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'It was the coolest thing ever': Ex-Tiger Alex Avila remembers godfather Tommy Lasorda

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Alex Avila doesn't remember how he did that day, or even when exactly that day was, but it remains one of his favorite baseball memories. And he's been to the World Series.

It had to be late 1990s or early 2000s, and Avila, still years away from breaking into the major leagues, was just a Little Leaguer playing a game in South Florida. One day, he looked up into the stands and saw his godfather.

Lasorda, the legendary baseball figure who spent more than 70 years in the Dodgers organization, winning two World Series as a manager, died Thursday. He was 93.

His godfather was Tommy Lasorda.

"That was a real thrill," Avila said Friday. "All the kids on the team were excited, all the parents obviously were thrilled and they got a kick out of it.

"In the middle of the game, I remember this: I'd always look into the stands to see if he was watching, and there were always people around him. But every time I'd come up, he would make sure to stop signing autographs, stop talking to people, to watch me hit.

"For me, it was like the coolest thing ever."

Lasorda, the legendary baseball figure who spent more than 70 years in the Dodgers organization, winning two World Series as a manager, died Thursday. He was 93.

Baseball lost an icon, another Hall of Famer, and the Avilas — including Tigers general manager Al and former Tigers catcher Alex — lost a close family friend.

The relationship goes back decades, when Ralph Avila, Al's father, began working for the Dodgers in the 1970s, first as a scout in the Dominican Republic and eventually as a front-office executive. Ralph Avila and Lasorda quickly hit it off, became best friends for life, and after Alex was born Jan. 29, 1987, Lasorda became godfather.

“All of us have lost an incredible person in the passing of Tommy Lasorda. Tommy had a significant impact on our family and I was fortunate to have known him for nearly my entire life. He was a best friend of my dad, Ralph, and godfather to my son, Alex," Al Avila said in a statement released by the Tigers. “His intensity and smarts as a manager were known to all, but we were truly blessed to see what an amazing man, husband, father and grandfather he was away from the ballpark, as well."

Also paying tribute to Lasorda on Friday were the Great Lake Loons, Midland's Single-A affiliate of the Dodgers which welcomed Lasorda, long a Dodgers ambassador, to town at least once a year. A popular fan section at Dow Diamond is Lasorda's Landing.

"Thank you for the countless visits, for the side-splitting stories, and for sharing your passion with our community," the Loons said on Twitter.

Michigan State and NBA basketball legend Earvin "Magic" Johnson also took to Twitter to remember his friend. Johnson has been a co-owner of the Dodgers in 2012.

"I will miss our conversations about the Dodgers & the Lakers," Johnson wrote. "He will always be known to Dodger Nation as 'Mr. Dodger.'"

Lasorda began his professional career as a pitcher in the Dodgers organization (then Brooklyn), and rejoined the franchise (then in Los Angeles) as a scout, then a coach, and, finally, in 1976, as a manager.

He won a World Series in 1981, and again in 1988 — a series most remembered for hobbled Kirk Gibson's heroic Game 1 home run off Dennis Eckersley. It was Gibson's first year in L.A. after leaving Detroit; The News couldn't reach him for comment Friday.

The scene of an exuberant Lasorda, arms raised, running out of the dugout is almost as memorable as Gibson's first-pumping as he limped around the bases.

That was three months before Alex Avila was born, but over all the years, and all the stories, he'd come to feel like he was there.

"He'd come down to South Florida, and we'd always have dinner at this little Italian restaurant," said Avila, who also was a regular at Dodgers spring training, in Vero Beach, growing up. "Just like that old story, the Italian place had a picture of him on the wall, a picture of Sinatra and a picture of the Pope. Our family would pretty much take up the whole restaurant, it was just this tiny place, and we'd have a good time listening to him and my grandfather go back and forth. It was great."

Baseball defined Lasorda's life, of course. He remained a Dodgers till the end, even attending their World Series victory over the Tampa Bay Rays in Texas in October.

A close second and third, in whatever order, would be: The food, and the stories. They always went hand in hand, Avila said.

Avila recalled a Tigers-Dodgers series in Los Angeles in 2011. Before one of the games, Avila and Brad Penny met Lasorda for lunch. Of course, it was Italian.

"I mean, the legend of him able to eat, it's no legend. It's true," Avila, now 33, said, with a laugh over the phone Friday. "He loved food, but he really loved what sitting down for a meal brought, as far as the conversation, the family, the gathering."

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984