First in a series of first-person accounts of Tom Lasorda's career in baseball.
As far back as I can remember I wanted to be a major league baseball player.
Instead of obeying my parents and doing household chores on weekends, I would sneak out to play baseball with my neighborhood teams.
I would take my bucket, soap and scrub brush up to the bathroom on the second floor to clean, but instead of scrubbing I would climb out of the window, shimmy down the pipe on the side of our house, crawl on the ground under the window to the street, run five miles to Elmwood Park and play baseball.
We would wait at the park for the other teams to show up. We would play the Irish kids from St. Patrick's, or the African American kids from the East End, and while two teams played, the third team would wait for the game to end, and then play the winner. And that's how it went all day long. People ask me where I got my competitiveness and I tell them Elmwood Park, because we never wanted to lose and sit on the swings waiting for the next game.
Growing up in Norristown, Pa., I was a Yankees fan, and when I was 13, I used to actually dream that I was pitching for the Yankees, in Yankee Stadium.
I would look around the field and see players like Bill Dickey, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and, of course, the Babe.
All of a sudden I would feel my mother shaking me, saying, "Wake up, Tommy. It's time to go to school."
"Why didn't she leave me alone?" I would exclaim. That dream was so real.
I signed a contract with the Phillies at the age of 16. I played for their Class-D team in Concord, N.C., and then spent two years in the Army. In 1949 I was drafted by the Dodgers and sent to Greenville, S.C., where I met my wife. From there I was sent to one of the Dodgers' three triple-A affiliates, the Montreal Royals.
In 1954 I had finally made my way to Brooklyn and was playing for the Dodgers. We were playing the Yankees in an exhibition game, in Yankee Stadium. I was warming up in the bullpen and Yogi Berra was the hitter.
Walter Alston went to the mound and signaled for the left-hander.
As I took that long walk from the bullpen to the pitcher's mound, I looked around Yankee Stadium.
When I got to the mound I had a tear in my eye and Alston asked if I was going to be able to play.
I said, "I have been here many times, but in my dreams."
When I got Yogi out, it was proof that dreams become realities.
When I returned to Yankee Stadium in October 1977, I returned in style. It was my first full season managing the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the two biggest teams in the history of baseball would meet in the Fall Classic. We lost that series, and lost again to the Yankees in 1978. I was heartbroken each time but proud of my guys.
For three years when I would go to sleep and pray to God, I would say, "Dear Lord, if you see it in your heart to let the Dodgers play in another World Series, please, let it be against the Yankees."
I wanted to beat the Yankees so badly that my hate for the putrid pinstripes was palpable.
While they were hoisting trophies and taking champagne showers, we were grimacing with the thought that we were better.
While they were getting fitted for rings, we were getting suited for revenge.
But while they were partying, we were working hard to get better. While they were on the links, we were in the batting cages taking swing after swing after swing trying to wipe away the pain of Mr. October, Reggie Jackson, hitting three home runs to win the last game of the 1977 Fall Classic. And the pain of watching that same villainous Hall of Famer stick his hip out to obstruct a double play throw in the '78 Classic that would give the Yankees the game.
I was one of only two managers in the history of the National League to win pennants in his first two years. The other was Gabby Street, manager of the Cardinals, who accomplished that feat in 1931.
My 1981 Dodgers were an exciting team. They played baseball the way it should be played, with passion, hustle, desire and determination. Of course, those values were instilled into them as they developed in our farm system. Twenty-one of the 25 guys on our roster were Dodger products. I managed them in the minors when they were youngsters right out of high school.
The day before opening day, Jerry Reuss was scheduled to start but hurt his ankle running. I gave the ball to a 20-year-old rookie from Mexico, Fernando Valenzuela. He went on to pitch a shutout, and win eight straight games.
The World Series against the Yankees was electric. I still remember in Game 3, Fernando Valenzuela was in a bases-loaded jam in the fifth inning. Everybody thought I was going to take him out. I went out to the mound and in my very best Spanish I said, "Listen Fernando. If you don't give up any more runs to this team we're going to win this game 8-4."
Fernando looked at me and said in perfect English, "Are you sure?"
We had dropped the first two games, but came back to win the next four in a row. The pitching was tremendous, and so were the position players, as we had an unprecedented tri-MVP award handed out to Steve Yeager, Ron Cey and Pedro Guerrero for their outstanding, unselfish performances. The team was more than a collection of ballplayers; it was a group of brothers.
There is a saying around baseball: It's great to be a Yankee. But Branch Rickey indoctrinated us with our own saying: I'm proud to be a Dodger. Every day managing the Dodgers I tried to instill that pride in my players, and I couldn't have been any happier for our success, or any prouder of the tremendous effort given by each player who wore a Dodgers uniform that season. They earned the title champion, and they earned it as a team.
Tom Lasorda, the Dodgers' special assistant to the chairman, managed the club from late in the 1976 season through 1996, and has worked for the organization since 1949.