By SHEILA OJENDYK
GREENVILLE — Tommy Lasorda had no problem catching the attention of students at St. Joseph High School. The first thing he said was, “Fifty-two years ago I stole a girl from here and took her to many places.” Lasorda and his wife, the former Jo Miller of Greenville, came to town for a fund-raising dinner on Nov. 15 and dedication of the school’s Lasorda Family Field on Nov. 18.
Lasorda, a baseball player with the Brooklyn Dodgers and later the legendary manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers for two decades, is now in great demand as a motivational speaker, and he talks at many schools. On Nov. 18, he spoke to the Upstate students in the event billed as “An Afternoon With Tommy Lasorda.”
He began by urging students to get a good education. “Education is something no one can take away from you. You have the opportunity to be anything you want to be.”
Lasorda told a story of three fathers at their sons’ graduations. Each father was very proud of his son and told him so. The first father gave his son the keys to a new car, and the second father gave his son a check for $10,000. The third father did not hand his son a gift, and the son asked why he received nothing when the other two sons received such lavish gifts. His father then told him, “I’m giving you the world. Go out and earn it!”
Lasorda shared an event from his own life. He was the third-string pitcher for his high-school baseball team. One day, he told his coach that he and the first and second-string pitchers would pay money to see him play in the major leagues within 10 years. Nobody believed him at the time, but his prediction came true. He added, “It happened, but nobody handed it to me.”
Lasorda has spoken at the U.S. Air Force Academy eight times and twice each at West Point and Annapolis. He had a memorable story from a visit to the Air Force Academy. He and his wife had been assigned a cadet to take them around. The cadet told him he had entered the Air Force because he wanted to be a pilot. The young man never learned how to fly because he had been hit by a line drive during a baseball game and spent three weeks in the hospital. His doctor told him he could never fly. At this point in the story, Lasorda interjected, “Because God delays does not mean that God denies.” After the cadet heard Lasorda’s speech, he decided to pursue his original goal of becoming a pilot. That cadet, now a general, became a decorated fighter pilot in Operation Desert Storm.
Lasorda stressed to the teens, “You can be whatever you want to be. If you dedicate yourself to it — and you want to pay the price — you can reach it. It’s up to you.”
Lasorda credits a nun who taught him at parochial school in East Liverpool, Ohio. The nun believed in him, and to this day he carries her picture in his wallet. He told the students, “Teachers dedicate their lives to all of you. The guys who pick up the trash make more, but teachers love what they do. Take advantage of it.”
Lasorda urged the teens to give their parents love and respect. “When you’re sick, they take care of you. When you’re hungry, they feed you. … What do you do for them?” he asked. “Don’t ever do anything to embarrass them or hurt them.” He added that parents owe their children a good education.
Lasorda managed the Dodgers for 20 years and took them to the World Series four times. He said he had reached the top of the mountain, but he wanted another mountain to climb: he wanted the United States to win an Olympic gold medal for baseball because “baseball is America’s game.”
He had never met 23 of the 24 players when he began coaching the American team, but he told them, “When this is over, the whole world is going to know who you are.” They won the gold medal at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
Lasorda opened the floor to questions. One person asked him what he would say to teens to change their lives. He replied, “You’ve got to believe in yourself.” He said he dreamed about pitching in Yankee Stadium with the legendary players. He had this dream quite often, and it came back to him vividly when he was called to pitch against Yogi Berra for the first time.
The former manager said he stressed to his players that they were role models and what they did had a huge impact on young people.
After Lasorda finished his talk, Bishop Robert J. Baker processed into the chapel with a Knights of Columbus honor guard.
Father Hayden Vavarek, pastor of St. Philip Benizi in Moncks Corner, read an except from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. “Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we win an imperishable one” (1 Corinthians 9:24-25).
Bishop Baker thanked Lasorda for his contribution to the world of sports and stressed the importance of integrating athletic ability with the mind and soul. “We should run our spiritual race as we run other races in life,” he said and urged the teens to make each day count and reminded them that a coach only looks at today’s game, not next week’s game. “The race is run here and now,” he said. “Let tomorrow take care of itself. Take it one day at a time.”
After the brief prayer service in the school chapel, Bishop Baker blessed the four new athletic facilities: the tennis court and the soccer, softball, and baseball fields.
A dedication ceremony followed the blessing of the athletic fields. Margaret Ann Moon, president of the board of trustees, and Keith Kiser, headmaster, honored Steve Francis and Kenneth Padgett for their service to the school. Each was named a Knight of the Round Table, an organization founded to recognize supporters of St. Joseph High School.
Lasorda was named an honorary Knight of the Round Table, and he and his wife were presented with letterman’s jackets. Lasorda shared his wife’s comment about the school needing a gymnasium. Jo Lasorda has issued a challenge to the school to build a gym and will donate $25,000 from her foundation to help fund it.
The last event of the day was a softball game between the St. Joseph High School All Stars, coached by Tommy Lasorda, and a team of local celebrities and dignitaries, coached by U.S. Congressman Jim DeMint. Jo Lasorda threw out the first pitch of the two-inning game. The All Stars won 10 to 4.