What you get if you hang around the batting cage with Tommy Lasorda is an earache that hurts so much it feels good. Of baseball's orators. Lasorda is Hall of Fame quality. We first hear him this day when Pee Wee Reese has said, "Skipper. I used your office phone for 15 minutes."
Pee Wee Reese, the captain of the Dodgers, the Little Colonel, my hero and idol [Lasorda has read too many sports stories] answer me this: how many years were you with the Dodgers.?"
"Twenty" Reese said.
"TWENTY YEARS of your life you to this organization . . ."
Here Lasorda paused to spit tobacco juice.
". . . and you are worried about using my telephone for 15 MINUTES! You can use that phone for five hours! You can take that phone back to Kentucky with you!"
For the next 20 minutes, Lasorda went on. For 28 years he has been with the Dodgers, first as a minor league pitcher, then as a scout and coach before succeeding Walt Alston. As manager two years ago. Cut a vein, Lasorda has said, and he bleeds Dodger blue. The only reason he ever made it, said this son of an Italian immigrant, is because The Big Dodger in the Sky took care of him.
'First thing I did the first time I went to spring training with the Dodgers is steal me a sweatshirt with 'REESE' written on the back of it," Lasorda said. "Then I'd wear it around the ball park. I'd turn this way and that way. So's everybody would know who I was."
In the mid-'50s, Lasorda thought highly of his pitching ability. He had been successful at Montreal, the Dodgers' top minor league team, and he figured his time had come to make it with the big team. He worked hard in spring training.
But then came a call for Lasorda to report to Buzzie Bavasi, the Dodger general manager. Such a call usually means the player is being shipped back to the minors, and Lasorda knew it.
"Tommy, I've got some bad news," Bavasi began.
"What's wrong, Buzz, someone in your family sick?" Lasorda said quickly.
"You gotta go back to Montreal."
"Why? I'm doing the job, ain't I?"
"Yeah, but we have to cut the roster by one more man."
"Jeez, get rid of Koufax. He'll never be a pitcher. He can't hit a barn door from 60 feet away. And you're going to keep him?"
At that time, any player who had signed for a bonus over $4,000 had to stay on the major league roster. So the Dodgers were stuck with Sandy Koufax, then a left-hander with speed and no control. Time's passage revealed Koufax as an immortal, however, and he now is in the Hall of Fame.
Which gives Lasorda a wonderful excuse for his brief career as a major league pitcher.
"I can honestly say that it took the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time to keep me out of the big leagues," Lasorda said.
Yet it did not prevent him from being a World Series hero.
"I'm going to tell you about that," Lasorda said. "It is not in the record books, sure.But every little thing can't be in the record books, can it? And this is the stuff people want to know. This is how I helped the Dodgers win the '56 World Series."
A quick check of the record books reveals that nobody named Lasorda threw a pitch in the '56 Series.
That's because Lasorda was sitting at home in Pennsylvania when, after two games, he got a phone call.
"They said Whitey Ford and Tommy Byrne were giving us fits with curve balls," Lasorda said, naming two Yankee left-handers. "Would I come up and pitch batting practice?" Lasorda was a left-hander with a nice curve ball.
"So I drove 100 miles to New York, pitched batting practice every day - these guys never saw so many good hooks - and we won the thing. Now, these damn things you don't find in the record books."
It should be said this Lasorda performance was given at a full cry from about 10 feet from home plate during batting practice. At one point, the Yankees' Graig Nettles, hitting, paused and shouted over, "Hey, Tommy, am I bothering you?"
"Naw, naw, Graig, go on," Lasorda said.
He did lower his voice, though, for his pigeon-dropping story. As a pitcher, he had an 0-5 record one spring. With three other pitchers, he was walking down a street when a pigeon passing over made a deposit on Lasorda's head.
"That's the way your luck is going," said one of Lasorda's companions.
"No, no. I'm going to be positive about this." Lasorda said. "I'm going to take this as a good sign. Nothing else bad can happen."
So, lasorda said, he won his next 10 games.
"And every time I went out for a walk, I started looking for pigeons to walk under," he said.