When legendary Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda visited Johnson City on Nov. 7, 1992, Kingsport native Larry Smith was tasked with escorting him around town.
“I was a limousine driver for many years and chauffeured around several celebrities,” Smith said. “One of the first ones I had was Sam Snead and that was way back in the day. I didn’t know who he was at the time. One of the other big names I had was Reba McEntire.
“Tommy was absolutely the most energetic and enthusiastic person that I have ever met in my entire life. He always had a smile on his face.”
Lasorda was to be a guest speaker at the annual Spirit of Johnson City Awards Banquet.
“I believe they had the banquet at what was the Sheraton at the time,” Smith recalled. “I remember that he had flown in on his private plane to the Tri-Cities and I went to go pick him up.”
Lasorda had forgotten something fairly important on the plane: his tuxedo.
“He got off the plane and went into one of the back rooms and then came out in only his boxer shorts,” Smith said. “He asked, ‘Larry, will you go back out to the plane and get my tuxedo?’ Of course, I went back out to the plane, but that instance was just how Tommy was.”
BLEEDING DODGER BLUE
Lasorda, inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997, practically spent his entire life in Dodger blue. He died on Jan. 7 at the age of 93.
“It was a very sad feeling when I found out he died,” Smith said. “He was one of a kind and all of the stories that everyone said about him are definitely true.”
After serving in the Army, Lasorda returned to baseball in 1948. He once struck out 25 batters in a 15-inning game that year and in his next two starts, he struck out 15 and 13, which gained the attention of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who drafted him from the Philadelphia Phillies.
In his short major league playing career for the Brooklyn Dodgers and Kansas City Athletics, Lasorda went 0-4 with a 6.48 ERA and 37 strikeouts from 1954-56.
In 1973, Lasorda became the Dodgers’ third-base coach under Hall of Fame manager Walter Alston and served four seasons in that role. Upon Alston’s retirement in 1976, Lasorda took over as manager.
Over a 20-year career, Lasorda compiled a 1,599-1,439 record, winning World Series titles in 1981 and 1988.
The iconic 1988 championship series against the Oakland Athletics is most known for Kirk Gibson’s pinch-hit walk-off home run off Dennis Eckersley in Game 1. The Dodgers went on to crush the heavily favored A’s in five games.
LASORDA THE LEGEND
Many regard Lasorda as baseball’s most popular ambassador after he spent a remarkable 71 seasons as part of the Dodgers organization. He spent the last 14 as a special adviser to the chairman.
Lasorda was on hand to see his beloved Dodgers win the World Series last October in Arlington, Texas, against the Tampa Bay Rays. It was the first title for Los Angeles in 32 years.
“There are two things about Tommy I will always remember,” Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully told ESPN earlier this month. “The first is his boundless enthusiasm. Tommy would get up in the morning full of beans and maintain that as long as he was with anybody else.
“The other was his determination. He was a fellow with limited ability and he pushed himself to be a very good Triple-A pitcher. He never quite had that something extra that makes a major leaguer, but it wasn’t because he didn’t try.”
Smith’s brush with the larger-than-life Lasorda still resonates with him.
“I always tried to be a professional when it came to my job and I hardly ever asked the people I chauffeured about their personal lives,” Smith said. “Tommy was one of the exceptions, though. My pastor at the time was a huge Chicago Cubs fan and he asked me to get him an autographed picture of Lasorda. That’s one of the few times I actually did.
“I was really never much into baseball at the time. I followed football and basketball much closer, but after meeting Tommy, I did start to follow baseball more. I keep up with the Braves more so now, but getting to meet Tommy is still one of the best encounters I ever had.”
During that 1992 awards banquet in Johnson City, Lasorda learned that this area was primarily Atlanta Braves country.
Speaking to Johnson City Press sports writer Joe Avento, Lasorda quipped: “For those people here who aren’t Dodgers fans, I want to say this: They better be careful because if they’re not pulling for the Dodgers, there’s a good chance they may not get into heaven.”