Orel Hershiser stuck his head in Tommy Lasorda’s office one afternoon and said: “I’ve been thinking about that one last night, and it’s bothering me. I owe you one.”
In reviewing a loss to the Pirates in his head, Hershiser was unhappy with his pitch selection at a couple of key points. Those pitches, he felt, had cost the Dodgers a game and he wanted his manager to know.
“That one’s on me,” Hershiser said.
“Bulldog, you don’t owe me anything,” he said. “You’re the best. Get out of here.”
When Hershiser departed, Lasorda turned to me and said: “You see why I love that guy?”
And then Dodgers outfielder Kirk Gibson appeared at Lasorda’s door waving a copy of a recent Sports Illustrated.
“Tommy, this guy says I’m a caveman,” Gibson said.
Lasorda pointed to a chair in front of his desk, and over the next couple of minutes, talked his star right fielder down.
“Hey, stop it,” he said. “Everyone in this game knows how good you are.”
In the interest of accuracy, Lasorda did not say those exact words — if you catch my drift. His precise language was a bit more colorful.
Those two conversations came to mind when I learned of Lasorda’s death at 93 on Friday. I’d been seated almost out of sight in the visiting manager’s office at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh that day in the ‘80s.
You may know Lasorda as all kinds of things. Funny, which he was. Profane, which he definitely was. He could also be charming and occasionally infuriating. He was a showman in the best sense of that word. He was also the boss who all of us would like to have.
“How would you like to have a manager who saw his job as making you feel good about yourself?” Hershiser asked years later.
Some of the tributes to Lasorda will make him out to be a cartoon-like figure with his bluster about The Big Dodger in the Sky bleeding Dodger Blue and all of that.
What those characterizations — and they’re not inaccurate — miss, is that there was a method to his madness. Lasorda believed above everything else that his job was to instill confidence in his players.
He rode that simple philosophy right into the Hall of Fame after 21 seasons with the Dodgers and 1,599 victories, placing him 22nd on the all-time managerial win list.
Lasorda knew the thing that’s easy to forget: That he managed kids. That they had insecurities and that nothing works wonders like a pat on the back or an encouraging word.
I have no idea if Lasorda was a great tactician. He’d be the first to say that he had a lot of great players. In 21 seasons, he won the National League pennant four times and the World Series twice. His teams were 160 games above .500 and won 90-plus games seven times.
His people skills and his outsized personality are what people will think of when they remember him. When the Dodgers acquired future Hall of Famer Eddie Murray in December 1988, Lasorda immediately went to work on his psyche.
Murray was 32 at the time and embittered after a 12-season run with the Orioles ended with him unhappy with the team’s front office, the direction of the franchise and the media.
In their very first conversation, Lasorda said: “Eddie, remember what it was like playing in your neighborhood with your friends and brothers? That’s what it’s going to be like playing for the Dodgers.”
He meant it, too.
Lasorda believed in having fun. His team meetings were ridiculously fun. One day Lasorda might be ordering outfielder Mickey Hatcher to teach his teammates how to break dance.
Spoiler: The joke was on Hatcher.
Another day, Lasorda had second baseman Steve Sax do an imitation of a team doctor during an intimate moment with his wife.
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) January 8, 2021
Here’s what mattered: When the Dodgers filed onto the field for batting practice, they were going to be in the best of moods.
Even his tirades — and there were some dandies — seemed as much about theater as making a point.
“[Kurt] Bevacqua couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat. When I pitched against a team that had guys on it like Bevacqua, I’d send a limousine to get him to make sure he was in the lineup.”
He once sent Don Rickles to the mound to make a pitching change. Another time, he waited for an umpire to approach during a mound conference and asked: “What would you do?”
“What’s my opinion of [Dave] Kingman’s performance? What the [bleep] do you think is my opinion? He beat us with three [bleeping] home runs. How can you ask me a question like that?”
When he feared the Los Angeles Times was preparing a critical profile of him, he brought comic legend Milton Berle along to sit in on the interview, and, well, it’s not clear why he wanted Uncle Milty there.
As for those rants, if you listen closely to the audio, the laughter from beat writers could be heard. They were in one of the jokes.
Lasorda served as an honorary third base coach for the NL All-Star team in 2001, and after a flying bat sent him tumbling to the ground, television cameras caught Don Zimmer cackling in the other dugout.
After the game, that’s the question reporters wanted to ask.
“Hey, Tommy, cameras caught Zimmer laughing at you.”
“Zimmer?” Lasorda roared, and off he went, stringing together profanities that were nothing short of pure art.
His ultimate legacy will be more than simply being one of 22 managers in the Hall of Fame. He was something much more than that. He was a Dodger. Like Scully. Like Koufax. Like Jackie. He was part of the mystique of the Dodgers.
Even in the final years of his life, he was at the ballpark almost daily. During Spring Training, he toured the back fields in a golf cart. He loved to laugh like almost no one you’ve ever known. He loved to eat and to sign autographs and shake hands.
Few people have ever represent Major League Baseball better than Lasorda. His death leaves a hole that will be impossible to replace.