Lasorda helped shape Baker as manager

January 9th, 2021

HOUSTON -- Astros manager Dusty Baker was in his wine cellar at his home near Sacramento, Calif., early Friday when his daughter called to inform him of the death of Tommy Lasorda, his longtime manager with the Dodgers. Baker had known Lasorda was ill for a while, but that didn’t make the news any easier to digest.

“Tommy was a guy -- he loved life, he loved baseball, he loved his family,” Baker said. “He used to talk about the ‘Big Blue Dodger in the Sky,’ and now he is with him.”

Lasorda, the Hall of Fame manager who died Thursday night at age 93, led the Dodgers from 1976-96, which covered nearly the entire span of Baker’s playing career in Los Angeles. Baker was traded from the Braves before the ’76 season, with Lasorda pleading for him to be a Dodger, and was part of the ’81 team that won the World Series title.

“It’s real hard,” Baker said. “I thought he had beaten death again because he came out of the hospital [Tuesday]. That was something positive. My daughter calls me this morning and she tells me she heard on the news Tommy had died, so I have been getting calls all morning. Boy, we ended the year and we start the year with death. … I know damn near all of them and knew them well.”

It has been a rough past year, with seven Hall of Famers passing away in 2020 -- Lou Brock, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Al Kaline, Whitey Ford, Joe Morgan and Phil Niekro. Baker was also friends with Astros legends Jimmy Wynn and Bob Watson, both of whom died in early 2020, and last year also mourned former big leaguers and friends Jay Johnstone and Claudell Washington.

“It makes you appreciate life and what you have and to take care of those that you love around you,” said Baker, 71.

Baker, who went 29-31 in his first year as manager of the Astros in 2020 and came within a win of reaching the World Series, spent his first eight seasons in the Major Leagues with the Braves (1968-75). In a game against the Dodgers late in his Atlanta tenure, Baker was standing on third base when Lasorda -- then the Dodgers’ third-base coach -- told him he would look good in Dodger Blue.

Sure enough, the Dodgers traded for Baker and Ed Goodson on Nov. 17, 1975, sending Lee Lacy, Tom Paciorek, Jerry Royster and Wynn to the Braves. Baker scuffled in his first year with the Dodgers, hitting .242 with four homers in ’76, but Lasorda’s confidence in him never wavered.

“I fell on my face,” Baker said. “The first year, I had a bad, bad, bad injury to my knee playing basketball, and I was a center fielder when I got there. Then they trade for Rick Monday and Reggie Smith. The only spot left was left field, and it was between me, Lee Lacy [who had been traded back to L.A.] and John Hale. I hit four home runs that year. I had a home run my first game and I didn’t hit another one until [July 15].

“Tommy told the world that I was his left fielder. He got a lot of criticism for it, which taught me when I stick my neck out for a player I think can play, I learned that from Tommy. When I bring in food for the players, I learned that from Tommy. That brought us all together. Tommy was ultimate positive thinker. I learned that from Tommy and my dad. He saved my career, actually, because that year he stuck his neck out for me, I hit 30 home runs [in 1977], we went to the playoffs.”

Then came the time Lasorda called Baker into his office before the start of the regular season and informed him he was being traded to the Indians. It was a shot in the gut for Baker, who was from Southern California and had blossomed into a popular player in Los Angeles.

“I almost cried,” Baker said. “I said, ‘No, man, not Cleveland.’ Back then, it wasn’t Cleveland like it is now. They played in that old stadium where the Cleveland Browns played. That was like the Siberian front back then. He told me I had been traded to Cleveland. I was like, ‘Man, I don’t believe it.’ He said, ‘You know what day it is?’ I said, ‘No, what day is it? April 1st.’ He said, ‘April Fool’s!’ I said, ‘That ain’t no good April Fool’s joke!’”

It’s those kinds of moments and relationships that Lasorda built with his players that Baker carried into his managerial career, which has spanned five teams in 23 seasons and 1,892 wins, which is 293 more than the 1,599 games Lasorda won while managing the Dodgers.

“He always made sure we had food, he knew everybody’s wife and he knew everybody’s child, which is the one thing I missed last year of not meeting the families,” Baker said. “I never felt so removed from a family atmosphere [in 2020 because of the pandemic] like I’ve always had since Tommy was there.”

Baker hadn’t spoken to Lasorda in a few months, but knew his former skipper was in declining health. The call from his daughter prompted Baker to break out a pair of bottles of Lasorda Family Wine that a mutual friend had given him just a few days before. He planned to lift in a glass in honor of Lasorda while eating some pasta with his family Friday night -- a meal that would have made his former manager proud.

“I told my wife we’re going to have some Italian food tonight -- some pasta for Tommy,” he said. “I know that was his favorite, and drink some of his wine.”