Lary Sorensen off the bottle, back on the air

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

It took a village to save Lary Sorensen, and the village had a donkey in it.

Four years sober, former Tigers announcer Lary Sorensen now broadcasts games for Wake Forest University.

There were also a mailman and a nurse, among others. And a sociopathic murderer, though he was more of a curiosity than the turning point he probably should have been.

Sorensen was one of the best pitchers Michigan ever produced, one of the best sportscasters, and one of the worst drunks. The last time police found him behind the wheel of a car, parked along a road in Macomb County, his blood alcohol concentration was .48 — six times the legal limit, and enough to kill most people and probably the donkey.

“Mr. Sorensen,” a parole officer once told him, “you are destined to find yourself dead in an apartment, surrounded by vodka bottles.”

Somehow, it didn’t happen, and while the Detroit Tigers embark on a rebuilding job of their own, their former broadcaster is bounding through life, broadcasting college baseball and football in North Carolina and terrorizing the fish in the lake behind his house in Orlando, Florida. He’s going to church and choir practice and 12-step meetings, resurrecting his career, and counting himself lucky every merciful day while he lays the groundwork for a meeting with a potentially helpful Michigan administrator.

“I look at the way life is now,” says Sorensen, and he can’t believe how long it took him to learn what seems obvious: sober and happy is better than boozy and troubled. Another revelation from his resurgence:

“I no longer believe in coincidence.”

He believes in blessings, persistence and the 12-step program he respects so much he won’t call it by name. He believes in friendship and loyalty and love. But coincidence?

Sorensen was the first morning anchor for sports talk WDFN-FM 1130 when it debuted in 1994.

No, he says. All the dominoes that have fallen in just the right directions these past few years must have been stacked by a higher hand.

Sorensen, 62, was a 10-year major leaguer and the first voice heard on the first sports radio station in Detroit. For 31/2 seasons, he was the color commentator for Detroit Tigers broadcasts on the 50,000-watt loudspeaker of WJR-AM (760).

Then he drank himself off the job, out of a marriage, into prison and largely into oblivion.

At a recent check-up, he says, his doctor told him that if he’d done half the things he’d written down, he was a miracle of modern medicine.

“Doc,” Sorensen responded, “I only wrote down half of it because I was embarrassed.”

It was typical Sorensen: funny and self-effacing, thoroughly likeable when he’s sober, and completely open about when he wasn’t.

“Google me,” he’ll tell prospective employers. “It’s all there.”

Now, if it pleases the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office, he would like his driver’s license back — which would be both a convenience and a significant step.

The paperwork is in progress after a gentle rejection two years ago. Sorensen had asked a hearing officer to see past six drunken driving convictions between 1992 and 2004. The officer said he was impressed but to come back with a longer track record of sobriety.

The scoreboard now reads four years, one month, one week and three days, “the longest I have not had a drink since I was 13 years old.” He knows the exact date of his last surreptitious Smirnoff because the evening involved cracked ribs, a broken toe and replacing the friend’s bathtub he fractured with his head.

It also involved the nurse, the former Elaine Layland, seeing him at his worst. A month later, she married him anyway.

That was after he met the mailman — and marveled at the donkey.

Rise and fall

Sorensen was a three-sport star at Mount Clemens L’Anse Creuse High, pitched for three years at the University of Michigan and was selected by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 8th round of the 1976 amateur draft.

By 21, he was in the major leagues. By 22, he was an all-star. By 30, he was suspended for using cocaine, though he and 10 other players eventually escaped their punishment with anti-drug donations and community service.

Sorensen, 62, was a 10-year major leaguer, starting in the 1970s with the Brewers.

By 32, having won 93 games and closed countless hotel bars, he was out of baseball.

He’d been both genetically and professionally inclined to self-destruction, he says. Pitch well? Drink to celebrate. Pitch poorly? Drink to forget. The four days between starts? Drink to drink. Cocaine? Heck, it was the 1980s and he was making $320,000 a year.

The first drunken driving conviction came in 1992, four years after his last ballgame. He was so chastened he didn’t get another one for 10 months. There were two in 1999 and one apiece in 2003 and 2004.

In the middle of all that, he built a broadcasting career — first as a college baseball analyst for ESPN, then as the morning host on WDFN-AM (1130) when 24-hour sports radio came to Detroit in 1994.

“There was a big push for us to have instant credibility,” says Rona Danziger, an afternoon producer at the time who later became program director. As a communications major with a big-league history, “Lary sounded like a broadcaster, but he brought a lot of insight.”

Housed in a converted garage, WDFN was often a sitcom in search of a camera. Even its opening moments were slapstick.

“I thought for two days what I wanted to say first,” Sorensen says. After some confusion from the control room, what came out was, “Hey, are we on the air yet?”

Fortunately, things improved quickly. The next year, he jumped to Tigers broadcasts on WJR, in retrospect not the best move for an alcoholic.

“He was great as a partner,” says Frank Beckmann, then the play-by-play voice and now WJR’s 9 a.m.-noon talk show host. “He was a professor to me. When you sit with someone like Lary day in and day out, spend time on planes and in hotels and yeah, even in bars, you realize you don’t understand baseball the way you thought you did.”

But the travel, late hours and culture are difficult even for people whose drink of choice is club soda.

“We’d get done with a game, go downstairs to (manager) Buddy Bell’s office, and he’d open up his fridge and we’d have a couple of beers,” Beckmann says.

