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JIM BURTON: Rest in peace, Tommy Lasorda

OGDEN — I became a Los Angeles Dodgers fan fairly late in life. In fact, you could probably accuse me of being a bandwagon jumper (I’m wincing just a little as I type the words). 

When the Kirk Gibson hit his famous home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to beat the Oakland A’s in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, it was easily one of the craziest things I’d ever seen in sports.

I was already a serious baseball fan, but Gibson’s homer was just so astonishing — so exhilarating — I fell in love with Kirk, the Dodgers and famous manager Tommy Lasorda right then and there. I’ve never looked back. For me, the truly amazing thing was being able to talk to Lasorda about that game, and that moment.

See, years later our paths crossed when I was working as a sports writer for the Standard-Examiner newspaper in Ogden. My assignment was to cover the Ogden Raptors, who were one of the Dodgers’ minor league affiliates. I did it for 10 seasons; it was the best work assignment I ever had. 

By that time Mr. Lasorda, who died Friday at the age of 93, had retired from managing and became an ambassador for not only his beloved Dodgers, but for Major League baseball itself. I got the sense Tommy had managing in his blood, but of even greater importance was his pure love of the game . . . and being able to talk about it to anyone who’d listen. 

I always listened. The attached photo of Tommy and me (I swear we didn’t coordinate the yellow shirts, it just happened) was taken when I was covering the Raptors. Lasorda, who managed the Ogden Dodgers from 1966-68, loved to come back to Utah whenever possible.

That’s how I got to know him a little bit. One thing I learned as a sportswriter is that we never really know these famous sports figures. I suppose I can’t say for sure whether Tommy was a truly great human being or just a great character. He was aware of his image, and was careful to maintain it.

But I know one thing: he loved people. He really enjoyed talking to fans, especially the young ones. He saw himself as a baseball diplomat and he was always trying to build the brand, so to speak.

Tommy also loved to make people laugh, which of course made me feel like we were kindred spirits. He was a brilliant storyteller, and depending on his audience, he could spin the same yarn with or without four-letter words. I remember him telling me a story about his days managing in Ogden. He and I were sitting in the Raptors’ clubhouse (that’s when this photo was taken), and he peppered the story with some hilariously colorful language. Hours later I heard him on a local radio show telling the same story with every bit as much feeling, but without any of the locker room language.

I was amazed.I’m not sure how many will remember this, but many years ago — when many of us were teenagers — Tommy did TV commercials for a weight-loss drink mix called “Slim Fast.” He lost a lot of weight using the stuff, but I think it came back.

Anyway, one time when I had the privilege of sitting around the clubhouse with him, I said with a straight face, “Tommy, I’ve always wanted to tell you how much I loved your Slim Fast commercials.”
“Did you really use that stuff,” he asked with a laugh.”Yeah, I did,” I said. “I used to pour it over a couple scoops of vanilla ice cream as an after-school snack. It was delicious!”

Tommy roared with laughter, which of course put me in the stratosphere for days. I kept thinking to myself, “I really made Tommy Lasorda crack up!”

That moment remains one of my favorites from more than 25 years of covering sports in Utah.
RIP, Tommy. I hope they have Slim Fast in heaven . . . and ice cream, too. 

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