I Live for This!: Baseball's Last True Believer

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9780618653874: I Live for This!: Baseball's Last True Believer

An award-winning sportswriter shows us one of baseball’s most famous and enduring legends as we’ve never seen him before, revealing the secrets of his amazing, unlikely success and his unvarnished opinions on the state of the game.

Tommy Lasorda is perhaps baseball’s most famous and popular figure. At seventy-nine, after twenty years of managing and fifty-seven years with one franchise, this Hall of Famer still suits up in Dodger Blue every day. He also keeps a travel schedule that would dizzy the most frequent of frequent fliers. The embodiment of the American dream, Lasorda went from a scrawny, overlooked Italian kid of average ability to become one of the world’s most recognizable baseball faces. And he fought for it every step of the way.

In I Live for This Bill Plaschke strips the veneer from one of baseball’s last living legends to show how grit and determination really can transform a life. We think we know this jovial manager from the rah-rah style that has always raised eyebrows in the world of baseball. Some view him as an anachronism. Some love him like Santa Claus. But there’s one thing they all agree on: Lasorda is a success.

With gleaming insight and remarkable candor, Plaschke takes us inside the day-to-day world of this baseball great to reveal a side of Lasorda that few people really know. And along the way, we’re treated to some of the most outrageous stories in sports. We also discover Lasorda’s unshakable opinions about what plagues baseball today.

Bravely and brilliantly, I Live for This dissects the personality to give us the person. In the end we’re left with an indelible portrait of a legend that, if Lasorda has anything to say about it, we won’t ever forget.

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About the Author:

TOMMY LASORDA is one of the most successful managers in baseball history, a Hall of Famer who led the Dodgers to eight division titles and two world championships in twenty seasons. Lasorda currently serves as executive senior vice president for the Dodgers and lectures around the world promoting baseball. He lives in Fullerton, California.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Foreword

