THE SUCCESSES, DEMONS, AND TRIALS OF Lary Sorensen
July 11, 1978, San Diego: Lary Sorensen, the 22-year-old right-hander with the Milwaukee Brewers enters, the Major League All-Star Game at the beginning of the bottom of the fourth inning. Pitching for the American League, which the Brewers were in at the time, he gives up a scratch single to National League shortstop Larry Bowa. He then gets Reggie Smith to fly to center, Pete Rose to fly to left and Joe Morgan to pop to short. Returning for the fifth inning, Sorensen entices groundouts from Greg Luzinski, George Foster and Steve Garvey. Back again for the fifth, Sorensen was able to get Ted Simmons to fly to right, Dave Winfield to ground to third and Bowa to line to right. A pitcher is not allowed to pitch more than three innings in an All-Star game, and with the exception of Bowa’s lead-off infield single, Sorensen, who went on to win 18 games for the Brewers that year, was perfect.
February 2, 2008; Roseville, Mich.:
Lary Sorensen was found unconscious behind the steering wheel of his car, in a ditch, alongside 23 Mile Road. He had a blood-alcohol count of .48 percent. A count of 0.08 percent is enough to get you arrested – if you are driving. A count of 0.31 percent can be fatal. There is a website, www.badjocks.com, which rates sports celebrities by the blood alcohol count they have been arrested for. Sorensen’s 0.48 is by far No. 1. The No. 2 is 0.365. Furthermore, Sorensen is No. 4 (0.35 percent on Oct. 16, 1999) and tied for No. 7 (0.31 percent on Oct. 30, 2004) on the same list. The former pitcher was treated at a hospital – then sent to jail. He was returned to prison. It was his seventh DUI.
Now, let’s talk about life before, after and in-between for Lary Sorensen. To say the least, it has been an interesting life with at lot of highs and lows. Today the former big-league pitcher lives in Winston-Salem, where he has developed a very strong support system. He is a member of Mount Calvary Baptist Church, where he is very involved, singing in the choir and active in many of the church’s activities. The former Detroit Tigers radio and TV announcer now performs the same duties for the Wake Forest baseball team, as well as the Winston-Salem Dash. Without a drivers license, due to his DUI history, Sorensen takes the bus or bums rides. When walking his dog, he knows that if he makes a left turn at a certain corner in the neighborhood, he’ll pass by a liquor store and a gasoline station that sells beer, so he instead turns to the right.
Wikipedia, says Sorensen, born in Detroit on Oct. 4, 1955, is named after Frank Lary, a Detroit Tigers pitcher at the time. From 1955 – 1961, Lary had a 27-10 record against the New York Yankees who were winning the A.L. pennant virtually every season. It’s a great story; the only inconvenience is that it is false.
“The truth of the matter is I had one brother and two sisters, and they all had four letters in their first name,” Sorensen said. “My parents (Dorothy and Leonard Sorensen) wanted my name to have four letters, so they just dropped an R out of it.”
Sorensen attended a private elementary school, Trinity Lutheran Elementary School in suburban Mount Clemens, Mich., where his father worked in production control at a Ford Motor Co. plant. His parents were active members of Trinity Lutheran Church who sang in the choir, among other churchrelated activities.
Starting out, young Lary played shortstop as well as pitched.
“Then I got too big and too slow to play short, so they moved me to third,” Sorensen recalled. “I peaked as a hitter in Little League.”
As a child, Sorensen could also play basketball and football.
“We played flag football in elementary school,” he said. “When I got to high school, I didn’t think I’d play football. During my sophomore year, the Junior Varsity football coach saw me throwing in gym class. I could throw the ball 65 yards, and when he saw me throwing to the fastest guy in the class, who would then run it in for a touchdown, he came up to me and said, ‘Tomorrow afternoon at 4 o’clock you’re a football player.’” But baseball was the reason Sorensen went from an elementary school with about 35 students in his class to L’anse Creuse High School, a public high school in Detroit with 2,200 students. He wanted to be noticed by the colleges as a pitcher. By that time, Sorensen, a right-hander, was already a crafty hurler. He had two ambitions. First, he wanted to be a major league pitcher. At the conclusion of his playing career, he wanted to succeed Ernie Harwell as the Detroit Tigers announcer. Not only was he learning the tricks of pitching, Sorensen was becoming familiar with all facets of the game, including its history. He was also fortunate to have supportive parents.
