In our zeal to evolve, we are all too eager to canonize the public figure who figuratively or literally “changed the game forever,” be it within athletics or technology or simply baking a better chocolate-chip cookie.
We can say with some certainty that Tommy Lasorda was not that guy.
Simply, there was nobody like him before – and a quarter-century after he managed a major-league game, it’s clear we will never see anyone like him again.
Lasorda, who died Thursday evening at age 93, certainly upended the platonic ideal of a major league manager. He hugged his players and hogged the spotlight, bursts of emotion that ran afoul of John McGraw’s buttoned-down countenance or the more reserved mien of his contemporaries, decorated but taciturn men like Sparky Anderson or Chuck Tanner or Tony La Russa.
He stumped ferociously and unapologetically for his Dodgers, touting an alleged Big Dodger In The Sky, and his outsize personality could bring hope and joy to an ailing fan, or buoy the spirits of a floundering utility infielder.
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When his tongue turned blue, his epic rivers of lewd language kept reporters' tape recorders whirring and the virgin ears of the uninitiated burning.
We have grown accustomed to the celebrity who can turn it on and off for the cameras, “it” being an ability to appeal to the masses and nail their Rotary Club speech/live hit on Good Morning America/pre-recorded well-wishes in one take.
Lasorda’s more biting off-camera side would eventually emerge in so many forms that he had little choice but to acknowledge his many dimensions. He’d deflect accusations of insincerity by quietly claiming that all of him – every encouraging word, every profane invective – came from the heart.
Tommy Being Tommy had its costs and benefits.
Veteran players might quietly chafe that their manager was a bit too skilled at making it about himself, a legitimate gripe given that the athlete is the one performing within a limited and unforgiving window of a career.
At the same time, Lasorda’s showmanship could easily deflect blame and absorb pressure that might otherwise fall upon the shoulders of the flailing ballplayer. After all, we only remember the epic f-bombs and unrelenting outrage of Lasorda’s infamous response to a reporter’s clumsy yet simple query: “What was your opinion of (Dave) Kingman’s performance today?”
The poor saps who gave up the three home runs to the strikeout-prone Kingman? They were forever forgotten by the time Lasorda’s incredulous “My opinion? MY OPINION?!” rant hit the airwaves and the papers.
When Lasorda suffered a heart attack halfway through the 1996 season and was escorted into retirement shortly thereafter, the major league manager was still viewed as an autonomous being who was easily blamed but also gleaned a fair share of credit in happier times. Be it Cito Gaston in Toronto, Jim Leyland in Pittsburgh or Joe Torre with the Yankees, Lasorda’s peers at the time were largely venerated, perhaps overly so relative to the officials charged with furnishing their players.
Stunningly, the Dodgers employed just two managers from 1954 until ’96 – Walter Alston and Lasorda, both Hall of Famers, with six World Series titles between them.
One year after Lasorda’s departure, Billy Beane was promoted to general manager of the Oakland Athletics, and leverage shifted, gradually at first. A quarter-century later, it is the executive earning eight-figure guaranteed salaries, while the dugout jockey executes their game plans with not much more job security than a situational reliever.
While the modern structure may prove more efficient, it does make you wonder which managerial ideal is better for the game.
A middle manager who can spin platitudes about “run prevention” and “teachable moments” while stressing where the club stands “at the end of the day?”
Or a foul-mouthed charlatan who oozed both hope and hubris, often in the same sentence?
Someone who looks and sounds like he could serve as your company’s chairman of the board? Or someone who palled around with the Chairman of the Board?
Indeed, Lasorda’s reach was so wide that he counted Frank Sinatra among his inner circle, as any visitor to the Dodger Stadium manager’s office was made abundantly aware. Cary Grant, Don Rickles, the 40th president – they all stared down at those entering Lasorda’s linguine-laden sanctum, adding another dimension to his power dynamic.
Consider the swath of late-night TV couches he inhabited: From Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Jay Leno and Arsenio Hall all the way to Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Kimmel. He said good morning to America alongside David Hartman but also Kelly and Ryan.
Nothing against, say, Jayce Tingler, but there’s just no way any of today’s 30 managers are capable of such enduring relevance, providing a platform to preach baseball’s gospel.
People knew Tommy and by extension knew Garvey and Lopes, Russell and Cey – decent players but nowhere near the caliber of modern stars like Mike Trout and Mookie Betts, who struggle for recognition beyond their home market.
Of course, the media and entertainment landscape is vastly different now. It’s equally impossible imagining Lasorda’s act playing in this era. Tales of his rants developed into something of an urban legend, passed down from generations and still lurking in NSFW corners of the Internet.
In this hot mic, camera-phone age? Well, let’s just say Lasorda would be fortunate to match Ozzie Guillen’s single season leading the Miami Marlins.
That’s OK. The world within and beyond baseball has changed, for better on so many fronts. Yet to the end, Lasorda found a space within it, forever doing it his way.