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Sports >  Spokane Indians

John Blanchette: Tommy Lasorda always knew that a baseball life was a lucky life

UPDATED: Fri., Jan. 8, 2021

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

Before the grand old sports banquet was consigned to Spokane’s reliquary, Tommy Lasorda returned in February 1992 to regale the adults with a few gags in the evening and proselytize education to the teens at the afternoon.

The luncheon over, he ducked into a white limousine for the short crawl through traffic to his hotel on the other side of the river. Upon arrival, he found himself surrounded by 20 kids who had run – run – across the bridge to get his autograph and pose for pictures taken with cameras not built into phones.

Lasorda was 64 at the time.

He was two decades removed from managing the ball team here, and three years from pinch-hitting Kirk Gibson to win his last World Series.

The Hall of Fame wouldn’t ring his number for another five years. The Olympic gold medal was eight years away.

He had just shared the dais with the popular quarterback from this very city who just days earlier had been named Super Bowl MVP, and the personable decathlete who was the centerpiece of a Reebok ad campaign splashed all over the tube.

But they ran four blocks to meet Tommy Lasorda instead.

That gravitational pull did not dissipate until Thursday night, when a final heart attack, suffered at his home in Fullerton, California, brought his life to a close at age 93.

All of what made Lasorda Lasorda was the subject of toasts and tributes across the nation Friday, and most especially in Los Angeles where his romance with the Dodgers forever defined the franchise.

Spokane – the organization’s Triple-A affiliate from 1958-71 – was very much a Dodgers town, too. Not solely because of Lasorda, but he made sure of it.

“I came from the Yankees,” said Spokane’s Ed Fiskland, who pitched the last of his six minor league seasons here in 1971. “Right away he checked my veins and said, ‘There’d better be some Dodger blue in here or we can’t use you, son.’ ”

He was already apprenticing as baseball’s Pied Piper – only Spokane knew him as Tommy Lasorda before he was TOMMY LASORDA!

There was no Sinatra or Rickles to schmooze over linguine in his office at the Fairgrounds, but he never turned off the charm with the ticket-buyers. He struck up conversations and remembered names years later. He would rage at umpires and cheerlead from the third-base coaching box and chew out mistakes in the dugout – showmanship worth the price of admission on the nights his ball club wasn’t.

Which happened. He might have managed the best team in minor league history in 1970 – a disputed opinion, but an alumni group with 217 major league seasons, plus 18 All-Star and 22 World Series appearances speaks loudly. But his other two Indians teams in ’69 and ’71 were only OK. Yet he worked some magic with those, too.

Outfielder Jim Barbieri was in his seventh year in Spokane when Lasorda arrived, sensing the end of the line and coming off what he conceded were two subpar seasons. But the two had connected in 1960 at spring training, Lasorda’s last a Dodger farmhand, and the manager fought to keep Barbieri in Spokane rather than demote him to Double-A.

Then he did something else.

“He showed some respect to me – gave me some dignity,” recalled Barbieri, who made his home here. “He batted me fourth in the lineup. At no time in my career did I ever bat fourth. I wasn’t a power guy. But he wanted to show confidence in me – and so I wanted to do something to repay that. And I hit .300 that year.”

That made Barbieri – and Fiskland – anomalies of a sort.

“The Tommy Huttons of the world, the Ron Ceys and Steve Garveys and Bobby Valentines, they loved him,” Fiskland said. “It was the older guys who thought the rah-rah was phony and blew it off. Me? I was fighting to make the ball club. Whatever he said, I did. If I had to be his waiter, I’d bring him the plate.”

His guys were his guys. Valentine recalled Friday that when Lasorda was his manager in the Pioneer League, he had each player write his major league counterpart at each position – advising him that he was aiming to take his job.

But he also had the old-fashioned notion that a baseball life was a lucky one, something to be cherished – even in an era before the big money.

“We were on a bus in some city, heading to the ballpark and he saw a couple of guys on the curb, maybe homeless but at least down on their luck,” recalled Chuck Stewart, who covered Lasorda’s Indians teams for the Spokane Chronicle. “And he said, ‘There but for the grace of God go us.’ He never let guys forget it was a privilege to play the game.”

Holding court over meals at the Town & Country on Trent or Jack Louie’s on Division, Lasorda allowed that he was the luckiest of all – even before his big league break.

“The bite he took out of the apple,” Valentine said, “was a big bite.”

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