Tommy Lasorda was parked in the middle of the Dodgers home clubhouse one afternoon, his head tilted over as if exhausted, his eyes cloudy. Players, coaches, clubbies and media slid past his scooter, this way and that, some dragging a hand over a narrow, hunched shoulder, some greeting him, “Tommy!”, as they passed.
He was a dry stone in a shallow, hard-running creek. His eyes and a small smile said hello back. That was about all he had to give that day. And still he was there, among them, hours before another baseball game in another season, almost too many to count.
“Timmy,” he whispered.
“Hey Tom. How ya doin’ today?”
“I gotta ask you something,” he said.
“Where do you think we go?” he asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “Go.”
He flitted his eyebrows to the ceiling.
He’d passed 90 years of this a summer or two before. The man I remembered, in uniform, eyes burning, legs bowed, finger in your chest, words hard and unyielding, this was still him. He’d always be that guy. He’s that guy today.
That afternoon, though, that question, melted me. Dying isn’t losing. Dying is having lived. Man, did Tommy Lasorda live. Every day of it, every inch of it. And still it had never occurred to me he’d consider anything other than kickin’ ass and takin’ names and laughing hard. Even as his body failed him, stuck in this damned scooter, reaching for an arm to help him up when 50,000 Dodgers fans stood and shouted his name, when he’d stand and wave, the very symbol of bad-assery, Tommy Lasorda wouldn’t think of losing, of going anywhere, of backing up.
About a year after that, he’d traveled to Milwaukee to watch the Dodgers play Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. When they won and celebrated afterward, Tommy was there again, this time on his feet. He wore a brand new blue Dodgers jacket and gray cap and a plastic poncho. Goggles were strapped to his head. There was Champagne and beer and cigars. Players sang songs and hugged and laughed hard. They were going to the World Series. Maybe they’d measure up to one of those Lasorda teams they were always hearing about from forever ago, those teams that were great and also played like somebody’d touched their souls with a match.
Tommy watched from the center of the room. Players doused him. He wouldn’t move, wouldn’t flinch, wouldn’t raise his arms, but only smile. He was a part of it. A part of it still. An hour passed, then part of another, and gradually the room cleared out. Players went to get something to eat or to shower and find dry clothes. They’d wrung themselves out on the baseball and then in honoring it, and clubbies began removing the plastic sheets protecting lockers.
In a puddle that reached his shoelaces, Tommy hadn’t moved. Still in his foul weather gear, still in his goggles, he stared straight ahead in a quiet room.
“How ya doin’, Tom?” I asked.
For a moment, I thought he hadn’t heard me. Shaded goggles hid his eyes.
“Tom?” I said.
He turned his head maybe an inch.
“Tired,” he rasped.
A gentleman, his assistant, approached and asked if he wanted to get out of these wet clothes. Tommy nodded. They went off together, slowly, their feet squishing across the floor.
It reminded me again of that afternoon in Los Angeles, the time he’d asked me where I thought we go.
Not a crisis of faith. Not even a moment of despair. Just, here we are, here he is, all that living, all that winning, some losing, and sometimes a guy just gets tired. Sometimes a guy has questions. Sometimes it feels good to talk it out, if only to hear your own voice again, to know it’s there, still living and winning and losing.
So I thought about that. Where do we go.
“I don’t really know, Tom,” I said. “But how about we make a deal?”
He held his gaze.
“Uh-huh,” he said.
“When you get there,” I said, “how’s about you send back word?”
As the world rushed past, whispering its hellos and grazing his shoulders with gentle hands, Tommy lifted his head and began to laugh.
“Send back word,” he repeated and then pointed a crooked forefinger at my chest, mustering that gravelly air horn that once shook every room he’d walked into. “Oh, I’ll send back word all right.”
We laughed together. I told him to take care of himself, to take care of Jo, that I’d see him later.
“All right,” he said.
And as I walked away, I heard him again.
“Send back word. Hah.”
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