Mike Piazza and Tommy Lasorda (Jon SooHoo)

Tommy Lasorda passes and ascends to Dodger Heaven

Last seen in public at Game 6 of the 2020 World Series in Arlington, Texas, where he witnessed the Los Angeles Dodgers win their seventh World Championship title, National Baseball Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda passed away from cardiopulmonary arrest on January 7, 2021. The Dodger victory was Los Angeles’ first World Series championship since 1988, when Tommy Lasorda was manager. The beloved 93-year-old Italian American was a special advisor to the chairman of the Los Angeles Dodgers until his last breath and led the team to four league pennants and two world titles during his 20-plus year tenure as Dodger manager. Tommy Lasorda won the National League Manager of the Year Award in 1983 and 1988. He was later inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997.

Tommy Lasorda came out of retirement to manage Team USA and earn a gold medal in the 2000 Olympics. Team Italy softball manager Enrico Obletter, who will be leading the Italian National Senior Women’s Softball Team to the Olympics in July, recalled the moment he met the iconic baseball figure like it was yesterday. The Team Italy softball skipper said, “I clearly remember being with him in Sydney during the 2000 Olympics. He had just finished a game at the ballpark which was in the same complex in Blacktown as the softball stadium. I was in the grandstands, and here comes Tommy with his team still in uniform to cheer on the USA women’s softball team playing an important elimination game against China. Ever since Stacey Nuveman hit the game-winning three-run home run, I have never heard a man cheer and chant “USA, USA…” like Tommy. This was the essence of the man, the phenomenal coach, and proud American. But he was very proud of his parents' Abruzzese roots from Tollo in the province of Chieti. Tommy spoke some dialect with me that day, one I will never forget...”   

Indeed, Tommy Lasorda loved his Italian heritage. His father Sabatino Lasorda came to American shores from Abruzzo, Italy by way of Ellis Island. Tommy spoke proudly about his father. "He came here because his brothers were here, and he couldn't get any work over there.” Sabatino Lasorda arrived in Norristown, Pennsylvania and found a job driving a truck for a local rock quarry. Tommy would have ended up working at the quarry too had he not possessed a wicked curveball. Although Sabatino was not too excited about having his son’s career path in baseball, he preferred it over young Tommy’s first choice of boxing. Tommy’s lust for life was fueled by his father’s optimism. He reminisced, “My father used to come home from the quarry with his feet frostbitten. We, the children, would rub them to warm them up while he was telling us that we were living in the greatest country in the world. I'd say, 'But your feet are frozen.' And he'd say, 'What are frozen feet compared to all the happiness we've got?'"

It was in Pennsylvania, where Tommy grew up together with current Team Italy manager Mike Piazza’s father Vince Piazza. Their kindred friendship blossomed over the years, insomuch that the Dodgers legend was asked to serve as godfather to Mike's younger brother Tommy. When the 1988 MLB Draft approached and nobody took notice of Miami-Dade Community College first baseman Mike Piazza, Vince Piazza asked Tommy Lasorda to draft his son if no other team would. Tommy Lasorda convinced the Dodgers to take Mike Piazza in the 62nd round as a courtesy draft pick. When Mike Piazza was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2016, the 12-time MLB All-Star acknowledged Tommy Lasorda onstage for his belief in him and insistence that he belonged in Major League Baseball.

Tommy Lasorda was so very proud when Mike Piazza played for Team Italy in the 2006 World Baseball Classic and later coached the Azzurre squad to two European Baseball Championship titles. Tommy Lasorda made a point of giving inspirational speeches to Team Italy players in Florida and Arizona prior to competing in the World Baseball Classic. Most recently, Tommy Lasorda was overjoyed with emotions when Mike told him that he was the new manager for Team Italy. Tommy Lasorda also paid tribute to his Italian heritage by volunteering to conduct a baseball clinic abroad in the early eighties. He recalled, "In '81 or '82, the head of the Italian federation called me and asked what it would cost them to get the manager of the Dodgers to come over to Rome and talk to their coaches and managers and give clinics, I said: ‘Let me tell you something. Italy gave me the greatest gift that any man ever could receive. Italy gave me my father, Sabatino. I want to give something back to Italy, so you don't pay me 10 cents.' The guy couldn't talk for two minutes…” While in Italy, Tommy Lasorda was heralded in a parade in the birthplace of his father and the local baseball team was named after him in his honor.

Tommy Lasorda and Mike Piazza shared a common love for the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame (NIASHF) in Chicago, Illinois. Both baseball luminaries served as NIASHF spokesmen and emcees at the annual NIASHF Gala. The ever-popular Tommy Lasorda Open Golf Tournament has been one of the most important fundraisers for the nonprofit organization for the last 13 years. In addition to their great work for the NIASHF, Tommy Lasorda and Mike Piazza have been longtime supporters of the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF) in Washington, DC. It was most appropriate that Mike Piazza presented Tommy Lasorda with the NIAF Lifetime Achievement Award in Sports Management at the NIAF West Coast Gala on May 19, 2011. Regarded by many as baseball's most popular ambassador, Italian American Tommy Lasorda will be sorely missed by all baseball lovers after spending 71 seasons in the Dodger organization with Dodger Blue running through his veins. Forza #Italia!

by Roberto Angotti