They all had their particular styles -- gruff and understanding, ferocious and cool, emotional and tactical -- but only Tommy would hug ya. Only Tommy Lasorda would grab you by the shoulder, pull you in, hug you, ask about your family, take you out for spaghetti and say in that gravelly voice: "Welcome to the Los Angeles Dodgers."
Sinatra might be in the dugout. Jack Lemmon might be in the dugout. Don Rickles might be in the dugout. It was all part of the scene, all part of being what to Tommy was the greatest thing in the world: A Dodger.
"I bleed Dodger blue," the man always says, again and again, to anyone who would listen. Would anyone be surprised if doctors found that his blood is in fact Type D?
Lasorda managed through sheer force of will, through the power of his stubborn and unbendable belief that the Dodgers, by grace, were SUPPOSED to win. He is a combative person by nature, a fighter, a small left-handed pitcher who couldn't throw strikes but just kept coming at you. He barely had time for coffee in the big leagues, but he sparked a thousand stories in the Minors. Vin Scully loves to tell that story about the first time he heard Lasorda's name; he was a kid pitcher who for 50 bucks offered to throw batting practice to every player at Dodgers camp -- roughly 750 of them.
"I've got to go," Dodgers business manager Buzzie Bavasi told Scully, "I have got to go stop this kid from killing himself."
That is Lasorda, though, over the top, feisty, a guy who never backs down. He never really stopped being that guy -- when the San Diego Chicken stepped on his baseball cap and crushed it in one of his famous anti-Dodgers skits, Lasorda grabbed him and put him in a headlock.
"Crush my hat now, you little donkey," he yelled at the Chicken as he held him, according to Bill Plaschke's book "I Live For This: Baseball's Last True Believer."
But early in his managing career, Lasorda realized that he could do more good by channeling his endless energy and becoming this unbreakable beam of positive energy.
"I started in the Minor Leagues," he will say. "I used to hug my players when they did something well. That's my enthusiasm. That's my personality. I jump with joy when we win. I try to be on a close basis with my players.
"People say you can't go out and eat with your players. I say: 'Why not?'"
Why not indeed? That's not to say Lasorda managed as a softy -- far from it, as anyone who has heard his famous, "What do I think of Kingman's $@%$^&& performance?" answer to a reporter's question. He always had a hard shell. Players would sometimes say that they never REALLY knew him. But they didn't have to know him -- there is never a doubt about the joy he feels for the game, the love he feels for the Dodgers, the irrepressible connection he feels for the fans. There's an old joke in Los Angeles that the only thing harder than finding a Sandy Koufax autographed baseball is finding one not signed by Tommy Lasorda.
But that is Tommy. He managed with this unflagging enthusiasm that carried over to every person in the dugout, from the most naive to the most cynical. He managed more Rookies of the Year, surely, than any manager in baseball history. There were nine of them, if you're scoring at home, including four in a row from 1979-82 and then FIVE in a row from 1992-96. One of them was Mike Piazza, a player Lasorda drafted as a personal favor to Piazza's dad. Two of them were manias: Fernandomania for Valenzuela and Nomomania for Hideo Nomo.
How much credit should Lasorda get for managing so many rookies of the year? It's always hard to say what credit goes where, but there was something about putting on that Dodgers uniform under Lasorda that made players feel special and unique. Bill James in his book quoted an unnamed player saying: "You wear the uniform of the Rangers or Padres or Indians. You JOIN the Dodgers. You're a part of something. You know it from the moment Tommy gives you his first hug."
That's what I mean when I say that Lasorda is baseball's last celebrity manager. He was a perfectly fine but generally bland tactician. He played small ball a lot (as Dodger Stadium demanded), mostly stuck with his starting pitchers and was intensely loyal to his stars. He is intense but there have always been intense guys in the dugout. He could give one heck of a motivational speech, but nobody really believes you can win all that much in baseball doing that.
The magic behind his teams, well, that came from something else, something intrinsic to the man. You were swept away by his enthusiasm. Lasorda's teams won four pennants and a couple of World Series, and every now and again a player -- whether it was Rick Monday or Steve Yeager or Kirk Gibson or Orel Hershiser -- would do something marvelous, something unexpected, something mystical because, well, that stuff just happened for the Dodgers when Tommy Lasorda ran things.
And it still does when Tommy is out at the ballpark. He was out at Dodger Stadium a couple of weeks ago, when Scully was inducted into the Dodgers' Ring of Honor. When the videoboard showed Lasorda, the place erupted, not in the beautiful but respectful cheers for a legend like Koufax. These were cheers for a friend. He still inspires that sort of love. It will be great to hear those cheers again soon.