Hall of Fame in exactly the same summer as Phil Niekro, a pitcher who won twice as many games as Sandy Koufax did. How remarkable to be in the Hall ahead of Pete Rose, who had more hits than anyone in history, and ahead of Walter O'Malley, without whom Lasorda might never have been more than a scout.

He either coached, managed or played with Koufax and Drysdale, Garvey and Lopes and Russell and Cey, Tommy and Willie Davis, Fernando and Hideo, and a catcher he called "Michael" whom he thinks of as a grandson. He had straight arrows who did whatever was expected of them, and he had zany characters from Jay Johnstone to Mickey Hatcher who did the unexpected.

A ferocious competitor with an audacious sense of humor, Lasorda once was asked what Mexico's pride and joy, Fernando Valenzuela, wanted in his new contract.

"Well, for starters," Lasorda said, "he wants Texas back."

Tommy hobnobbed with Hollywood, on a first-name basis. When a live TV audience watched Red Skelton being pelted with baseballs by a pitcher at a carnival, it was a young Lasorda who was pelting him. When he told you that Frank Sinatra's advice to lose weight was to eat half what was on his plate, you couldn't be sure Lasorda was kidding when his supposed response to Frank was, "Yeah, but now I order double portions."

All of his days as a Dodger were a prelude to this day, Tom Lasorda Day.

In 1960, Lasorda stopped playing baseball. It took him 37 more years to become a baseball immortal.

Quitting as the manager of the Dodgers was one of the hardest things he ever had to do, but without that, there wouldn't be this. Never again, when anyone goes into the Hall of Fame, will Lasorda be able to joke, "It could have happened to me." It just did. The winless pitcher got his victory.

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