“My dad was an enthusiastic supporter,” Sorensen recalled. “I still have scorebooks from when I was 12, 13 and up of games he scored when I was pitching. He would often leave work to go to my game and go back to work once it was over.”
Leonard Sorensen continued to keep score for his son’s games after Lary accepted a baseball scholarship at the University of Michigan, where his older sister Lynn was attending. There Lary was a speech major with a minor in journalism, as he prepared for a career in broadcasting. After pitching three years for the Wolverines, two of them with Michigan as Big 10 champions, Sorensen was selected by the Brewers in the eighth round of the June 1976 draft. From there, it was a quick trip to the big leagues.
A pro in Milwaukee
“Milwaukee sucked,” Sorensen said with a chuckle, referring to the state of the big-league team when he was drafted. “The biggest break of my career was the Hall-of-Fame game.”
Each year, two major league teams, one from each league, would take time out and play each other in an exhibition game at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, N.Y., during the Baseball Hall of Fame’s induction weekend. In that bicentennial year the Brewers, then in the A.L., were scheduled to face the New York Mets. Management did not want to use a starting pitcher in a contest that didn’t count, so they pulled Sorensen up from Newark, N.Y., where he was already proving his knack for getting batters out in the New York-Penn League. The Short-Season- A-ball pitcher, with only a handful of starts in pro ball held the big leaguers to three runs in seven innings in that tiny ballpark. He did that in front of Brewers owner Bud Selig, now commissioner of baseball, as well as manager Alex Grammas and general manager Jim Baumer. Sorensen quickly found himself promoted three levels up, pitching in Double-A.
After beginning 1977 in Triple-A, Sorensen made it to The Show after 12 starts. He started 23 games for Milwaukee that year, winning seven, losing ten with a 4.23 earned run average.
Not bad for a rookie, but the next year saw an immense improvement. At the age of 22, Sorensen went 18-12 for the Brewers with an ERA of 3.20.
“We had a very good team,” Sorensen said of Milwaukee that season.
After losing 95 games in 1977, the Brewers replaced their general manager with Harry Dalton, who had proven success a few years before with the Baltimore Orioles. Dalton, in turn, hired George Bamberger, the Orioles pitching coach, to manage in Milwaukee. This led to a different atmosphere in the Brewers’ clubhouse and victories were no longer so scarce. Sorensen’s roommate on the road that year was Mike Caldwell, an N.C. State alumnus from Tarboro, N.C.
“In our room, we had 40 wins, 40 complete games and 573 innings between the two of us,” Sorensen noted.
“That would be three or four guys’ load in this day and age.”
Sorensen didn’t become a star because he had a blazing fastball. He was a sinkerball pitcher, able to induce groundouts. It didn’t hurt that Bamberger had been an effective pitching coach, able to teach the “Staten Island Sinker,” named after his home borough in New York, to his pitchers. It also helped that he was relatively new in the majors and usually the advantage, when the pitcher and batter aren’t familiar with each other, goes to the pitcher.
His next two years, Sorensen went 15-14, 3.98 and 12-10, 3.67.
“The thing I’m proudest of during my time in Milwaukee is that we changed the way people in Wisconsin looked at baseball,” Sorensen said. “After moving from Seattle, the team had been bad for seven years.”
The Brewers made it to the World Series in 1982 with closer Rollie Fingers, starting pitcher Pete Vuckovich and catcher Ted Simmons on the team. To get those players the Brewers traded Sorensen and the other players to the St. Louis Cardinals after the 1981 season.
Other big league teams
“I probably learned as much baseball that year in St. Louis as I did my whole career,” Sorensen said. “Whitey Herzog was far and away the best manager that I ever played for. Whitey did with magic markers and pieces of paper what two guys do on computers now.”
Sorensen went 7-7, 3.28, for the Cardinals in 1981. The Cardinals would face the Brewers in the 1982 World Series. By then, the Cardinals would have outfielder Lonnie Smith. To get him, they traded Sorensen to the Cleveland Indians after the 1981 season.
“Whitey said the Indians wouldn’t make the deal unless I was in it,” Sorensen recalled. “It was a very sad day.”
While the Brewers and Cardinals played their way to the World Series in 1982, Sorensen went 10-15, 5.61, for the Tribe. The next year he improved to 12-11, 4.64. With those stats – and his contract up – Sorensen signed as a free agent with the Oakland A’s after the 1983 season. In retrospect, that may have not been the best move.
“Our infield in Oakland didn’t have a lot of range, and I was a sinkerball pitcher,” Sorensen remembered. “It was a bad combination.”
After going 6-13, 4.91, Sorensen drew his release after the 1984 season. Before the year was out, however, the right-hander had signed with the Chicago Cubs to be used out of their bullpen.
“The Cubs had made the playoffs in ’84 and fully expected to the next year as well,” Sorensen continued. “But that was the year all five of their starters got hurt”.
The Cubs were a disappointment that year, and Sorensen was as well. He went 3-7, 4.26, pitching only 82 innings – the first time in his major league career he pitched less than 140 innings.
Other problems came up. Sorensen was drinking more and more. Growing up in a German Lutheran family, alcohol was in his life from an early age.
Going to college, then to professional baseball led the alcohol problems to escalate.
“You have all that adrenaline from just having pitched a ballgame,” Sorensen said. “You win, you lose, you’re high, you’re low – it’s an up and down life.”
The amount of major league players using cocaine came to the surface in the mid-‘80s, and Sorensen was also in that group. On Feb. 28, 1986, he and 10 other big leaguers were suspended after confessing during the Pittsburgh drug trials that they had used cocaine. Seven of them, including Dave Parker, Keith Hernandez and Lonnie Smith, were suspended from playing baseball for a year, while Sorensen and the others received a 60-day suspension. Ultimately, the players were allowed to continue playing as long as they donated 10 percent of their 1986 salaries to drug related community service, agreed to random drug testing and served 100 hours speaking to groups about the dangers of drugs.
Sorensen spent the 1986 season in the minors – first with the Philadelphia Phillies organization and then with that of the Montreal Expos. The next year the Expos placed him on their big-league squad, for whom he went 3-4, 4.29. He finished his big-league career the following season with 12 games out of the bullpen for the San Francisco Giants. Sorensen had won 93 MLB games, while losing 103 and had an ERA of 4.15.
Reaches second goal behind the mike
It was time for Sorensen to put the skills he had practiced as a youngster, studied in college, and even gained experience in as a player, to work.
“I didn’t just want to sit and sign autographs,” Sorensen recalled. “I wanted to be the guy who was answering questions and talking on my feet.”
This led to a return to Cleveland, where Sorensen was hired by Sports Channel Ohio to cover Cleveland State football games.
“Nobody was watching them; there were times when we would have seven to 10 people in the stands,” he said. “It was a great learning ground because you could make mistakes. It also gave me the chance to make some tapes and get an agent and a broadcast coach.”
Whereas Sorensen’s talent as a pitcher was because of his knowledge of the game, his talent as an announcer was genuine. His agent was close to ESPN, and shortly the ex-pitcher was covering the College World Series for the sports network. He worked regularly with ESPN for the next two years.
“I did two games a week for ESPN, which meant being at the airport Monday, flying out, watching a game, working the game Tuesday night, flying home Wednesday, watching the game, working Friday night and flying home Saturday,” Sorensen remembered. “That’s tough on a family, and my kids were growing up.”
His wife, Trish, was not happy with Sorensen traveling as she was raising their children, Lauren and Mark. And his drinking was getting worse.
“Then the opportunity came up to do a radio show in Detroit, which meant less traveling,” Sorensen said. “It was with a fledgling all-sports station. I did that for a year and then the Tiger job came along.”
Sorensen had grown up listening to Ernie Harwell broadcast Detroit Tigers games. When the Tigers were looking for a new announcer, Harwell himself recommended Sorensen for the job.
“When I was a kid, I had two goals in life,” Sorensen remembered. “I wanted to be a major league baseball player, and I wanted Ernie Harwell’s job. By the time I was 40, I had done them both.”
One person who was concerned about Sorensen’s latest accomplishment was his wife, Trish. She knew it would require travel that would expose her husband to the temptations brought on by alcoholism. By the time, the DUIs were already sullying his record. While Sorensen’s personality, baseball knowledge, insight and understanding of the game made him a great announcer on the air, the alcoholism, made worse by the travel, caused his life to unravel. Sorensen left the booth in 1998 due to undisclosed personal reasons.
The fall continued. After a DUI arrest in April 2003, his fifth since 1992, Lary went to jail for 30 days, and Trish celebrated their 24 th wedding anniversary – with a divorce. Sorensen drove into a ditch in October 2004, drunk again, and served 23 months in prison. Without his wife or a support group, life continued to be difficult.
“Buzz Aldrin wrote a book, and in it he said that his entire goal in life was to walk on the moon,” Sorensen noted. “Then he was in is 40s and had walked on the moon and he said, ‘What’s next?’ He battled some of the same demons that I have.”
