LSU baseball notes: Paul Mainieri explains the opening weekend rotation _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- From left, hitting coach Andy Cannizaro, head coach Paul Mainieri, center, and Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda watch a scrimmage Saturday at Alex Box Stadium,

Inside Paul Mainieri's office, he keeps a picture of himself with his father and Tommy Lasorda.

They took the image about four decades ago, back when Mainieri's father coached at Miami-Dade Community College and Mainieri still had a mustache. Mainieri's father had organized a golf tournament to raise money for his baseball program. Lasorda came to the event.

"That was the day I met him," Mainieri said in his office last year, smiling as he pointed at the picture. "I've had a special relationship with Tommy for all these years." 

Since that day, Lasorda served as a mentor and role model for Mainieri. They talked about everything from coaching baseball to how to treat people, their relationship stretching far beyond the game they shared.

Mainieri once said of him, “With the exception of my father and mother, Tommy Lasorda has been the most influential person in my life." Mainieri made Lasorda the godfather to his youngest child.

On Thursday night, Lasorda died of heart failure at his home in California. He was 93.

In baseball, Lasorda was a legend, managing the Los Angeles Dodgers to two World Series titles during his tenure from 1977-96. He was elected to the Hall of Fame a year after his retirement and spent the last 14 years as special advisor to the chairman, an ambassador for the sport he loved until the end of his life. 

“Yes, he was a manager of the Dodgers and won two world championships and four pennants,” Mainieri said Friday afternoon. “But he was so much more than that. He's the most unique guy I've ever known in my life.

“It just doesn't seem like it's going to be normal. Not hearing him laughing and telling stories and yelling and motivating people and helping others and doing the things that were in his DNA. But he lived life to the fullest. Nobody could squeeze into 93 years more than what he squeezed into it, I can assure you of that.”

After they met, Lasorda guided Mainieri through his early coaching career. He spoke to one of Mainieri's first teams at St. Thomas University, a Division II school near Miami that issued two baseball scholarships, and helped Mainieri land his next job as the head baseball coach at the Air Force Academy. 

“He's always been my biggest supporter when it came to trying to help me in whatever my needs were,” Mainieri said. 

When the Dodgers made their first trip to play the Colorado Rockies in the early 1990s, Lasorda asked Mainieri to spend the series with him. For four days, Mainieri slept on the couch in Lasorda’s hotel room and drove him to the ballpark every morning. Mainieri watched throughout the series as Lasorda spoke to reporters, learning how to interact with the media.

Though Mainieri already held a set of values he learned from his father, observing Lasorda inspired him. He wanted to behave the same way, treating people with respect and grace.

“I haven't succeeded obviously like he has,” Mainieri said, “but he was a tremendous role model for me.”

In 2008, Lasorda spent a few days at LSU. He gave the keynote speech for the baseball team’s preseason banquet and met with the players inside Alex Box Stadium. He visited practice the next day.

“I came to Baton Rouge this week to help Paul, who is like a son to me,” Lasorda said at the time. “If I had a son right now that had the opportunity to go to college and play baseball, I would send him to LSU to play for Paul Mainieri.”

Lasorda returned to LSU eight years later. He was 89 by then, but he sat next to Mainieri behind the batting cages wearing a purple LSU jacket. Between rounds, Lasorda gave the players tips on their swings.

Mainieri and Lasorda remained close friends throughout his life. They spent private moments away from cameras and often reconnected at college baseball coaches conventions. Lasorda never missed one.

Mainieri recognized Lasorda was approaching the end of his life as his health declined. They talked recently, and Lasorda told Mainieri he wanted to spend Christmas at home after a month in the hospital. Still, losing Lasorda felt similar to the day Mainieri's father died nearly two years ago.

“It's hard for me to imagine a world without him in it,” Mainieri said. “Fortunately his interaction with people will carry on not just his legacy, but a way for people to do things — to respect each other and to help each other out to make the world a better place.”

Mainieri has two sons. He named the second one Tommy.

Email Wilson Alexander at walexander@theadvocate.com