The pitch: Tommy Lasorda has loved. He’s laughed and cried. He’s had his fill, his share of losing ….
And, of course, winning.
What we must find so amusing is that in going with a title like “My Way,” an homage to his late great friend Frank Sinatra, we must also face the reality of the final curtain, of which we’re fairly certain.
If Lasorda were to leave his heavenly place on earth tomorrow and sign on with the Big Dodger in the Sky — something you must consider as a remote possibility since he’s reached the age of 87 — this is what could be read aloud at his memorial service from cover to cover, and just about cover everything.
Some may want to pull material from what’s already been done, such as the bio that David Fisher wrote with Lasorda in 1985, “The Artful Dodger,” when he was still an active manager. Or from the 2007 Bill Plaschke book, “I Live For This!” which Lasorda collaborated on long after his retirement.
But in this instance, it’s personal. Especially for Gunderson, who the Dodgers assigned as a personal Lasorda assistant for 12 years until he left recent to get married, start a family and move to Alexandria, Va.
To emphasize that, Gunderson writes in the last paragraph of acknowledgements, with no apology: “I would like to thank Tommy for taking me under his wing, for giving me the gift of self-confidence, for teaching me how to live a life of purpose, for helping me shape my dreams and giving me my own pair of wings to pursue them with all the drive and desire I have in my heart. I thank you, Tommy, for all of the love and respect you have given me over the years. I only hope I have given them back to you each and every day I have had the privilege and honor of being in your life.”
The product of that relationship is a “Get to Know Tommy” 12-step program that hits on the essence of the Hall of Fame manager and baseball ambassador through Gunderson’s experiences — we’re talking about self-confidence, hard work, competitiveness, determination, winning, family, laughter, patriotism, love for the Dodgers, Dodger royalty, Dodger realeza and loyalty.
With each category, Gunderson picks a person in Lasorda’s circle (mostly within the Dodgers organization) who best relatest.
Under “winning,” for example, there is Orel Hershiser.
“I used to tell my players there are three types of people, just like there are three types of players,” Lasorda says on page 86. “The first is the one who makes it happen, the second is the one who watches it happen and the third is the one who ponders what happened.”
“Tommy wants you to be the one who makes it happen,” says Hershiser. “He understands and teaches guys to embrace the big moment. He doesn’t back down from it. When you embrace the moment, and you have his intensity, his determination, his passion for winning, you have the whole package …
“Looking back on my baseball career, I can recognize all the things he did for me as a person and really appreciate it. I stood next to him three times last season during the national anthem and kissed him on the forehead each time. He’s my baseball dad.”
With determination, there’s Mike Piazza and Charlie Hough.
Under family, you find Tim Wallach, John Shelby, Glenn Hoffman and Ken Howell.
With laughter, it’s no joke: sign up Mickey Hatcher, Steve Yeager and Lenny Harris.
After all that, maybe most poignant chapter is the last, where Gunderson tells his own stories of Lasorda that he’s witnessed — the ones that don’t fit into the other category but need to be told. We won’t spoil the surprises. But perhaps start there if you really want to cut to the core of how this one is much different from previous Lasorda-based projects.
Again, it may not be the Lasorda remembrance that some may expect. Let’s just let the record show that he took the blows and did it his way.
Q: Previous books about Tommy have come out when he was actually managing the team or after he retired. What did you want people to know about Tommy at this point in his life, at age 87, that they might not have known before with the approach that you used?
A: My approach was letting Tommy’s players and a few of his friends tell their favorite Tommy stories and weave them together to highlight his life, career, and the lessons he taught. I want readers to know what it was like to have your life touched by Tommy, to experience the camaraderie he and his players shared, and to get to know Tommy from the people who knew him the best.
With biographies, many times you end up getting a better sense of the mind of the writer instead of the mind of the subject. This approach hopes to change that. Over the course of my career with Tommy and the Dodgers, there were many times when he and his players would be reminiscing and laughing, and I would always wish that everybody could experience what I was experiencing during those moments.
Q: With all the time you spent with Tommy, you must have been thinking: I have enough material for 10 books. How did you boil it down to these 12 traits that you wanted to hit on? Could your chapter 13 — where you talk about how he’s touched the lives of people such as Heather Buchanan-Sphor and Alyson Habertz and Lieutenant Bob Wright — have been an entire other book?
A: Indeed, an entire book could have been written about Tommy’s random acts of kindness and his friends who aren’t associated with baseball. I think the editor had a tough time because there were a couple more stories like those that had to be taken out for various reasons. The 12 traits, though, were determined by the players who shared their Tommy stories. I asked each person for their favorite Tommy story, and said it could either be professional or personal in nature. Many of the players chose a personal story instead of a story that had to do with their career, so over the course of the interview process the traits or themes emerged.
Q: It doesn’t seem as if you left anyone out as far as all the right people you got to speak about Tommy. Was there anyone you missed that you wanted to include but just didn’t connect?
A: I wish I could have written an international chapter, so to speak, and interviewed players like Hideo Nomo, Chan-Ho Park, Ramon Martinez and his brother Pedro, Raul Mondesi, and some other foreign players. Tommy and the Dodgers had an enormous impact on international baseball that I think gets overlooked these days. More importantly though, when these players, who were kids when they reported to Tommy, were treated like sons. Tommy would take them under his wing, take them to eat, get them clothes, help them during interviews with the media and all he could to bridge the cultural gaps the players were dealing with. I think that speaks a lot to what Tommy was about, and what the Dodger way was about. Now a days, teams hire interpreters for Asian players or have a handler for certain Latin players, but during Tommy’s time, he took it upon himself.
Q: Is there anything these days that you think Tommy is misunderstood about? Were there ways to insert any of that into your book in a subtle way?
A: I think Tommy is misunderstood in two ways.
First, Tommy changed the paradigm for managers in baseball. Before Tommy, the style of managers was to treat players like interchangeable cogs in the wheel without getting to know them as people, or care about them. When Tommy became manager, he hugged his players, he went out to eat with them, he took them bowling, he got to know their parents and siblings. He was outwardly affectionate, and in essence he was a great communicator. Now, all managers are good communicators, and Torre, La Russa and Cox being enshrined in Cooperstown is proof of that as each of those managers can be described as good communicators with their players.
The second way is misunderstood is for his personal motivation. Tommy was the face of the Dodgers and was famous not just in the Los Angeles baseball market, or in the game of baseball, but in ways that transcend the game. Did he enjoy that fame? Sure.Tommy is also famous for his passion about winning, and for imposing his will to win on his players. Did he enjoy winning? Of course. Lastly he is famous for motivating his players to be better than they ever thought possible.
But if you look at his life it wasn’t about being famous. Tommy’s life and career are about being of service to others and willingness. As detailed throughout the book, Tommy would always be willing to go above and beyond the regular rigors of practice to help his players get better, and was always there to be of service to them on and off the field, in the dugout and clubhouse or in their living rooms, would always be of service as a coach, friend, father figure, mentor, or in any way that player would develop as a person. It is my great wish that readers get that sense after reading about to what lengths Tommy went to help his players improve.
More to know:
= Upcoming book signings include April 9 at the Barnes and Noble and April 13 at Dodger Stadium.
= A Q-and-A we did with Lasorda near the 2013 All-Star break.
== Did you know: There are two books written about Dodgers Hall of Fame manager Walter Alston. In 1996, it was “Alston and the Dodgers.” In 1976, it was “A Year At A Time.”