- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Tommy Lasorda’s 82nd birthday just might have been his best. With dozens of friends and relatives looking on, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery put Lasorda’s portrait on display Tuesday, and for once the effervescent Hall of Fame manager was almost speechless.

Almost.

“I felt like I died,” Lasorda admitted after hearing portrait gallery director Martin Sullivan, Dodgers CEO Jamie McCourt and baseball commissioner Bud Selig say nice things about him in the gallery’s McEvoy Auditorium. “I can’t believe something like this is happening. Right now I feel like my mother is going to wake me up and say, ‘Tommy, it’s time to go to school.’ ”

Sullivan called Lasorda “an individual who epitomizes the spirit, sportsmanship and integrity of America’s national pastime.” The gallery’s commissioners voted Lasorda into its permanent collection, a distinction given only to a limited number of persons who have had a significant impact on American history and culture.

Applauding spectators included Ted and Mark Lerner, whose Nationals opened a three-game home series with the Dodgers on Tuesday night. Earlier, as Lasorda and current Dodgers skipper Joe Torre chatted in the gallery courtyard, a man told Mark Lerner, “If you’re looking for a new manager, those two guys have won 3,840 games and six World Series between them.”

Lerner just laughed, refusing to dream the impossible dream.

During 19 1/2 seasons as the Dodgers’ skipper, Lasorda won as many friends as games - possibly more. His outgoing personality made him more popular than his predecessor, stoic Walter Alston, who held the job for 23 years before Lasorda took over in 1977. With Tommy running the show in L.A., Frank Sinatra and other stars were his pals, and he never saw an Italian meal he didn’t like.

“When I got the job, a reporter asked me if I thought I could keep it for 23 years,” Lasorda recalled. “I told him all I wanted to do was live for 23 more years.”

So far he has beaten that goal by 13 years, with no end in sight. Lasorda, now a front office adviser for the Dodgers, always seems to enjoy life - and Tuesday’s little ceremony was obviously and definitely a high spot.

Selig, who flew in from Milwaukee for the day, termed it “a very, very special honor” and noted that manager Lasorda’s international renown helped the U.S. baseball team win a gold medal in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney and sparked interest in the World Baseball Classic this decade.

“Tommy used to say he bled Dodger blue,” Selig added. “But those of us who know you well, Tommy, know better - you bleed red, white and blue. You have uniquely served the Dodgers and our great sport.”

The Lasorda portrait, measuring 50 inches by 60 inches, depicts him leaning on a bat while wearing a smile and his familiar No. 2 Dodgers uniform with a field and grandstand visible in the background. Artist Everett Raymond Kinstler of New York worked on the painting for three months this year after having Lasorda pose at his studio.

“Baseball is the only sport I have any feeling for, but I wouldn’t have been interested if Tommy hadn’t agreed to sit for me,” said Kinstler, whose portraits of former Presidents Ford and Reagan hang in the White House. “I wanted to suggest a day game outdoors because that’s how baseball was played when I was growing up.”

The portrait will be hung in the gallery’s new arrivals section until Nov. 15, after which it will be displayed in another section to be determined. Because the Dodgers have a national following, thousands of fans are likely to view it.

Heck, Tommy himself might even return for another peek. I don’t know if his latest thrill matches upsetting the heavily favored Oakland Athletics in the 1988 World Series or entering Cooperstown’s hallowed portals in 1997, but Lasorda appeared as stunned Tuesday as when he learned months ago that the National Portrait Gallery was beckoning.

“When my assistant told me about it, I thought he was [kidding] me,” Tommy said. “For a one-time third-string pitcher at Norristown, Pennsylvania, High School, this is one of the greatest things that has ever happened in my life.”

And when somebody asked Tommy Lasorda what comes next, he had a ready answer.

“Heaven.”

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