Bob Smithson has fond memories of Tommy Lasorda.
Even if those memories involve being on the receiving end of Lasorda’s acerbic wit.
Lasorda, the legendary Los Angeles Dodgers coach, passed away last Thursday at the age of 93. And Smithson, a former baseball coach at Cascade High School, shared his first-hand accounts of Lasorda when Smithson was a minor-league pitcher.
“It’s a big loss for baseball,” Smithson said when reached in Blaine, where he relocated last year. “He was bigger than life with the way he lived and functioned. I always followed him.”
Lasorda managed the Dodgers from 1976-96, leading L.A. to the World Series championship in 1981 and 1988 and being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1997. But in 1965 Lasorda was an unknown first-year minor-league manager with the Pocatello Chiefs of the rookie Pioneer League.
Smithson coached Cascade from 1987-2000, guiding the Bruins to state runners-up finishes in 1993 and 1994, while helping develop the likes of future major-league All-Star Grady Sizemore as well as draft picks like Rob Pugmire, Mike Wetmore and Trevor Cobb. But in 1965 he was a 19-year-old right-hander who’d just been drafted by California in the 17th round out of Everett Community College, with his first assignment being to the Pioneer League’s Idaho Falls Angels.
At the time the Pioneer League was a four-team circuit with the teams facing one another 22 times a season, so Smithson saw a lot of Lasorda’s colorful personality and feistiness.
“I didn’t know who Tommy Lasorda was, he was just a guy managing the other team,” said Smithson, who added that he never suspected Lasorda would go on to become an icon. “But he had a real presence. Every time one of his big dogs got up to the plate he’d get to the top of the dugout and say, ‘Hey Hollowell, it’s going to be you and me next year in Dodger Stadium.’ He was just really something.”
Even though Smithson’s stats from that year weren’t impressive (2-6, 4.98 ERA), he had his share of success against Pocatello, and that drew the attention of Lasorda.
“I came into a game late in relief, and they had runners on first and second and their catcher Buddy Hollowell was at the plate,” Smithson recounted. “There were two outs and I struck him out.
“The next night I was coaching first base and Lasorda yells at me, ‘Hey Smithson, how does a guy who’s 19 years old with a 40-year-old body pitch in the minor leagues?’ I admit I was a bad-bodied guy. I was just laughing with my shoulders bouncing, but I wasn’t going to turn and face him, even though he was all over me.”
Smithson was also in the dugout when Lasorda’s antics incited a bench-clearing brawl.
“It was at our house in Idaho Falls and Lasorda is coaching third,” Smithson remembered. “A foul ball came bouncing to Lasorda and he fields it, looks at it and whips a BB into our dugout, right by me, and the ball ricochets off the wall, the floor and around the dugout.
“Our manager was Fred Koenig, a big 6-foot-3 guy with Popeye forearms. He looks at him and asks, ‘What the hell are you doing Lasorda?’ Lasorda said he was throwing the ball out and Fred says, ‘You can’t do that, that’s the umpire’s job.’ Lasorda replied, ‘I can do anything I want to Fred.’ Then as Fred goes out to talk to him Lasorda comes out of nowhere and pops Fred on the chin.
“Well, Fred had caught batting practice for us that morning and a foul tip broke the tip of his pinkie. Fred just pulled the cast off his finger and starts chasing Lasorda to second base, then first base, and the last I saw they were in the outfield as both benches emptied and went at it.”
While Lasorda and the Angels had their run-ins, Smithson also remembers Lasorda saying good things about him as a pitcher, telling Koenig that Smithson reminded him of former major-leaguer Burleigh Grimes. So Smithson’s memories of Lasorda are positive ones.
“He had great compassion for the game, great knowledge of the game, and he was a tough nut who wouldn’t take any baloney from his players,” Smithson said. “He was one of the best ambassadors for baseball around.”