Lasorda honored for selfless service

Lasorda honored for selfless service

DENVER -- When the Rotary Club of Denver decided to celebrate 15 years of its Branch Rickey Award for unselfish community service by handing out its first Lifetime Community Service Achievement Award, it chose a recipient that helped complete the circle of service that is Rickey's lasting legacy.

Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda was presented with the 15th Branch Rickey Award on Saturday, along with the lifetime achievement award. Lasorda's off-field commitment to charitable work is a direct reflection of the impact that Rickey made on Lasorda when the latter was a prospect in the Dodgers camp in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

"This is a special award for me, because I knew the man, I idolized the man, I respected him very highly and he stood tall in life," Lasorda said before Saturday's ceremony. "You'll never see another one like him. He was in a class by himself."

Best remembered for working with Jackie Robinson to break baseball's color barrier, Rickey was also an innovator in the game, developing the first farm systems while with the Cardinals and the first Spring Training facilities while with the Dodgers. His accomplishments earned him the distinction of the "No. 1 Most Influential Person in Sports in the 20th Century," an honor given him by ESPN SportsCentury.

"Branch Rickey was the most brilliant baseball man I've ever encountered," Lasorda said. "He was a tremendous believer. He was a visionary. When he brought Jackie Robinson into baseball, he knew there was going to be a lot of people who didn't like it. It didn't worry him. He knew what he had to do, and he did it. He was a dynamic leader. He was a great orator. He could speak and motivate you like you've never seen in your life."

Lasorda has spent 57 years in the Dodgers organization, and this award recognizes that he, too, is in Rickey's class, maintaining the legacy of humanitarianism, service and motivation that Rickey established with the storied franchise.

Lasorda's accomplishments on the field -- two World Series championships, four National League pennants and eight division titles -- earned him a place in baseball's Hall of Fame. But it was his work off the field that was recognized with the Branch Rickey Award, bestowed each year on a baseball figure who is both an unselfish contributor to the community and a role model for young people.

"Lou Gehrig was my role model," Lasorda said, singling him out among the many players he looked up to as a youth. "Lou Gehrig, the Iron Man, he played all the time. You wanted to be like him. Not only was he a great player, but a tremendous competitor. A tremendous guy.

"I loved baseball players," he continued. "All I ever wanted to be was a baseball player. Nothing else. Nothing else ever entered my mind but to be a baseball player."

Times have certainly changed since Lasorda was a boy with dreams of pitching in Yankee Stadium. But, as he told a group of 16 boys and girls from Denver Kids -- a local mentoring program -- about making his own dream come true, it was clear that the role baseball figures can play in inspiring children remains a constant.

"When I first came into the big leagues, the Major League players were thrilled and honored to be a role model for the youngsters," he said. "But there's a lot of them that don't believe they should be a role model. A lot of the players today have agents that [keep them from] doing a lot of things they should be doing."

By the time Lasorda joined the Dodgers organization, Rickey was already an icon, and when Lasorda met him at Spring Training in 1949, it was an intimidating experience.

"You'd look at the bulletin board before you went to sleep to see what you were going to do the next day, and I looked on that bulletin board, and I saw 'Tommy Lasorda, report to Branch Rickey in the string area at eight o'clock in the morning,' " he recalled. "I couldn't sleep. I felt like I was having a meeting with the Pope. I was so nervous and excited that I was going to really be with him one on one."

Rickey got to know Lasorda that morning, asking him about his family while working with the pitching prospect on his curveball.

"He said, 'Go put your hat on home plate,' " Lasorda said, recalling one of Rickey's coaching techniques that first morning. "I put my hat on home plate. He said, 'I'll bet you a Coca-Cola you cannot hit that hat with two out of 10 curve balls.' I said, 'You're going to lose, Mr. Rickey.' I threw 10 curve balls, and I never hit the hat."

But the lesson was about getting his curve ball down, and Lasorda embraced the message, passing it on to his own players over his long career.

"I related that instance many, many times to pitchers that played for me," he said. "I carried his theories as a manager, things that I learned from him."

Lasorda's managerial style endeared him to his players and resulted in a 1,599-1,439 record over the course of his 20-year run at the helm of the Dodgers.

"There's only one Tommy Lasorda," said Brett Butler, who played under Lasorda and as a past recipient of the Rickey Award was in town to help honor his mentor Saturday. "When he goes, he'll leave a tremendous void, not only in baseball but in the world itself.

"Tommy is encouraging by nature," Butler added, noting that Lasorda's style has influenced him as he begins his second year of managing in the D-backs system. "It's contagious. Tommy was always there to encourage the players. He was always there to lift them up when they were down. He was there to get on them at times, but he was more of an encourager and more of a father/mentor, [saying], 'Hey, now you can do this, you're going to be fine.' I think a lot of times Tommy believed in the player more than the player did. And I think that's how at times he was able to motivate, to be such a tremendous motivational guy. That's why he's been successful."

After a heart attack forced his retirement as manager in 1996, Lasorda never missed a step, focusing his energy on giving back to his community while simultaneously serving as baseball's best-known goodwill ambassador.

"I built a convent for the Sisters of Mercy nuns in Nashville," he said, highlighting some of the accomplishments that have given him the most satisfaction. "My wife built an athletic center in Yorba Linda, California. I'm proud of those things. I'm proud of the Tommy Lasorda Heart Institute [at Centinela Hospital in Inglewood, Calif.]. I'm proud of the fact that I was able to marry a wonderful and tremendous person and we're now celebrating our 56th year of marriage. I think that's my greatest accomplishment."

Lasorda also takes pride when he looks back on that first Spring Training, in 1949.

"We had 780 players in Vero [Beach], 26 farm teams, 26 managers of those farm teams, the Major League manager," he said. "All the players, all the scouts, all the coaches, all the instructors, the president, the general manager -- I outlasted them all."

He is clearly the "Iron Man" of that class of 1949, and the class of his game, an enduring personification of placing service above self.

Owen Perkins is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.