According to Lasorda's 'Gospel,' pennant won in spring
Dodgers legend emphasized importance of unity, confidence in Spring Training
So you want the essence of Spring Training?
Well, let's chat with an expert. His answering machine has Frank Sinatra singing -- what else -- "My Way," before a voice declares after the little beep, "Remember: If you don't pull for the Dodgers, there's a good chance you may not get into heaven."
Yep, Tommy Lasorda.
"You wait around all winter, and time goes slow, slow, slow. And then the first of January, it starts to speed up," said Lasorda, sounding decades younger than his 85 years over the phone. "Then before you realize it, you're back at again.
"Spring Training is where you develop every aspect of the game. You develop unity. You develop hard work. You develop self-confidence. You've got to make them believe they'll finish No. 1.
"You win the pennant in Spring Training."
Those words were straight from the Gospel of Lasorda, which began after his first Spring Training during World War II. He was several pasta dishes from the Church of Dodger Blue back then, because he was pitching in the Minor Leagues for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Said Lasorda, "We trained in Wilmington, Del., since nobody went to Florida due to the war. You talk about being cold."
Things warmed up in a hurry for Lasorda when he joined the Dodgers in the early 1950s as a player during their Brooklyn days. He became a coach and then a manager in the organization through the '60s and into the '70s, and that translates into a slew of Spring Trainings.
Which brings us back to the Gospel of Lasorda.
"When we went to Spring Training, we used to get in shape by running, throwing and hitting," Lasorda said. "But today, they've got trainers and these different ways to try to get you in condition, which I don't like. If you're a pitcher, you've got to do a lot of throwing. You've got to do a lot of running. You have to strengthen your legs. If you're not in good shape in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, your arm starts to drop, and that's when you get the heck knocked out of you.
"So that's why the spring is so important. It will determine the outcome of your season."
Such wisdom from a guy who hasn't managed the Dodgers since ending a two-decade run during the 1996 season. Lasorda also is eight months removed from suffering a heart attack.
Even so, when Lasorda isn't in his eternal role as Mr. Dodger, he is baseball's ultimate salesman, and he is everywhere.
Lasorda has spoken to American troops at more than 40 military bases around the world. He has visited at least 28 countries, including several after he was crowned by Commissioner Bud Selig as the Official Ambassador of the World Baseball Classic during its first two runs in 2006 and '09.
At one point, Dodgers officials estimated that Lasorda spoke to an average of 150 groups per year. He travels so much that he had to pause on the other end of the phone this week to ask his personal assistant where they were at that moment.
They were in Salt Lake City.
"I'm here helping the baseball coach at the University of Utah raise money for his baseball program," said Lasorda, describing just one of his passions, which is delivering motivational speeches to colleges and high schools across the country. "These baseball coaches don't get what the football coach gets or what the basketball coaches get, and rightly so, because those two sports bring in a lot of income.
"So I go around and help them raise money for their programs. And the funny part of it is, I help them raise money, and I give them money. I helped a school up in Seattle at Eastside Catholic High School. I was so good at pulling all of them together to get the money to build a football field and a baseball field that I gave $5,000."
Lasorda laughed. In fact, with his Dodger Stadium office usually packed with celebrities (including Sinatra, of course), he laughed often as a manager, but not as much as you might think.
Lasorda needed more than a few serious moments with the Dodgers to compile a record of 1,599-1,439 that was complemented by two World Series championships, four National League pennants, eight NL West titles and nine NL Rookie of the Year Award winners under his watch.
Lasorda cited Spring Training.
"You work them real hard, and you make them know they're playing for the name on the front of the jersey," Lasorda said. "You work on what you're capable of doing, and you work on your weaknesses to make you a better ballplayer.
"The whole team gets that attitude. All 25 of them have to get on the same end of the rope and pull together, instead of 12 on one side and the other ones on the other side. Through all of that hard work, you have to make them realize, 'Hey, you're not on vacation here.'"
How strange. To the outside world, Spring Training for the Dodgers during the Lasorda era -- and even before that under Walter Alston -- had the feel of Disney World, Fantasy Island and Mother Goose.
They were in Dodgertown, their legendary spring home in Vero Beach, Fla., from 1953 through 2008.
The highly manicured fields.
The five-star-caliber food that was served in the dining hall (fancy waiters and no short pants allowed).
Cottages to house players and team officials.
Streets named after former Dodgers greats throughout the massive complex that once was a U.S. Naval base.
The closeness of the stands to the field at old Holman Stadium, featuring open-air dugouts and only palm trees for years separating outfielders from sun-bathing fans.
"That was the best Spring Training complex in all of baseball because of the spirit of togetherness," Lasorda said. "You walk right there with the fans. You associate with the fans as you're walking to your place where you're supposed to be. Nobody could ever make that up.
"It was special, from the days of [former Dodgers general manager] Branch Rickey, when we had 26 farm clubs down there."
Now the Dodgers have joined the 21st century. They share a modern Spring Training complex in Glendale, Ariz., with the Chicago White Sox. Like most of the other facilities around the Cactus League and Grapefruit League, the Dodgers' new place lacks the intimacy between players and fans.
In other words, Spring Training has changed by a bunch, but Lasorda and his baseball gospel remain the same.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.