Bell, who ultimately tried to counsel Sorensen, could stop there. Sorensen wouldn’t. Or couldn’t. Or in any event, didn’t — which eventually set the stage for the village.

The killer and the animal

The letter carrier came into Sorensen’s life after the killer and before the barnyard animal.

The killer was briefly routed through the prison where the state deposited Sorensen after he rang up the improbable .48. There had been no key in the ignition on that evening in early 2008, so prosecutors didn’t file charges; they simply let a judge send him back to prison for breaking probation.

He was mopping a floor when Stephen Grant stopped to chat for a few minutes on his way to a psychological evaluation. Grant is doing life for slaying and dismembering his wife, Tara, and no, Sorensen says, the conversation did not lead to any look-how-far-I’ve-fallen revelations.

“It was more a case of, ‘What do I have to do to get through today?’ ” he says, and then there’s a pause.

“I guess it still is.”

It helps, he says, to truly believe that “if I drink, I die.” Not on the spot, but rapidly, incurring and inflicting damage as he goes — unless he repeats the equivalent of two dozen shots that brought him to the .48.

Then, says medical director Elizabeth Bulat of the Henry Ford Maplegrove Center, lacking the physiological dependence he’d built up with incessant excess, Sorensen’s brain would simply stop telling him to breathe and he would likely expire.

“You can be a very intelligent person,” Bulat says, “and have a lot of thing to lose. But until you get help, it’s going to be a progressive disease.”

Released from prison in 2009, Sorensen had resumed drinking in a new location: Grand Rapids, where his son, Mark, was pitching for a Tigers farm team.

Sorensen’s son Mark eventually earned a law degree and joined a firm in New York. He still checked in on his father as he battled addiction.

Mark got promoted, moved on, left baseball, earned a law degree and joined a firm in New York. Sorensen stayed behind, substituting cheap vodka for the high-end Scotch he drank in the good days and still not quite touching bottom.

His daughter, Laura, directs a counseling and recovery home for transgender addicts in Philadelphia. She and Mark “would call me, just to make sure I was still alive,” Sorensen says.

Eventually, the kids nudged their dad toward Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where his Ph.D. sister was high on the food chain at Wake Forest University.

He was still drinking, even if he often claimed he wasn’t. Just for the human contact, he’d sometimes step outside his rented condo to the mail drop, where postman Rick Gfeller recognized a soul headed for the dead-letter office.

“I’d see him periodically. Sometimes, he had a backpack,” says Gfeller, 66. “I knew the only place he could be walking from was the liquor store, and I’d say, ‘You got a load there. ... Want me to help you dump it?’”

Gfeller invited him to the massive Christmas pageant at his church in 2011. Sorensen said he might show, but he didn’t mean it. Then he ignored invitations to Calvary Baptist for Easter, Independence Day and the following Christmas, when he actually accepted tickets before his good intentions were washed away by a dedicated bout of drinking.

“It was a year and a half,” Sorensen says. “He just stayed after it and stayed after it.”

The two are close friends now, and Sorensen tells Gfeller that he was simply too dumb to realize he was being blown off. But he tells other people, reverently, that “it was the most Christian thing I’ve ever had happen in my life.”

Sorensen finally stepped through the doors in 2013 for the Friday night performance of the 1,500-seat church’s Easter pageant, with its actors, choirs and a menagerie that included a donkey delivering palm branches.

“I figured any church that has animals pooping on stage to make the pageant better has to be good,” Sorensen says — but that’s another joke made after the fact from the sober side of desperation.

It wasn’t just the livestock that made him walk back for the Saturday show, four miles, in the rain.

A new community

Good fortune did not immediately follow Easter. Nor did sobriety. But the dominoes began to line up.

He met a former Wake Forest ballplayer at church who reconnected him with the school’s athletic director, Ron Wellman, whom he’d known a quarter-century earlier when Wellman was a college coach and Sorensen was a Chicago Cub.

Wellman hired him to broadcast Wake Forest baseball on television on ACC Network Extra; he added football on a 15-station radio network last fall. A gentleman in his Bible study group owned the Winston-Salem Dash, and now Sorensen was also calling minor league baseball, though he had to give that up after the move to Florida a year ago.

When he got back into the broadcast booth, Lary Sorensen eventually started calling minor league baseball, though he had to give that up after moving to Florida a year ago.

Someone else from the church, the CFO at a bank, helped pound his overdue taxes and haggard finances into shape. He suddenly had friends and racquetball partners and a purpose — and he had Elaine, a fellow voice in the church choir and the cool head who called 911 the last night he drank.

“Something just kept tugging at my heart,” she says. “Something said not to give up on him.”

Elaine Sorensen, 55, is a lifelong Pittsburgh Pirates fan who’ll change the channel from a Tigers game if he dozes off in his recliner. She has a master’s degree in administration and an offer to become a hospital vice-president prompted their relocation from the shelter of Winston-Salem to Orlando.

Her husband had a support system in North Carolina. He had transportation, a yellow-and-black Yamaha Zuma X scooter that it turns out isn’t legal for him to drive without a license in Florida.

He says he’s still looking for a community in Orlando — but he’s not looking for it in a bottle.

“I told Elaine I wouldn’t drink again,” he says, “and I haven’t.”

That’s as of today, he says quickly, because that’s how he has to take it. But he has a meeting tonight, and he likes his chances.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn