LOS ANGELES -- Tommy Lasorda held his gravestone plaque and smiled.
"There she is," Lasorda said as casually as if he were introducing his wife. "I must be the only man who has his tombstone before he passes on."
As he placed it on his desk at his office inside Dodger Stadium, he looked down at the bronze plaque engraved with his picture, his name and a message: "Dodger Stadium was his address, but every ballpark was his home." Right below his name, his birth year of 1927 is engraved on a small plate and screwed onto the plaque. An empty space waits for a date Lasorda wants to delay as long as possible.
"I keep thinking, 'When is my time coming up?'" Lasorda said. "But I figure if I keep going out and speaking and traveling, maybe God doesn't know where I am. If he doesn't know where I am, he can't call me. I know he's been looking for me for years."
In September, Lasorda turned 88. After celebrating his birthday at Dodger Stadium, he traveled back east for the funerals of his older brother Eddie, who was 91, and his good friend and fellow Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, who was 90. Lasorda, however, doesn't dread the inevitable. He jokes about other plans he has for his grave site.
"I want my wife to put the Dodgers' schedule on my tombstone," Lasorda said. "When people are in the cemetery visiting their loved ones, they'll say, 'Let's go to Lasorda's grave and see if the Dodgers are playing today.'"
He then opened a drawer at his desk and pulled out a letter he wrote to God five years ago. In the note, typed on Dodgers letterhead, Lasorda thanks the Lord for his wife of 65 years, Jo, and for allowing them to dance "the dance of life."
"I thought about writing a letter to God years ago, and I finally sat down and did it," Lasorda said. "He never answered me back. But I'm still standing here, so maybe he did."
Lasorda's office sits above the third-base line at Dodger Stadium, inside the team's executive offices on the club level. It's a quaint shrine to his life and six decades in baseball. Nearly every inch of the walls is covered with photographs, letters and other memorabilia. They stretch from the ceiling down to a carpeted floor now filled with souvenirs and artifacts unable to be properly displayed because of a lack of room. Some photos rest on a table against a standard-definition television that hasn't been used in years.
"This is my life," Lasorda said as he stretched his arms out and looked around. "It's all right here in this room. It's all my friends and family. It's like a museum."
Point to any item on the wall or floor and it quickly leads to a story from Lasorda, who serves as special adviser to Dodgers owner Mark Walter. Lasorda has photos with every Republican president since Richard Nixon. "I also have one with Jimmy Carter," he said, pointing to a picture of Carter shaking his hand at a game. "He's the only Democrat up there."
There's a framed black-and-white picture of Gerald Ford holding a book, gazing into the distance. The 38th president sent it to Lasorda as a gift after the Dodgers won the World Series in 1988. Years later, someone pointed out to Lasorda that the book Ford is holding in the image is "The Artful Dodger," which Lasorda co-wrote in the mid-'80s. "This thing was up here for years, and I never knew that," Lasorda said. "I never looked at it that closely. I just figured it was a nice picture."
When he was the Dodgers' manager from 1976 to 1996, the walls of his clubhouse office quickly filled with more autographed photos than a Hollywood restaurant. In his current office of approximately 200 square feet, which he has used for around 15 years, there are photos of him with Muhammad Ali, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, John Wooden, Magic Johnson, Vin Scully, Sparky Anderson and countless others.
"These are all my friends," Lasorda said. "These are guys that I've played with and guys that I've played against and people I've gotten to know over the years. I think about where I started and where I landed, and I look at all these pictures and I realize how fortunate I've been to meet people like these and call them my friends."
Behind his desk, Lasorda displays 11 honorary doctoral degrees he has received from universities at which he has given commencement speeches. "Not bad for a guy who has no education," said Lasorda, who was drafted into the army in 1945 after he left high school and never attended college. "My dad always said, 'You gotta go to school,' and I would say, 'Pop, I don't want to go to school. I want to play baseball.' If only he was alive to see this."
As Lasorda looked out his window toward the field, he recalled one of his first memories inside Dodger Stadium as a scout during the 1963 World Series, one year after the ballpark opened.
