Lasorda’s death brings coda to our Dodgers era

On Friday night, hours after news of Tommy Lasorda’s death began making headlines around the baseball world, I sat at the bar at Bobby’s Restaurant & Lounge, hoping to hear stories about the former Los Angeles Dodgers manager’s annual spring-training stays in our community.

“This,” said Bobby McCarthy, the Ocean Drive establishment’s owner, “was Tommy’s place in Vero.”

From the restaurant’s opening in 1981 until the Dodgers deserted us nearly 13 years ago, Lasorda could be found somewhere around the Bobby’s bar several nights each week, February through March, socializing with friends and entertaining everyone with what felt like a lounge act.

Dodgers players, coaches and other members of the team’s staff would frequent the place, too, along with umpires and sports writers – a regular gathering that also attracted fans thrilled to have the opportunity to mingle with our small town’s annual big-league guests.

“This place became the Dodgers’ hangout,” McCarthy said, “but Tommy was always on center stage.”

That stage, however, went dark on St. Patrick’s Day 2008, when the Dodgers moved their spring-training operations to Arizona, ending what was a mostly wonderful, 61-year marriage between team and town.

Lasorda, who died of heart failure at age 93 at his home in Fullerton, Calif., hadn’t been back since – not to Bobby’s, not to Vero Beach – and not many folks here, it seems, missed him.

Not once during my Friday night visit to Bobby’s did I hear anyone mention Lasorda’s name, even as reports of his passing scrolled along the bottom of the TV screens around the crowded bar.

There were no nostalgia-filled stories, no heartwarming toasts, nothing.

The buzz around the bar was of the insurrection at the Capitol, COVID-19 and the vaccine, and Tom Brady taking the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the NFL playoffs.

The only evidence that Lasorda had ever spent time at Bobby’s were photographs of the Dodgers’ Hall-of-Fame manager hanging on the walls.

“The Dodgers aren’t front-page news around here anymore,” McCarthy said in a matter-of-fact tone. “They’ve been gone a long time.”

That became obvious Sunday, when I drove out to the Major League Baseball-run Jackie Robinson Training Complex, which occupies the once-hallowed grounds that longtime Vero Beach residents still refer to as Dodgertown.

As I cruised through the campus, a jarring realization hit me – not one flag was flying at half-staff.
Not the flag waving in the breeze behind the center-field wall at Holman Stadium, where some type of baseball game was being played. Not even the flag hanging from a pole along Tommy Lasorda Lane.

Surely, the man affectionately dubbed the “Mayor of Dodgertown” deserved better.

Lasorda’s connection to Vero Beach dated back to 1949, when he was a 21-year-old minor-league pitcher for the then-Brooklyn Dodgers. He would spend 59 of the next 60 baseball springs – as a player, coach and manager – at Dodgertown.

“Tommy started out there as a player, four to a room in the old barracks, where there were no toilets, telephones or television sets in the room,” former Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley said, referring to the Naval Air Station that became the team’s spring-training base in 1948.

“So, he understood Dodgertown from Day 1, and he saw everything develop,” O’Malley added. “He also saw how the people in Vero Beach embraced the Dodgers and being an extraordinary communicator, he developed a connection with them. He enjoyed the interaction with the community, and it became a two-way street.

“Tommy used to tell me Dodgertown was his favorite place on Earth, and I really believe it was.”

By the time Lasorda replaced Walt Alston as the Dodgers’ manager late in the 1976 season, Vero Beach already had earned recognition as America’s quintessential spring-training town.

But Lasorda’s 21-year reign took the relationship to another level.

“That was such a special, feel-good time,” said Craig Callan, who spent most of his 40-year career at Dodgertown as its general manager. “You had a great owner in Peter O’Malley, a legendary broadcaster in Vin Scully and a one-of-a-kind manager in Tommy Lasorda.

“The Dodgers looked forward to coming to Vero Beach for spring training, and Vero Beach looked forward to them coming back every year,” he added. “It was like Camelot, and Tommy played a leading role.

“When I think about it now, it’s like turning on a radio and the station is playing all your favorite old songs.”

Even after Lasorda retired from managing in 1996 – he suffered a heart attack 77 games into the season – he remained a spring-training fixture at Dodgertown, riding around in a golf cart, chatting with fans and serving as the Dodgers’ ambassador to the world.

In fact, Lasorda briefly came out of retirement in March 2008 to manage the Dodgers in their last eight Grapefruit League games, including their memorable Dodgertown finale, while then-manager Joe Torre took most of the team’s starters to play an exhibition series in China.

It was a lousy way for the Dodgers to go out, cutting short their final spring in Vero Beach, but Lasorda’s presence made a tough time more palatable. He received a standing ovation from the heartbroken-but-appreciative crowd at the final game.

“Tommy was a once-in-a-lifetime manager,” O’Malley said of Lasorda, who won eight National League West titles, four National League pennants and two World Series championships before being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997, then adding an Olympic gold medal in 2000.

“He had so many friends in the sports and entertainment worlds, and they’d come to Dodgertown to see him,” he added. “Ted Williams, Perry Como, Danny Kaye … It’s a long list.”

McCarthy recalled one particular trip to Los Angeles to see Lasorda, who invited him to sit in his box for a 1981 World Series game. Also sitting in that box? Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

“Tommy was good for baseball,” McCarthy said. “He knew a lot of people, and he loved to schmooze. The only thing he loved more than baseball was being a Dodger.”

For those who don’t know, Lasorda pitched for the Dodgers in 1954 and ’55 but lost his roster spot to a promising prospect named Sandy Koufax and was traded to the Kansas City Athletics in 1957.

Koufax, who has owned a home in Indian River Shores since the 1980s, went on to become an all-time great.

Lasorda, who was 0-4 with a 6.48 ERA in 26 games across three major league seasons, returned to the Dodgers in 1958, eventually moved into coaching and managing, and followed a different road to Cooperstown.

“Everybody remembers Tommy as being fiery, funny, never dull, the life of the party – and he was all those things,” Callan said. “But the people who really knew him and who saw him when the show was over and the camera lights were off, we saw another side.

“Tommy was a very thoughtful and caring person who had a good heart,” he added. “He did a lot of good things for people, including people here. He loved Vero Beach and had a special connection to this place.”

This place, however, isn’t the same, which probably explains why the flags at City Hall, Memorial Island and Sexton Plaza were flying at full staff, too.

Thousands of new neighbors have moved into our community in the 13 years since the Dodgers moved out. And many of those who remembered Dodgertown’s heyday – including fans whose Dodgers roots went back to Brooklyn – are no longer with us.

“Really, it hasn’t been the same since the O’Malleys sold the team in ’98,” McCarthy said. “The mystique disappeared. There was a different feel.

“Then, after the team moved to Arizona, that was it,” he added. “Nobody talks about the Dodgers anymore.”

That’s understandable.

But Tommy Lasorda – the beloved “Mayor of Dodgertown” – died last week. That should still be flag-lowering news in Vero Beach.

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