by Larry Dierker
I didn’t know Tommy Lasorda was watching the worst game I pitched in high school. He was a Dodgers scout at the time (1964).
Had I known, I still wouldn’t have known that he was an outstanding pitcher in his day, who only missed his chance because the Dodgers signed a kid named Sandy Koufax and had to protect him on the major-league roster.
Years later, when Tommy came up to manage the Dodgers, he gave me a good-natured shot-across-the-bow. We were near the batting cage at Dodger Stadium.
“You shoulda pitched a good game against Birmingham. I was there, and you stunk it up,” he said. “You coulda been pitching for us.”
It was the only time the Dodgers sent a scout to see me that year. The Colt .45s saw me pitch the rest of the games, and they signed me to a generous bonus. The Dodgers signed Willie Crawford, another Los Angeles player. So it goes.
In 1988, the Dodgers drafted Mike Piazza in the 62nd round as a favor to Piazza’s father, one of Tommy’s friends. When the new recruit took batting practice at Dodger Stadium, he peppered the left field bleachers with home runs. Lasorda was peacock-proud. But the scout who watched him play first base at Miami Dade Community College was still unimpressed. He told Tommy that his friend’s son had a weak arm and was deadly slow afoot.
“What if he was a catcher?” Tommy asked. The scout said that would be a different story. Tommy said, “So, now he’s a catcher.” And what a story it turned out to be. All the way to the Hall of Fame.
When I was 30 years old and at the end of my pitching career, Tommy was 49 and just getting started. For 18 years, while I was broadcasting Astros games, Tommy would tweak me about the Birmingham game during batting practice. After the 1996 season, he retired and I started managing the Astros. I saw him occasionally during my five years at the helm. He was good- natured, but there was always a Birmingham dig in there somewhere.
Tommy often threw early batting practice when he was managing the team. What a smooth delivery he had! And what a textbook curveball. The hitters had some trouble with that pitch, even when he told them it was coming.
As an analyst on TV, I had a high regard for his managing. In a 22-inning game we played in the Astrodome, he had Fernando Valenzuela pitch in relief, or pinch-hit; I can’t remember. But then he left him in the game, and played him in left field and at first base. Fernando was a really good hitter. Third-baseman Jeff Hamilton pitched for them in that night and lost it, but was throwing 95 mph. Tommy made so many moves in those extra innings, it was hard to keep up with them on the scorecard. Masterful is what I would call it.
I know some of the Dodgers players during his years didn’t like the exorbitant hugging that was part of his “Dodgers Family,” Italian style. But there were none who doubted his faith in the team, what with the bleeding of Dodger Blue and all.
I didn’t like his act. Would have found it to be a bit much as a pitcher. He was certainly easy for opponents to hate, prancing around the infield like a pregnant duck.
But what a character! He was wildly entertaining as a speaker. And I ended up with fond feelings for him in the end. He aged, gracefully but still aggressively. He was a baseball original. And that species is becoming rare.
I wonder how my life would have changed if I had pitched well against Birmingham and played for my hometown team?