"We were up so high ... and I turned to my wife and I said, 'Do you see that dugout down there? One day, I'm going to be in that dugout as the manager of the Dodgers in the World Series,'" he said. "Well, 14 years later I was managing the Dodgers in that dugout. It was my home for 20 years, and this stadium is still my home today, almost 20 years after I retired from managing."
Two years before Lasorda became the Dodgers' manager in 1976, someone told him he already should have been managing the team. That baseball savant was Frank Sinatra.
Lasorda had crossed paths with Sinatra briefly before, but it wasn't until 1974, when Lasorda was the third-base coach of the Dodgers, that he developed a bond with his favorite singer. Lasorda's friend Pat Henry, the comedian, was opening up for Sinatra in Chicago and invited Lasorda to spend time with them at their hotel. Lasorda and Sinatra instantly hit it off, talking about everything from baseball to their favorite Italian dishes.
"He [Sinatra] said, 'When you do become the manager of the Dodgers, I'm going to come out and sing the national anthem for you. I've never done that for anyone else,'" Lasorda recalled. "The day I got the job, he called me and said, 'I told you I would sing if you became the manager, and I'm ready.' He sang on Opening Day, my first day as manager of the Dodgers. He opened up for me."
Sinatra occupies most of the real estate on the wall to the right of Lasorda's desk. There is an oil painting of Sinatra at a piano surrounded by pictures of the two of them together through the years. There's one of Lasorda kissing Sinatra on the cheek at a party, one of Sinatra visiting Lasorda in his office after a game and one of Sinatra, wearing a Dodgers hat, singing with Dean Martin. To the right is a photo of Sinatra kissing Lasorda's mother, Carmella, on the cheek after visiting her at her home in Norristown, Pennsylvania, for a home-cooked meal.
"When he got there," Lasorda said, "he knocked on the wrong door and he said, 'Mom Lasorda?' The lady who answered said she was next door, but everyone soon found out he was there and the streets were jammed and horns were blowing. She cooked him dinner, and he told her he wanted the same things that I got. She made him escarole and bean soup and our special peppers. He took care of my mom. He brought her to his show, he dedicated it to her, he gave her flowers, and that's the kind of man he was. He was a generous man, but if he didn't like you, look out."
Asked to select his favorite Sinatra song, Lasorda picked up a copy of his own biography, which was written by Colin Gunderson, his assistant of 12 years, and published earlier this year. Lasorda smiled as he pointed at the title -- "My Way" -- and started singing the opening lines of the song.
And now, the end is near and so I face the final curtain. My friend, I'll say it clear, I'll state my case, of which I'm certain. I've lived a life that's full, I've traveled each and every highway. Oh, and more, much more than this, I did it my way.
Lasorda must find room on his office wall for one more photo.
He held a black-and-white picture of his family that he found after his brother's funeral. Lasorda isn't sure what year it was taken ("I'm not good with years anymore") but figures he was about 30 years old in the photo. In the image, he sits on a couch beside his mother and father, Sabatino, and his four brothers, Eddie, Harris, Morris and Joseph.
"I want my wife to put the Dodgers' schedule on my tombstone. When people are in the cemetery visiting their loved ones, they'll say, 'Let's go to Lasorda's grave and see if the Dodgers are playing today.'"Tommy Lasorda
"We were the big five," Lasorda said. "And now we're the big four."
He asked his secretary for a frame for the photo. She obliged but reminded him there was no room on the walls for the picture.
"Don't worry about that," Lasorda said. "I'll find room."
As he looked up at the walls for a possible location, his eyes drifted back toward the field on which the Dodgers will play the New York Mets on Friday in Game 1 of the National League Division Series. Lasorda said he's "the most grateful and contented person in the world" but would like to see one more thing happen in his lifetime.
"I want to see a championship flag flying on that pole out there," he said, pointing to the outfield. "It better be this year because I'm getting closer, you know what I mean? It's getting to be day by day with me, and I want to see the Dodgers win before they put that tombstone to use."