Although no one ever told Lasorda he would succeed Alston, he wanted the job so badly that in recent years he turned down managerial offers from Atlanta, Montreal and Pittsburgh. "I just didn't see myself loving another team," Lasorda says. "That would be like loving another woman, and I've been married to Jo for 26 years. No, the only team that could make me leave the Dodgers was the Dodgers. If they had ever said they didn't want to stand in my way, then I would have known they were telling me to go. Of course, they never said I had the job, but they never said I didn't, either. So I just relied on my dedication and loyalty. I told the Dodgers I loved them for 27 years, and when they named me manager, they said they loved me."
Lasorda admits that the last few years were difficult, because everyone knew Alston was approaching retirement and that Lasorda desperately wanted to succeed him. For all their differences in style and personality, Lasorda had admired Alston ever since he had played for him in the International League. In those days, Alston had used Lasorda as a first-base coach when he was not pitching. "I knew people were watching me closely," Lasorda says, "and sometimes it was hard for me to be myself. I didn't want to look like I was doing anything behind his back or trying to get his job. I respected him and tried to be loyal and work hard for him. I even would have coached third a few more years. I was willing to wait because I always felt I'd be the man. It's something I had wanted since I first started managing in Ogden."
When the announcement finally came, Lasorda, who never says or does anything halfheartedly, called it "the greatest day of my life" and compared it to "being presented the Hope diamond." But after all the waiting, he may have been more relieved than anything else. If he had not gotten the job, Lasorda's wife says, "Nothing would have hurt us more. We didn't even like to talk about the possibility. We'd always tell ourselves if it didn't happen this year, then it would next year. Every time an offer came from another club, we'd discuss it, but we'd always come to the same conclusion: if it's not the Dodgers, it's not what Tom wants, and he won't be happy."
Jo and the two children, 24-year-old Laura and 18-year-old Tom Jr., learned long ago that Lasorda's ambitions and happiness were inextricably tied to the game. The ball park in Greenville, S.C. is where the Lasordas met, and it was a $500 loan from former Dodger executive Buzzy Bavasi that enabled them to get married. Around the house there is even an understanding that if Jo does not ask Tom to mow the lawn, wash the dishes or take out the garbage, he will not ask her to pitch.
Lasorda's career began when he was signed by the Phillies after showing promise in a tryout camp. But he toiled almost exclusively in the minors, eventually setting a club record of 125 wins in nine years with Montreal. His first chance to make the Dodgers came in 1954, when Alston succeeded Charlie Dressen as manager. A cocky Lasorda announced, "I don't intend to let anyone push me off this club, regardless of the record he has." These were the Dodgers of Preacher Roe, Don Newcombe, Billy Loes, Carl Erskine, Johnny Podres and Clem Labine, and somebody must have pushed Lasorda. He did not make the team.
Lasorda finally got a chance to start a major league game the following year, but the result was catastrophic. On May 5, 1955 he tied a National League record by throwing three wild pitches in an inning against St. Louis. He did strike out Stan Musial, but he had to be removed from the game after Wally Moon spiked him as Lasorda was covering home following his third wild pitch. Shortly thereafter, the bonus rules of the day forced Brooklyn to keep a wild young lefthander named Sandy Koufax and send Lasorda back to Montreal. "Koufax!" Lasorda snorted. "He'll never amount to anything." Lasorda did not get a major league decision until the next season, when he was 0-4 during a brief stint with Kansas City.
He finished up his playing career back in the International League. Then in 1960 Dodger Scouting Director Al Campanis hired Lasorda as a scout, and in 1966 he became the manager at Ogden. Lasorda won three straight pennants there and was promoted to Triple A, where he won two more pennants in four years with Spokane and Albuquerque.
Lasorda was so successful that in 1972 he was the subject of a television documentary entitled Portrait of a Minor League Manager. The film portrayed the Albuquerque manager at his vocal, exuberant, demonstrative best, pepping the players up one minute, cussing them out the next and selling Dodger blue every minute in between. To make his points he would regale the young players with stories. There was one about the long-distance swimmer who gave up and drowned four feet from shore, and the old one about the puppy, which after its owner had rubbed the dog's nose in its mess and thrown it out the window for 30 consecutive days, on the 31st day rubbed its own nose in it and jumped out the window. "See, with proper training the dog learned what he was supposed to do," Lasorda told his players with a straight face.
Particularly appropriate was Lasorda's request that "When you get a hit and win a game in Dodger Stadium someday, just remember there's old Tom somewhere with a tear in his eye." Lasorda helped develop 57 players who reached the major leagues, 18 of whom are on the Dodger roster this spring. Los Angeles' starting infield of First Baseman Steve Garvey, Second Baseman Dave Lopes, Shortstop Bill Russell and Third Baseman Roy Cey, Pitchers Rick Rhoden, Doug Rau, Charlie Hough and Burt Hooton and Catcher Steve Yeager all played for him at one time or another. To a man, they swear by his methods.
"I didn't know where he was coming from when I first played for him," says Lopes, "but I learned that his greatest attribute is helping players develop. He has the gift of juicing players up and making them do things they don't even know they have in them."