It is a glorious summer Sunday morning at Los Angeles’s Dodger Stadium. I am walking through a dark tunnel. It leads from a glistening green field that smells delightfully of summer into a dank clubhouse that reeks like an old sock.
Outside, fans are buzzing and Nancy Bea Hefley’s organ music is playing and athletes in brightly colored uniforms are jogging on the perspiring grass. The four bases are impossibly white, the two chalk lines are amazingly straight, and even the dirt seems to have been shaped and tinted like a socialite’s hair. This is baseball. This is America.
Once inside that tunnel, the world turns. Everything in the Dodger clubhouse feels close and cramped and confusing. A heavy-eyed kid in a stained blue golf shirt is pushing a laundry cart. A lumpy older man in his underwear is filling a plastic tub with bubble gum. Two players in long johns and T-shirts are arguing over queens and hearts. Another player, in jeans and a jersey, is studying a truck-trader magazine. Three guys in the corner are cursing one another in Spanish. This is also baseball. This is also America.
I think, If only fans on the outside could see the inside. I wonder, What if all those who sat in this charming ballpark were exposed to the quirkiness of its depths? Would it ruin this splendid piece of American culture if folks knew that Dodger Stadium has more than one level, more than one angle, many crooked shadows? Or would it simply make it more real?
I walk underneath low ceilings, past ancient cubbyholes, up a chipped concrete walkway, through a wobbly blue door, and into the office of a similarly splendid piece of Americana named Tommy Lasorda.
It is 1990, and he is the legendary manager of the renowned Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team. In the past thirteen seasons he has won two world championships and four National League pennants and has captured the imagination of the jaded American baseball fan with everything from his crooked smile to his jiggling belly to his innate ability to create magic.
He howls, he hugs, he screams, he cries, he hikes his giant belt above his skinny legs, and sometimes he literally chases his players to greatness, running over anyone who dares to step in their path. He bumps bellies with umpires, exchanges curses with opponents, argues with sportswriters, taunts fans, and somehow makes them all laugh while doing it.
Tommy Lasorda is baseball’s Santa Claus, and Americans are clamoring for his lap. Aging Dodger Stadium is usually filled to capacity because of the energy around him. A little-known diet product called Slim- Fast is making millions because of the salesman within him. Thousands in the military and in business and countless students have been motivated listening to speeches by him. Folks from Asia to South America have swooned during visits from him. He once went to the White House as a tourist, and within ninety minutes he met with President Reagan, his chief of staff, and the vice president without having an appointment to see any of them. This country’s leaders heard he was there and went looking for him. He is not only one of baseball’s best managers, but, in a crude yet lovably blustery way, he is also baseball’s best ambassador.
Yet on this summer day in Chavez Ravine, he is just Tommy. He is the same man I see almost every day for six months every year. He is my assignment. He is my job. I am the Dodger beat reporter for the Los Angeles Times, and he is an integral part of my daily coverage. I talk to him at least twice a day. I report his opinions and insights. He is the public face of the team, he sets the tone for each day’s news, and he is the best source for the best material. If he’s mad, my words scream. If he’s funny, my words laugh. He is an important figure for journalists because he always generates news. But he can also be an impossible figure for journalists because he insists that such news make him look good. He will gladly share the story of a pregame spaghetti dinner with his players. But he will berate you for writing about the spaghetti stains on his collar. He will gladly supply inside information, as long as that information makes him or the Dodgers look good. He may be the most unassuming yet image-conscious figure in sports.
On this day, it’s that inside information that I’m seeking. Lasorda has already held his pregame press meeting with the Dodger beat writers from five different newspapers, but I want something more. So I leave the serene field and dip into its sweaty bowels. I travel from the public Tommy Lasorda into the tiny office that houses the private one.
Plaschke,” he shouts brightly, seeing me at the door. Get in here!” When Tommy Lasorda summons youu so cheerfully into his office, with that bony finger and that huge grin, it usually means just one thing.
He is alone. He wants the commmmmpany. He needs the company.
Despite being constantly surrounded by backslapping sycophants, Lasorda often acts like a lonely orphan. He hates to be alone. He moans about being alone. He lives for an audience. When one audience grows weary of his stories, he searches for a new one.
Plaschke,” Lasorda shouts again. Get in here and have a piece of pizza. Now!” This has long been one of Lasorda’s methods to ensure that he will never be alone. He fills his office with food. He is, in fact, the only manager in major league history to set up the postgame buffet in his office. Other teams feed their players in separate rooms, far away from the boss, giving them a private place to unwind. But not Lasorda, who uses food to draw the players to his quarters, where they can eat veal piccata next to piles of his soiled underwear. He’s told the media he does this to foster teamwork. But he also does it so he will never have to do so much as dress by himself.
This morning I need only one bit of information no time to eat, no time to hang out. Plus, I had just eaten a huge Sunday buffet at a nearby restaurant; no room for anything more. But Lasorda doesn’t care.
Here,” he says, handing me a huge piece of pepperoni pie, dripping from a paper plate. Eat this.” He’s wearing white underwear with a wrinkled blue T-shirt covered with a sauce-splotched towel. He’s sitting behind a cluttered desk that is nearly toppled by the six pizzas piled atop it. He’s not giving me a choice.
