An Appetite for Life, Amore for All Things Dodger Blue

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Former manager and lifelong global Dodgers icon Tommy Lasorda dies at age 93.

Tommy Lasorda was named parade marshal for the 2011 Nisei Week Grand Parade, and was joined at the announcement by (from left) Nisei Week Foundation President Rev. Mark Nakagawa and Princesses Brynn Nakamoto, Kelli Teragawa and Christy Sakamoto. Lasorda died Thursday of heart failure. (JUN NAGATA / Rafu Shimpo)

Rafu Staff and Wire Reports

In his adult life, Tommy Lasorda had exactly one kind of job: he worked for a baseball team.

After signing his first minor league contract as a teenager, his life took him on a path from moderately talent pitcher to one of the most recognizeable personalities in all of sports.

On numerous occasion, he reminded anyone and everyone, “I bleed Dodger Blue.”

Lasorda suffered heart failure at his home in Fullerton just after 10 p.m. Thursday and was taken to a hospital “with resuscitation in progress,” according to the Dodgers. He was pronounced dead at 10:57 p.m. He had just been released Tuesday from an Orange County hospital, where he spent about six weeks.

The 93-year-old baseball icon was hospitalized in November, shortly after attending the Dodgers’ World Series-clinching victory in Arlington, Texas. No official reason for the hospitalization was ever provided, although TMZ reported that he was suffering from heart issues and spent time on a ventilator in an intensive-care unit.

Lasorda was released from the ICU in early December, but remained hospitalized.

A Hall of Famer since 1997, Lasorda led the Dodgers to two World Series championships and two World Series losses during his 20-year managerial career. He was the Dodgers’ longest active employee since broadcaster Vin Scully retired in 2016 after 67 years. He was a singular fan favorite who drew standing ovations when introduced at games in recent years.

Lasorda was with the Dodgers organization for more than 70 years as a player, scout, manager and front office executive. He was originally signed by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1945, before reaching the big leagues as a pitcher with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1954.

Tommy Lasorda rode through the streets of Little Tokyo as Nisei Week grand marshal in 2011. (MARIO GERSHOM REYES / Rafu Shimpo)

Lasorda managed the Dodgers from 1976-96, retiring mid-season in his last year due to health reasons. In recent years, he remained with the team, serving as a special adviser to the chairman.

“My family, my partners and I were blessed to have spent a lot of time with Tommy,” Mark Walter, Dodgers owner/chairman, said. “He was a great ambassador for the team and baseball and a mentor to players and coaches. He always had time for an autograph and a story for his many fans and he was a good friend. he will be dearly missed.”

Stan Kasten, team president/CEO, added, “In a franchise that has celebrated such great legends of the game, no one who wore the uniform embodied the Dodger spirit as much as Tommy Lasorda. A tireless spokesman for baseball, his dedication to the sport and the team he loved was unmatched. He was a champion who at critical moments seemingly willed his teams to victory. The Dodgers and their fans will miss him terribly. Tommy is quite simply irreplaceable and unforgettable.’’

Praised as one of baseball’s greatest ambassadors and known as one of the sport’s great interviews, Lasorda was an ubiquitous media presence during his managing days and made multiple appearances on television shows, often playing himself. He was a master of the expletive-laden comment, rendering many of his best quotes unprintable.

His Dodger teams reached the World Series four times and frequently knocked on the door in other seasons, winning division titles in 1983, 1985 and 1995 and missing the playoffs by a single game in 1980 and 1982.

Around the world, Lasorda was a pioneering baseball ambassador, lauding the merits of the game and embracing international players into a sport that was completely segregated when he started his own career.

Lasorda welcomed talent from wherever it grew, notably in athletes from the Dominican Republic and Japan. In 1995, American baseball was taken by storm when a quiet pitcher with the nickname “Tornado” left Japan and signed with the Dodgers.

“Nomomania” did more that make its namesake a star, it opened the gates to a previously untapped pipeline of players from the Far East. Seeing Hideo Nomo’s success inspired the likes of Chan Ho Park, Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui to aim for the U.S. major leagues.

Hideo Nomo was happy with the warm embrace he received from Tommy Lasorda during pre-game ceremonies at Dodger Stadium in 2013. (JUN NAGATA / Rafu Shimpo)

Lasorda said history would always shine a favorable light on Nomo, who was not the first Japanese player in the bigs, but the one that made a huge impact across the ocean.

“He was the one that stayed,” the former manager insisted. “He was great example and represented his country with the highest degree of class and paved the way for many other Japanese players.”

