Tommy Lasorda liked to needle former Los Angeles Dodger scout Bill Geivett about his bias for baseball players from his alma mater of UCSB.
“Geivett,” he once told the Gaucho Hall of Famer, “you love Santa Barbara so much, you’d like anybody even if they just drove down the 101 through Santa Barbara.”
But that was also true of Lasorda, the former Dodgers manager who passed away late Thursday night at age 93. He appeared at fund-raisers to build UCSB’s Caesar Uyesaka Stadium and returned 16 years after its 1994 completion to help upgrade the facility.
“I’ve done a lot of this because the baseball coaches need the help,” Lasorda said during his last UCSB appearance in 2010. “My wife says to me, ‘Don’ t you ever say no?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, a lot of times.’ So she says ‘When?’
“And I said, ‘When they ask me if I had enough to eat.’”
Former UCSB coach Al Ferrer reminisced on Friday with several of the Gauchos who served as waiters for the first “A Night With Tommy” in 1992.
“He’d go up to one of them and say, ‘This pasta is really good … Think you can get me a little more?’” Ferrer said. “Then a little later, he’d call over a different player and ask him the same thing.”
He earned his meal, however, by remaining long after his speech to take photographs with everyone who had attended.
“He had to go back to L.A. to catch a flight to Detroit — he was supposed to speak at some engagement for General Motors for a fee of something like $50,000,” Ferrer recalled. “But he still stuck around late to take those photos even though he spoke to us for free.”
Lasorda filled his plate during the 71 years he spent with the Dodgers as a player, scout, coach, manager and front-office executive. He led them to World Series titles in both 1981 and 1988, as well as to four National League pennants and eight division titles during his tenure as manager from 1977 to 1996.
He was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame a year after his retirement and then returned to the dugout in 2000 to coach the U.S. National Team to the gold medal at the Olympic Games in Sydney.
Geivett, who would leave the Dodgers to become the general manager of the Colorado Rockies, said Lasorda’s passion was legendary. He recalled how they once interviewed “this kid” who was in search of a job when he came to Major League Baseball’s Winter Meetings of 1999.
He Lasorda remained quiet while he asked the kid questions.
“But when I’m done,” Geivett said, “Tommy just starts screaming at the kid, going, ‘I can just tell that you’re not tough enough! That you can’t handle the long hours, and you can’t pay the price you need to pay to work in baseball!’
“The kid then stands up and says, ‘Hey Tommy, you’re wrong — I am tough enough, and I will be in baseball.’ The kid leaves, and Tommy and I agree that, yeah, he’s tough enough to make it.”
The kid wound up working for the Rockies.
Jay Lucas, who left UCSB in 1988 to become the Dodgers’ director of media relations, spoke about that Lasorda passion on Friday with a Facebook post:
“Working for the Dodgers,” Lucas began, “I had the opportunity to laugh, share meals, get yelled at, witness endless enthusiasm, count pitches to rookies after Dodgers spring games, listen to hilarious stories — more than once, but you still crack-up — attend media sessions, office visits, meet celebrities, play hoops at Dodgertown and so many more memories being around one of the baseball and Dodger greats, Tommy Lasorda.
“The game and the Dodgers family lost one of the best. Tommy called Dodger Stadium ‘Blue Heaven on Earth.’ Rest In Peace skipper in your eternal Blue home.”
Lasorda was, above all, baseball’s ambassador to the world. His first speaking appearance in Santa Barbara came just after his third season as Dodgers’ manager. The Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith had recruited him to honor a fellow Italian-American, local icon George Castagnola.
When the ring of a pay phone in the back of the Miramar Hotel interrupted his speech, Lasorda stirred uproarious laughter with his deadpan response:
“That’s my wife, trying to find out what I’m up to.”
He and his wife, Jo, celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary last April.
Ferrer asked for Lasorda’s help nearly 30 years ago when a car accident in Santa Ynez killed teenager Anna Brady and paralyzed her schoolmate, Michael McConnell. Both were close friends of Ferrer’s son, Tyler.
McConnell’s worsening despondency prompted Ferrer to call Lasorda, asking if he could send him an autographed photo.
“Basically, what he told me was, ‘We’re not sending any stinkin’ photograph. That’s not good enough — give me the young man’s number,’” Ferrer recalled. “After the Gaucho practice the next day, Ty and I went over to see Mike.
“We didn’t get within 10 yards of Mike that suddenly we saw half-a-grin on Mike’s face. That was a significant half-a-grin, because Mike had not smiled the whole previous month. Suddenly, he called out, initiating his first conversation in a month, and said, ‘Guess who called me today? Tommy Lasorda!’”
Ferrer learned that the Dodger manager had spent a good deal of time “dragging Mike through their conversation.”
“He made him promise that he would do his work, that he would have courage during the tough times, that he would rehabilitate to whatever level he was capable of,” Ferrer said. “And I saw the change.”
A year later, Lasorda spoke at the fund-raiser for Uyesaka Stadium. McConnell was among those in the audience, wheeled into the auditorium by his parents, Linda and Tom. Brady’s parents were also there.
“I hadn’t told Tommy that Mike would be there,” Ferrer said. “When I introduced him, I said, ‘I could talk about his being in the Hall of Fame and winning the World Series, but what I want to do is talk about the person.’ And then I told everybody what he had done for Mike.
“Tommy was a little befuddled about where this is going. But then I said, ‘It’s now my pleasure to not only introduce you to Tommy Lasorda, but also Mike McConnell to Tommy Lasorda.’
“Lasorda sees Mike and gets up, pushes me out of the way, goes down the stairs and kneels in front of Mike to give him a hug. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place.”
When Lasorda returned to the microphone, he concluded his speech with an emotional address directly to McConnell:
“And to you, Mike … I love you. You’re an outstanding young man. And you’re going to make millions of people proud of you because you’re going to amount to something special in this country. And you’re going to do something great. Everybody’s going to be proud of you. Your parents are going to be very, very proud of you because you’ve got all of the qualities you need to be someone special. God bless you, Mike.”
McConnell now works for the family business in Santa Maria, “Prince Lionheart,” which manufactures products for young children.
Upon learning of Lasorda’s death, he sent a heartfelt text message to Ferrer.
“So sorry to hear the news today,” McConnell said. “What you helped facilitate that night helped guide me to a new way of life. Forever grateful for you and Mr. Lasorda.
“It was a moment in time I will never forget.”
It was one of countless many that Lasorda lived in his 93 years.