LOS ANGELES (AP) — Tom Lasorda sat down on the dugout bench in his No. 2 white jersey as the media closed in on him for a pregame chat. His piercing blue eyes were clear and he spoke with the same strident tone.
Yet there were signs that 15 years had indeed passed since he managed the Los Angeles Dodgers. The uniform fit a lot more snugly and his hair had turned pure white.
But one thing hasn’t changed: Lasorda’s desire to win another game.
“I want to manage,” he said. “I got 1,599 wins. Win this one and we’ll be 1,600. It’s very, very important to me.”
Actually, he was back on the bench Thursday night as an honorary coach under rookie manager Don Mattingly in a game against the San Francisco Giants, a gesture extended by the team on Lasorda’s 84th birthday.
“It feels great,” Lasorda said. “This is something I never thought, never dreamed it would happen and it happened. I’m so grateful. My family’s enthused about it. All my friends are calling me from all over the country. I didn’t think I was that much missed.”
Lasorda retired in 1996 as one of just five major league managers to guide the same team for 20 years or more. His tenure included two World Series titles, four National League pennants and eight division titles.
The Dodgers haven’t been back to the World Series since their 1988 title under Lasorda, whose office used to overflow with pasta and red sauce after games.
He’s is in his 62nd season with the franchise and currently serves as special adviser to team owner and chairman Frank McCourt.
Lasorda got dressed at his own locker between Juan Uribe and Jerry Sands in a corner of the clubhouse. Standing nearby, slugger Matt Kemp took one look at Lasorda in full regalia.
“I got to swag you out,” Kemp said, reaching over to unbutton the top of Lasorda’s white jersey.
During batting practice, Lasorda and Mattingly leaned on the cage talking.
Occasionally they were interrupted by a member of the Giants organization who embraced Lasorda.
“(Giants manager Bruce) Bochy said, `Yeah, let him manage. I’ll outsmart him,”‘ Lasorda said. “Tell Bochy I’m in the Hall of Fame.”
Asked what Lasorda’s duties would be, Mattingly said, “Tommy’s going to do whatever he wants. He’s always talking, cheering and rooting on guys.”
Mattingly, however, said he had already made out the lineup.
I got it done before he got here so he couldn’t change it,” he said, smiling. “He wanted (Clayton) Kershaw to go again.”
Lasorda’s return to the dugout came nearly 35 years to the day that he took over as manager from Walter Alston on Sept. 29, 1976.
Heading into the Dodgers’ last home game of a rocky season for the franchise that declared bankruptcy in June, Mattingly had guided the team to a 77-77 record.
“I’m impressed with his patience,” Lasorda said. “If I were in the same situation, I would have meetings where they could hear me in Long Beach.
“He’s going through a tough, tough year. My first year we were in the World Series. My second year we were in the World Series again.”
Since his retirement, Lasorda has been back on the bench three times officially.
At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, he managed the U.S. team to a gold medal over Cuba. He was an honorary coach at the 2001 All-Star Game in Seattle, and in 2008, he managed the Dodgers during spring training for eight games while then-manager Joe Torre traveled with part of the team to China for a goodwill tour.
First baseman James Loney was looking forward to sharing the dugout with Lasorda, who typically sits nearby in a third-row seat of McCourt’s box.
“I’m going to try to get him thrown out of the game,” Loney said playfully. “I remember in spring training he took up for me on a close play.”
During his career, Lasorda was known for his fiery temperament and run-ins with umpires.
“If they show me they don’t know what they’re doing,” he said, “I’ll have to tell them.”
At that, he cut off the questioning. Lasorda moved carefully through the throng, his rotund figure slowly climbing the dugout steps.
“I got to go out and look at my hitters,” he said. “I want to see who’s good and who isn’t.”