Lasorda added that he hoped his influence helped players who came from overseas and were thrust into the spotlight of professional baseball in the States, all the while dealing with issues such language barriers and homesickness. He said that Nomo’s work with upcoming players is evidence of his dedication to the game.

“He can set the pace for young players, they look up to him with respect,” Lasorda said. “You don’t see that as often in the major leagues these days, but everybody has respect for Hideo.”

At a Dodger game in 2013 that offered Nomo bobblehead dolls to fans, the former pitcher reflected on his influence on others looking to play in the States, and the guidance Lasorda offered.

“I’m not sure about my own influence, but basically to see Major League baseball in Japan on television and also see the MLB all-stars touring in Japan, that was an influence,” he said. “At that time, there was no way we thought a Japanese player could compete on the same level.

“I wasn’t thinking about the players that might follow me. I was concentrating on doing the best I could, and the people around me, like [former Dodgers owner Peter]O’Malley and Tommy Lasorda and all the staff that supported me, these people made it easier to focus on baseball. I have nothing but appreciation for them.”

Nomo issued a statement of condolences this week, through the San Diego Padres, for whom he now works as an adviser for baseball operations.

“I heard he was well enough to be discharged from the hospital so this is very shocking,” the 52-year-old former pitcher said. “He’s someone I can’t thank enough.”

Lasorda spoke during the 2003 rededication ceremony for a Japanese stone lantern that was gifted to the team as a symbol of friendship in 1965. The two-ton lantern, given to then-Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley by Japanese sportswriter Sotaro Suzuki, was carved in Aichi Prefecture and stood high above Chavez Ravine.

Lasorda recalled that O’Malley used to picnic at the site, which is up a steep path in the hillside behind Parking Lot 37. Surrounded by tall trees and vegetation, the setting for the stone lantern seems to be a long way from the screams of fans or Dodger dogs.

But many of the speakers in attendance at the ceremony said it symbolized the Dodgers’ long friendship with Japanese baseball. Lasorda, who was first sent by O’Malley in 1965 to advise the Yomiuri Giants, credited the former owner with fostering close ties with Japan.

“Mr. O’Malley was the pioneer. He was the man who believed that it was very important to develop a great relationship with Japan and the baseball program over there,” said Lasorda. “He did all he could for Japanese baseball and then he handed the baton to his son Peter, who took over, and Peter’s interests grew even greater in helping Japanese baseball.”

Lasorda was born in Norristown, Pa., on Sept. 22, 1927. He was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1945, but reached the big leagues as a pitcher with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1954.

He started one game for the 1955 Dodgers and won a World Series ring that year despite only appearing in four games.

Lasorda greets James Ogawa and other Nisei veterans during Japanese
Community Night at Dodger Stadium in 2013. (MARIO GERSHOM REYES / Rafu Shimpo)

Lasorda struggled to stick in the major leagues as a pitcher. He was sold to the Kansas City Athletics in 1956, traded to the New York Yankees and then sold back to the Dodgers in 1957. But he played more for the Montreal Royals of the International League, a minor league affiliate of the Dodgers. He was once sent down to Montreal after the Dodgers were forced to keep a young Sandy Koufax on their roster due to the Bonus Rule. He later joked that it took Koufax – a Hall of Famer and one the greatest pitchers in baseball history – to keep him off the Dodger pitching staff.

After his playing career ended in 1960, Lasorda spent the next decade working his way up through the Dodgers organization as a scout and minor league manager. In 1973 he was made the team’s third-base coach and heir-apparent to longtime manager Walter Alston, finally taking over when Alston retired at the end of the 1976 season after managing the team for 23 seasons.

In his early years managing the team, the gregarious Lasorda was often known as much for his celebrity connections, bringing famous pals such as Frank Sinatra and Don Rickles and fellow Italian American notables such as Tony Danza into the clubhouse after games. His Hollywood ways led some to dismiss his managerial abilities, but Lasorda would eventually win them over with sheer endurance and two world championships.

Lasorda took over a talented young team led by the infield of Steve Garvey at first, Davey Lopes at second, shortstop Bill Russell and third-baseman Ron Cey. They made it to the World Series in 1977 and 1978, losing two frustrating six-game series to the New York Yankees. Slugger Reggie Jackson memorably hit three home runs in the Yankees’ 1977 title-clinching Game 6 victory at Yankee Stadium.

The following year, the Dodgers won the first two games before losing four straight.

When the Dodgers finally made it over the hump in 1981, they did so in dramatic style. Major League Baseball added an extra round to the playoffs that year due to a players strike. In the division series, the Dodgers lost the first two games of a best-of-five series to the Houston Astros before storming back to win three straight.