Pizza! Now!” Tommy, I’m stuffed,” I say. I can’t eat it. I’ll vomit, I swear. I just need to ask you one question. Can I ask you just one question?” When dealing with Lasorda, you often have to fight outlandishness with outlandishness. And, yes, if he’s going to try to force you to eat greasy pizza on a Sunday morning, you have to counter with the threat of vomit. Which doesn’t work. It never works. Not even vomit.
C’mon, sit down, take your time, eat this pizza . . . and I’ll give you a scoop,” he says.
A scoop?” I ask.
Yeah,” he says, shaking his head as if disgusted by his own vulnerability.
You sit here with me and eat pizza until the start of the game, and I’ll give you some inside information.” Pass the pepperoni.” So I sit and eat my pizza while he slowly gets dressed. And then he starts talking. But, funny thing, he’s not talking about baseball, he’s talking about his feelings. For the next half hour, while lineup cards are being filled out and coaches are reminding him to hurry up and players are clanking toward the field in their cleats, Lasorda momentarily lets down his bluster and reveals himself.
Earlier that morning, he had breakfast with an old friend from his hometown of Norristown, Pennsylvania, so he talks about growing up. He says something about a stolen glove, and prison baseball, and oversize cleats. Then he’s talking about pitching for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and how he never won a game, and how it never seemed fair, and how, dammit, his parents never watched him pitch anyway. Soon I realize that this man who seems to have everything is talking as if he has nothing. This man who has nothing to prove is sounding like he has everything to prove.
What I suspected then has long since been confirmed. The real Tommy Lasorda is nothing like the national image that he works so diligently to protect. Fans think he is a giant, friendly, blustery baseball man. But behind that big smile burns an angry, endless fire, and beneath that loud laugh lives a quiet, continuous fight.
I’ve seen Tommy Lasorda be so kind and gentle to someone in need, it made me weep. I’ve also seen him be so surly to someone who is threatening him, it made me scream. He can be lovable, vengeful, unselfish, unkind, tender, and tough, all at the same time, all in the ten minutes it takes him to walk from the organ strains that fill Dodger Stadium to the salsa music that blares in the clubhouse below. I’ve seen him comfort and motivate a twenty-four-year-old journeyman who has just been demoted to the minor leagues. I’ve also seen him, on April Fools’ Day, pretend to send a veteran to the minors, then laugh as the poor guy melted into a weepy puddle.
When Lasorda finishes talking in the dark clubhouse on this sunny Sunday Tommy, end the interview, they’re starting to play the anthem!” shouts one of his coaches it strikes me that he is very much like the stadium in which he sits. All those fans who love his nostalgic exterior wouldn’t they be interested in going deeper? And once they got there, wouldn’t they appreciate him more?
Great Americans are like great ballparks, aren’t they? To see them on the surface is to appreciate their style. But to navigate them from upper concourse to lower tunnel is to appreciate their substance.
Tommy Lasorda is a man of great personality, but he is also a man of great substance, and this book is about that substance. I realize that in writing it I may be asking too much of those baseball fans who really don’t want to see anything deeper than a manicured outfield or a center-field fountain or an old guy pushing peanuts. But I also believe that once those fans see the underground pipes, they will better appreciate that the grass is so green.
I first began thinking of writing this book during that summer conversation in Dodger Stadium. That it has taken until now to finally put it down on paper has been, in fact, a blessing. Because over the past fifteen years, Lasorda has lived as much life as in his previous fifty years. He is the only sports hero who grows more interesting as he grows older. He is perhaps the only sports hero who retired and then became more famous.
Since that day in 1990, he’s endured a lot. His only heart gave out and nearly killed him, forcing him into retirement. His first love, the Dodgers, abandoned him after retirement. His beloved game rewarded him, inducting him into the baseball Hall of Fame in 1997. His nation enlisted him to coach the U.S. Olympic team, a journey that resulted in a gold medal, the trip of his life.
Recently the Dodgers smartly brought him back into the fold as a vice president, and baseball returned him to the forefront with popular postseason commercials, and the world embraced him again as the World Baseball Classic’s ambassador. Groups everywhere are once more begging for his appearance.
Tommy Lasorda today is by all accounts the most popular baseball figure in the world. But he is also perhaps the most complex. He is still the guy sitting alone in his underwear on a Sunday morning, using pizza to bribe someone to sit with him. He is still the guy surrounded by fans but fighting loneliness, the guy showered with accolades but fighting insecurity, the poor kid from a small Pennsylvania town who has something to prove a complicated, shadow-filled, true American baseball hero.
Through it all, he has trusted in the goodness of a game that sometimes abandoned him. He still has faith in a sport where steroid-filled players slug too tightly wrapped balls. He still counts on the sanctity of three outs, nine innings, and 162 games as the only constants in a world where the body ages and the mind grows weary and where, after they have received his autograph, some people have the nerve to tell him that the national pastime has become a national joke.
Tommy Lasorda is baseball’s last true believer.
Which I believe makes his journey one worth taking.
Copyright © 2007 by Bill Plaschke and Tommy Lasorda. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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