'We’re going to miss him dearly:' Tommy Lasorda's presence felt as Los Angeles Dodgers continue hot start

Bob Nightengale, USA TODAY
·5 min read

LOS ANGELES -- Everywhere you looked Saturday evening, there was Tommy Lasorda at Dodger Stadium.

He was in the stands with legions of fans wearing Lasorda jerseys.

He was on the videoboard giving speeches, yelling at umpires, with tributes from Los Angeles Dodgers greats telling their favorite Lasorda stories.

There was Lasorda on the videoboard singing Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,’’ from a spring-training gathering.

The Dodgers spent the game honoring Lasorda, their Hall of Fame manager who died three months ago at the age of 93, and made sure he was pounding his chest with pride from high above with a 9-5 victory against the Washington Nationals.

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“What they did before the game with Tommy,’’ Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, “it kind of continues to bring him to life, remembering him, the good times. …Definitely, tonight’s game was certainly special.’’

The Dodgers, 7-2, who have the best record in baseball, may have Lasorda on their mind all season, knowing he’ll always be a part of them.

“We’re going to miss him dearly,’’ said Dodgers All-Star third baseman Justin Turner, who had two doubles and is hitting .412 this season, “but we’re never going to forget Tommy Lasorda.’’

Really, how could you?

“Tommy did it his way,’’ said Bobby Valentine, whose close relationship began with Lasorda while playing in the minor leagues, “in living and dying.’’

Valentine, in an interview Saturday with USA TODAY Sports from his Stamford, Connecticut, home, emotionally talked about the final evening he spent with Lasorda.

It was the night of Oct. 27, 2020, in Arlington, Texas, and they were watching the final ballgame of Lasorda’s life.

Lasorda, knowing the end was near, wanted to see the Dodgers one last time, trying to win their first World Series since Lasorda still was manager in 1988.

Lasorda kept pushing to watch the World Series in its entirety, but couldn’t get clearance from his doctors or family. Finally, with the help of close friend Warren Lichenstein and Valentine, they came up with a plan.

The Los Angeles Dodgers celebrate their 9-5 win against the Washington Nationals at Dodger Stadium on Saturday.
The Los Angeles Dodgers celebrate their 9-5 win against the Washington Nationals at Dodger Stadium on Saturday.

Lasorda would fly on Lichenstein’s private plane from Los Angeles with a private doctor by his side. Everyone in Lasorda’s company would be required to undergo COVID-19 testing. He would stay in a secluded hotel room. And no fan could get within 200 feet of Lasorda at Globe Life Field.

“It was quite the chore,’’ Valentine said, “trying to figure out how to handle everything and make sure Tommy was going to be safe with the COVID concerns.’’

Lasorda, in a wheelchair, was picked up from the hotel, taken to the game, and ushered into a private suite with no more than nine people permitted. Eric Karros and Rick Honeycutt, two of Lasorda’s former players, were by his side.

He stayed seated the entire game, alone in his thoughts, as the Dodgers inched closer and closer to the title.

“He wasn’t totally in the game,’’ Valentine said. “There were all kinds of comments made to Tommy, he kind of picked up on half of them. In the ninth, we told Tommy, 'It’s about to happen. It’s about to happen.' He started to laser-focus on the game those final outs. And when the final out came, he just put his hands over his head, smiled, and nodded.

“Then was the decision whether we could get him on the field or not, but with COVID, we couldn’t take the chance. So we waited for most of the crowd to leave, wheeled him to the second level and have him look at the celebration. He waved, and some of the guys waved back.

“Really, the day was as perfect as you could imagine.’’

Valentine tearfully said good-bye that evening to Lasorda knowing it would likely be the final time he would ever see him.

“There was no doubt in my mind,’’ Valentine said. “There was no doubt in Warren’s mind. We knew it would be his last game he ever watched.

“We wanted to be with him, praying the Dodgers could win, kind of getting closure.’’

Lasorda, who felt ill on the plane ride home to Los Angeles, was hospitalized two weeks later. He spent nearly two months in the hospital and doctors told family and friends he would never leave.

“When I heard that,’’ Valentine said, “I said, “You kidding me?’

“The doctor said, “I’ve seen a lot of cases.

“I told him, “You’ve never seen this case.’ ’’

Lasorda made it out of the hospital on Jan. 5, determined to see his wife of 70 years, Jo, one final time.

He died two days later.

They gathered again at Dodger Stadium for the funeral services with Lasorda’s casket on the mound. There were 24 pallbearers, in all, changing pallbearers every time Lasorda’s casket was moved.

“Everyone wanted a chance,’’ Valentine said, “to hold Tommy one last time.’’

Said Dodgers great Steve Garvey: “He was bigger than life, but he understood life.’’

It was at the funeral when one of Lasorda’s nephews walked over to Valentine, and whispered to him that Don Sutton just died.

Now, on a glorious Los Angeles night honoring Lasorda, with daughter Laura saying “Play Ball,’’ over the public-address system, the Dodgers players wore uniforms with patches on their sleeves commemorating Lasorda and Sutton, his Hall of Fame pitcher.

“When I saw the guys at the funeral, the ones that were there for that final game,’’ Valentine said, “we didn’t have to say anything. We just hugged, and knew what an amazing event that was.

“How lucky were we to be part of his life, and to be part of the end of his baseball life. It was incredible. I still wake up sometimes thinking I’m going to give him a call. You hear people say when someone is gone, they are gone. Not me. He’ll be with me forever.’’

Oh, and how he’ll always be with the Dodgers, watching from high above.

“I got him with me every day when I put this uniform on,’’ Roberts said. “I know he’s in blue heaven, looking down at me and the Dodgers.’’

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dodgers pay tribute to Tommy Lasorda during win against Nationals