The National League Championship Series offered more drama, with the Dodgers falling behind the Montreal Expos two games to one, and needing to win the final two games in Canada. After a blowout win in Game 4, the Dodgers won the deciding fifth game on a ninth-inning home run by Rick Monday, setting the stage for a rematch with Jackson and the Yankees in the 1981 World Series.

This time L.A. flipped the script from 1978, losing the first two game at Yankee Stadium and returning home with most believing the pinstripes simply had their number. The subsequent three games at Dodger Stadium constituted one of the most memorable baseball weekends in Los Angeles history, as the home team won three dramatic games and took a 3-2 series lead.

Three nights later, Lasorda and the Dodgers vanquished their nemesis in the Big Apple for their long-awaited world championship, pounding the Yankees for 13 hits in a 9-2 victory.

Lasorda was a far cry from the “analytics” and data-driven decisions that have become the norm in today’s baseball. He was thoroughly a manager who acted on his gut feelings, and his most celebrated moment was a result of his instincts.

With the Dodgers trailing by a run and two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, Lasorda needed a miracle. Star outfielder Kirk Gibson, who was unable to start due to both severely injured legs, was called on by his manager to deliver his best. Gibson hit a game-winning home run and the Dodgers rode the euphoria all the way to a championship over the heavily favored Oakland A’s.

The 1988 team was led by starting pitcher Orel Hershiser, who blossomed into a dominating force that season, a few years after Lasorda gave him the nickname “Bulldog” in a successful attempt to instill a tougher attitude in the right-hander.

Lasorda was named a team vice president after he stepped down from the manager’s role and spent his subsequent years helping the team’s scouting, international and community relations departments, making several speaking engagements annually.

He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame as a manager in 1997, his first year of eligibility. Since the death of Red Schoendienst in June 2018, he has been the oldest living Hall of Famer.

“This is the greatest thing that ever happened to me in my lifetime,” Lasorda said in his HOF induction speech. “I’ve been fortunate enough to win world championships, (manage teams with) Cy Young Awards, MVPs, nine rookies of the year, All-Star games, but they come and go. But the Hall of Fame is eternity, and I thank God for all of it.’’

In the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, Lasorda became the first manager to win a World Series championship and lead a team to an Olympic gold medal, when the U.S. defeated Cuba, 4-0 in the gold medal game. Cuba was favored to win and had won the gold medal at the previous two Olympics.

In July, the University of Pennsylvania announced that its newly refurbished baseball field would be named after Lasorda.

Tributes continued to pour in Friday, from fans around the globe.

Los Angeles Lakers legend and Dodger part-owner Magic Johnson said, “He meant the world to the Dodgers organization, MLB and to the city of Los Angeles. He will always be known to Dodger Nation as ‘Mr. Dodger.’”

“Tommy Lasorda was one of the finest managers our game has ever known,” Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said. “Tommy welcomed Dodger players from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere – making baseball a stronger, more diverse and better game.”

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti called Lasorda the “face of the franchise and the soul of this city.”

“I loved watching him as a kid take our boys in blue to two World Series championships and spending time with him as an adult, sitting with him in his office or visiting with him behind home plate,’’ Garcetti said.

Dodger pitcher Kenley Jansen wrote, “Tommy Lasorda, this wonderful man, Hall of Famer in baseball and in life, this is him, so much joy. So much love he had for baseball, for the Dodgers. To win, to love this game, to live and play with joy was his message to us. Rest in peace in Blue Heaven, sir and thank you.”

Scully, whose wife Sandi died Sunday, said he will forever remember Lasorda’s “boundless enthusiasm.”

“Tommy would get up in the morning full of beans and maintain that as long as he was with anybody else,” Scully said.

The longtime broadcaster also hailed Lasorda’s determination, both as a player and coach.

“He never quite had that something extra that makes a major leaguer, but it wasn’t because he didn’t try,” Scully said. “Those are some of the things: his competitive spirit, his determination and above all, this boundless energy and self-belief. His heart was bigger than his talent and there were no foul lines for his enthusiasm.”

Lasorda was married to Jo for 70 years. The couple met in Greenville, S.C. – Jo’s hometown – while he was playing for a minor league team in the city.

Lasorda is survived by Jo, their daughter Laura and granddaughter Emily Tess. Lasorda’s son, Tom Jr., died in 1991.

Clutching the Most Valuable Player trophy, Daisuke Matsuzaka receives congratulations from Lasorda, after Japan won the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006. (JUN NAGATA / Rafu Shimpo)

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