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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

I Live for This by Tommy Lasorda and Bill Plaschke

This is a tough book to review. I like Tommy Lasorda. He is the face of the Dodgers to me, as I began following the team about 1974, just before he become their manager. And regarding baseball, the Dodgers, America, God and (sometimes) being a nice guy, he is a shining example. But in several parts of this book, he comes across as annoying, argumentative, self-absorbed and kind of a jerk. I liked Lasorda more before I read I Live For This.

The book doesn’t follow a straight chronological path, which makes for a more interesting read than the traditional biography route. Because Lasorda is, well, Lasorda, there is no shortage of anecdotes and vignettes to insert. And many of them are certainly entertaining. Tommy Lasorda bleeds Dodger blue: anybody who knows about him knows this, and the book reflects it. No surprise. But we get a look at what makes Lasorda tick: he is fighting the world all the time.
Lasorda refused to admit defeat. As a kid, he needed a baseball glove, so he stole one. A pitcher of marginal talent, he pitched a total of 26 games over three major league seasons (he lost a roster spot to Sandy Koufax in 1955: Lasorda says it took the greatest lefthander ever to keep him out of the majors), though he was a successful minor league pitcher. But as a player, a scout, a coach and a manager, life is a war to Lasorda. One he refuses to lose. It made him the Hall of Famer he is. But it also made him someone you don’t necessarily like, or always admire.

Don’t get me wrong: Lasorda did a lot of good things and certainly helped a lot of baseball players succeed. And he truly is an ambassador for the sport that we’re unlikely to ever see again. And much of the good about Lasorda comes out of this book. Like how he treats low level staffers and efforts to help inner city kids learn baseball. But it’s hard to come away from this book without some negative vibrations.

We do get some inside looks at situations within the Dodgers franchise, like the rift between Lasorda and his successor and former player, Bill Russell. And the exchange between Lasorda and Doug Rau during the first inning of a World Series game is amusing. Sort of. Plus, you’ll learn how Tommy became the national face, or waistline, for a then-unknown product called Slim Fast.

I was intrigued by the book’s ending. The Fox/Murdoch team had effectively banished Lasorda to Siberia. He had no real role with the Dodgers, nor, according to the book, was he respected or valued at all. But then Frank McCourt and his wife bought the team and Lasorda was established as McCourt’s right hand man. Essentially, he was reinstated as Chief Advisor to the new King, if you will. Lasorda says, “You know what the MCourts gave me? They gave me back my prestige, my honor, my dignity. They gave me back my life.” I’d guess this was said somewhere around 2006. Now, in 2012, after the long, dark tea-time of the Dodger’s soul that was the McCourt Era has passed, I wonder how Lasorda feels about the man now?

I think Tommy Lasorda is a great boon to major league baseball, and he is certainly an important part of Dodgers history. I’m a fan. And you’ll enjoy learning how he got Mike Piazza signed and coached the US Olympians to a gold medal, but if you read I Live For This, be warned, your perception of him may change a bit.

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