Tommy Lasorda passed away last night and I am sad. The internet is now full of wonderful stories and tributes to the man who spent his entire baseball life - 70-plus years - in the Dodgers organization. This is not one of those tributes. It is a memory of my grandmother in which Lasorda is a supporting actor.
In February 1984 I flew to Boynton Beach, Florida alone, as a 15-year-old, to visit my grandmother. My grandparents (my grandfather passed away in 1981) lived in a community called Leisureville which I know sounds made up, but it is not. In fact, it is a perfect descriptor of the retirement community (now called a 55+ community) dominated by three-bedroom, two-bath homes with one car garages. The community had a pool, executive golf course, clubhouse for bingo, and plenty of shuffleboard courts, all within walking distance of my grandparents’ home. The black-topped streets had shells embedded in them, necessitating some sort of foot covering lest you wish to cut the soles of your feet on your way back from the pool.
That our brains associate certain sensory events with specific moments in our life is a great fascination to me. Every time I eat a grapefruit, I think of that house in Leisureville. We always had them at breakfast, fresh from the tree in their backyard. I still eat them the same way - cut in half, sectioned with a knife - by scooping out the flesh with a spoon and then squeezing the remaining juice into a glass.
The 1984 Florida trip was the perfect break from a Minnesota winter and, best of all, it coincided with spring training. Leisureville is 90 minutes south of Vero Beach, home of Dodgertown and Dodgers spring training. My grandmother agreed to take me one day during my visit.
Baseball fans believe that time begins on Opening Day and I was predictably excited about the new season. The Dodgers had won the National League West in 1983, the year cable television arrived at our house bringing with it baseball games on WGN and WTBS. I could now watch the Dodgers several times a year. I also had a new favorite player, R.J. Reynolds, who burst on the scene as a September callup and executed a perfect suicide squeeze bunt, scoring Pedro Guerrero as the Dodgers rallied to score four runs in the bottom of the ninth and beat the Atlanta Braves on WTBS, extending their lead in the NL West to 3 games over Atlanta.
Spring training in 1984 was very different than spring training is today, as the picture below shows. Average Joes like me could easily approach Major League players - even All-Stars - as they walked from their clubhouse to the practice field, asking for signatures and pictures. Today fans are segregated from the players like cattle in a pen. I was hopeful that day of getting not only Mr. Reynolds’ autograph, but also of seeing other Dodger luminaries.
A connection to Leisureville was that my grandmother knew Dodgers pitching coach Ron Perranoski’s parents who also lived there. This afforded us an opportunity to approach him and talk. Mr. Perranoski, who passed away last October in Vero Beach, was extremely gracious in chatting with us. I was shy at the time (my grandmother was not) and much of the conversation turned to life in Leisureville. In later years I remember thinking I wish I would have asked him about playing with Koufax, Gilliam, Drysdale, Wills, and his 1963 season in which he was as close to lights-out as a relief pitcher can be. But, as a teenager focused on the moment, you don’t think about the bigger picture. You tell yourself there will be another chance to ask these questions. It never happens.
Of course, the person I needed to meet most (besides Reynolds) that spring was the man who bled Dodger Blue, manager Tommy Lasorda. In many ways, Lasorda appeared to love this intimate setting and the ability to interact with faithful Dodger fans. He and I had a pleasant exchange (I remember him talking the entire time my grandmother took the picture below). As you can see, Lasorda was not much taller than me physically, but his personality filled any area in which he was present.
When we arrived at Dodgertown, I realized I had neglected to bring anything for player signatures. Fortunately, like any good tourist destination, there was a gift shop on complex and I purchased a post card, the back of which was perfect for autographs. As you see, I still have it, and, yes, “RJ Reynolds #23” is across the Dodgertown text. But also figuring prominently is the signature of “Tom Lasorda” (he never signed anything Tommy). Also on the post card are Rick Honeycutt, Rick Monday, Ken Landreaux, Jack Fimple, Alejandro Pena, Greg Brock, Bob Welch, and Wes Parker, he of the 1965 World Series champion Dodgers.
My grandmother passed away on April 29, 2002, just days after Andrea and I visited her in the assisted living home facility in which she was living. We were on vacation in Florida, celebrating the conclusion of the 2002 Olympic and Paralympic Games which we had worked. My grandmother had been sick for a while but she was feeling good on the day of our visit. We asked if she wanted to go outside and she agreed. We wheeled her onto a dock where we enjoyed the sunshine and warm late afternoon Florida breeze.
I remember talking with her about that day in 1984 - eating grapefruit, driving to Vero Beach, meeting Dodger players, and taking pictures. She seemed to remember the day, though I can’t be certain she wasn’t just faking it for my benefit. I like to think her memory was the same as mine.
Rest easy, Mr. Lasorda, with the Great Dodger in the Sky. When you get a chance, say hello to my grandmother and see if she remembers meeting you.