PALMETTO — God works in strange ways according to Tommy Lasorda, the legendary former baseball manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“If she hadn’t got hit in the eye, I wouldn’t be here,” Lasorda said recently from Summer Johnson’s home in Palmetto.
Summer, a 12-year-old softball player, was in California on Aug. 18 to watch her brother, Kel, compete for a spot on the 18U Team USA baseball team. While sitting in the stands along the third baseline with her mother at Long Beach State University, a foul ball slammed into her left eye. The pitch was clocked at 95 mph.
Lasorda, who was sitting about 10 to 15 feet away, was the first to respond.
“To see a girl get hit with a ball like that.,” said Lasorda, shaking his head, as he visited with Summer at her home the evening of Sept. 23. “I believe in God, but sometimes I wonder, why would something like this happen to her? Those are things that we don’t know why, so I thought maybe I could help her.”
Lasorda traveled to Atlanta on a private jet courtesy of the Dodgers to spend time with the youngster, encouraging her to pursue her dreams of playing college softball someday. Summer’s ophthalmologist believes she sustained optic nerve damage which is irreparable. She sees a black spot from the center of her eye and double vision from her periphery.
“We don’t know what it’s like to lose an eye or have trouble with an eye,” said Lasorda, “but the only thing I can tell you is you can do it; you can play.”
Over several intimate hours and a home-cooked dinner of roast, mashed potatoes, squash casserole, and strawberry birthday cake — Lasorda turned 86 the day before his visit — the Hall of Famer shared dozens of baseball jokes and stories with the Johnson family. His wit was sharp like a razor, his voice gravelly and guttural, and his inspirational tales like treasures taken straight out of the “good book.”
One story in particular hit home with Summer, that of another youngster Lasorda encouraged 13 years ago. Tanner Vavra, the son of a former Dodgers minor league instructor, lost the sight in his right eye after two freak accidents. At the age of 10, Vavra believed his dream of playing pro ball was over. Then, Uncle Tommy phoned Vavra.
“He was feeling depressed, dejected, but I told him he could do anything he wanted to do with one eye,” said Lasorda. “With one eye, you can still hit the ball.”
Vavra proved Lasorda right. As a junior at Valparaiso University in Indiana, Vavra batted .332 with 20 RBIs in 59 games. His numbers were equally impressive as a senior, when he batted .330 with 20 RBIs and 10 doubles in 60 games. And then in June, Vavra got the news he’d been hoping for since his little league days. He was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the 30th round.
“If you dream it, if you believe it, you can make it happen. I believed I was the greatest left-handed pitcher in the world,” said Lasorda, chuckling. “But I wasn’t. But, I believed it.”
Summer, who hung on every one of Lasorda’s words and jotted notes on her iPhone, said she had considered giving up softball.
“I threw with my cousin once and with my mom once and I felt like I was starting the sport again,” said Summer, a catcher who has been playing since she was six. “I was seeing two balls and I couldn’t tell which one to catch. I thought about playing volleyball instead just because a softball is four times smaller than a volleyball, but now I want to stick with softball. Because of Mr. Lasorda, I believe I can make it with one eye.”
Lasorda hopes to fly back to Atlanta in the spring to watch Summer play in her first softball game of the season. In the meantime, after hugging and kissing her goodbye, and telling her that he wished he could just take her home with him — “my wife and I have always wanted a little girl,” he said — he handed her his business card and told her to call him anytime.
“See there are three types of people Summer, just like I tell my ball players,” he said. “Number one is the one who makes it happen. Number two is the one who watches it happen. And number three is the one who wonders what has happened. You gotta make it happen. Whatever your dreams are, whatever you want to do, you can accomplish it.”