To all that Tommy Lasorda has been called in the last two days, add this: He was a matchmaker between two sets of people that really did like each other.
Upon the news of Lasorda’s death Friday at age 93, John Traub was quick to remind that the Hall of Fame manager was the main actor in reuniting this city and his beloved Los Angeles Dodgers.
The short version: The Albuquerque Dukes franchise that Lasorda managed to a Pacific Coast League title in 1972 had been sold and left after 2000. No Triple-A baseball graced the Duke City in 2001 and 2002 before the shiny new Isotopes franchise came to play in a shiny new Isotopes Park in 2003.
At spring training in 2006, Traub, then as now the Isotopes general manager (he since has added the title of vice president), ran into Lasorda in Vero Beach, Fla. With the Isotopes planning to host the 2007 Triple-A All-Star Game, Traub wanted Lasorda to bring his larger-than-his-midsection personality and countless funny stories to be the keynote speaker at the All-Star Game luncheon. Traub sweetened the offer by making Lasorda the first inductee to the Albuquerque Pro Baseball Hall of Fame, which is a franchise project.
“He committed to doing it, we exchanged phone numbers and we talked a few times,” Traub said Friday. Soon, Lasorda visited Isotopes Park, at the same site he used to manage the Dukes at what was the Albuquerque Sports Stadium. Or we should say, the same footprint, but made by much, much nicer footwear.
Lasorda then “went back and told (the Dodgers), ‘we need to be in Albuquerque,'” Traub recalled Friday.
That started the old 108-stitch ball rolling, because Lasorda’s influence upon the Dodgers continued well past his retirement as a manager, his role primarily as adviser and ambassador.
It worked well. Name any other Hall of Famer, particularly one who wasn’t a star player, more readily identifiable with just one baseball franchise in its history. I’ll wait.
Anyway, that brought the Dodgers back for six more fun years (2009-14) in Albuquerque, where from here, it looks a plurality of fans still call Los Angeles their favorite team.
Lasorda made his speech at the 2007 All-Star Game, was here when the Isotopes announced Tim Wallach as manager for the 2009 season, and made appearances three times a season, Traub estimates, to be with his extended Dodgers family.
Whether at early batting practice, speaking to the crowd before first pitch, signing countless autographs and posing for countless photos, or getting to know players, many of whom wouldn’t make it to the big leagues, he became as familiar as a favorite piece of furniture – if furniture could entertain.
His stories were legendary, if often retold. A quick search of Journal archives reveal three of our reporters relayed this one:
“When I was here (in 1972), I tell people, if they dropped a bomb on the middle of Downtown, it wouldn’t have done $40 worth of damage,” would go Lasorda’s account – never accounting, apparently, for inflation. He’d then add how Albuquerque has grown and beautified.
We will miss Tommy dearly. We’re grateful that he was such a wonderful ambassador for the city, dating back to 1972 when he was the Dukes’ first Triple-A manager through the Isotopes’ affiliation with the Dodgers. He loved Albuquerque. RIP Tommy, you are a legend. pic.twitter.com/u8OCZEsace
— Albuquerque Isotopes (@ABQTopes) January 8, 2021
“Obviously you can say anything about his being a baseball ambassador, but he was just as enthusiastic, and as real in private, at dinner, when I was driving him somewhere,” Traub said.
Alas, if we need a passing to remind us, nothing lasts forever. At a certain point, Dodgers ownership (at least a faction thereof) decided it wanted to own its Triple-A team. This one wasn’t for sale, and now the World Series champions call their Triple-A home Oklahoma City.
And since 2015, the Isotopes are with the Colorado Rockies in a marriage that seems more pragmatic, if not as romantic.
The stories about, and told by, Lasorda, could fill a Journal sports page of course. One of Traub’s favorites centers on a 2010 Isotopes game, before which Lasorda spoke to the crowd from the mound. Predictably, he talked a lot and ran long, which for some reason makes nervous those who put on baseball games.
In the meantime, Joyful Noise, a red-and-white clad women’s chorus assigned to sing the national anthem, was set up near the backstop and ready to begin singing as soon as Lasorda stopped talking.
And when he did, they did. But instead of walking off the field, he walked over to them, positioned himself front and center, and joined the chorus. There’s YouTube video of it – we will link to it below – in which you can’t see him but you definitely can hear him.
Operatic he’s not, but he sings loudly, proudly, making a joyful noise that distinctly was Tommy Lasorda’s.