Those demons led to Sorensen’s infamous 0.48 blood alcohol count DUI in 2008. This time, he stayed in prison until December 2009.
“I was in a period where I didn’t care that much what happened to me, because I was just taking life as it came,” Sorensen said. “I was only kind of only responsible for me.”
Putting things back together
Things began to look up in February 2011. He was in Winston-Salem, visiting his sister, Dr. Lynn Sutton, the dean of the Z. Smith Reynolds Library at Wake Forest University.
“It was 70 degrees in February,” Sorensen remembered. “I said, ‘Within a month, I’ll be back.’ I moved here 28 days later.”
By this time, Sorensen was drawing his major league pension, so at least his bills were paid, even if he could no longer afford the lifestyle of a big league ballplayer or announcer. And with his sister in town, he knew he had at least one supporter.
“I really wasn’t doing much of anything my first couple of years here (in Winston-Salem) and was not really in a good spot personally,” he said. “Then my mailman, a guy named Rick Gfeller, finally talked me into going to his church and watching him sing.”
Sorensen, who loved music himself and was frequently in school plays while growing up, fell in love with Mount Calvary Baptist Church.
“I went to their Easter program, and the music blew me away,” he said. “They had live animals on stage with 150 people up there singing. The next day I went back to the church, and attended the service by myself.”
Sorensen began attending Mount Calvary Baptist regularly. One day in church, the former athlete was sitting in front of Brenda and Jim Israel, when he heard Mrs. Israel say, “I think that might be the new pastor in front of us.”
“I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, but I’ve never been called a pastor,” Sorensen chuckled.
He became good friends with the Israels, as his support group was beginning to grow. Sorensen soon joined the church choir.
“The whole church kind of took me under their wing, because I was still struggling a little bit with life,” Sorensen said. “They got me through some tough times and helped me get going on the straight and narrow.”
He also met Elaine, who joined the choir, and the two were married earlier this year.
“Wednesday nights are date night at our house,” Sorensen said. “We go to the church, have dinner – then, we have choir practice.”
Mrs. Sorensen is a nurse in Greensboro.
“I would drink socially, but I don’t anymore out of respect for him,” she said. “Anything I can do to help and support him, I do it.”
Through the Israels, Sorensen also became reacquainted with Ron Wellman, the athletics director at Wake Forest. In 1985, he and Wellman had met when Sorensen was with the Cubs and Wellman was the baseball coach at Northwestern. This renewed acquaintance led to a broadcasting job with Wake Forest’s baseball team. This, in turn led to an opportunity to be the color man on telecasts for the Winston- Salem Dash.
“Ronnie Wellman recommended that I sit down with Lary and understand his story,” said Dash President Geoff Lassiter. “I’m glad I hired him. Lary prepares as much as any TV broadcaster and radio announcer that I’ve ever been around in my 15-year career in sports.”
Elaine Sorensen, who grew up in Pittsburgh, learning how to keep baseball scores, keeps scores for her husband during games, enabling him to have the information, while freeing his time to concentrate on other facets of the game during the telecasts. His broadcast partner, Brian Boesch, is also grateful to have such a professional for a partner.
“There’s no question that Lary’s one of the best baseball broadcasters out there,” Boesch said. “His knowledge of the game is tremendous, but his ability to convey it in a way that the fans can relate to is what makes him fantastic. I know that the Dash are thrilled to have him aboard.”
With Sorensen’s current success in his broadcasting career, would he be interested in returning to the majors?
“I’ve had that life, and it was great,” Sorensen responded. “I still want to work for a long time, but I wouldn’t say that getting back to the major leagues is a goal.”
It is important to Sorensen to have a good relationship with his children. His daughter, Lauren, a social worker in Philadelphia, and his son Mark, who after pitching four years in the Tigers farm system, is a second-year law student in New York.
Alcoholism remains a day-to-day battle, but with the positive forces going on in his life currently, the urge to have a drink is not so great.
“I took the dog out the other day on my mother’s birthday,” Sorensen said. “My mom passed away about three years ago, and I was feeling a little bit down.”
When Sorensen arrived at the corner he made a left, where the liquor store was, instead of a right.
“I needed something beyond the liquor store and the gas station that sells beer,” he said. “I walked right by them and picked up what I needed. I did it fairly comfortably, even though I wasn’t really happy mentally. It doesn’t mean I’ll be able to do it tomorrow. You have to fight it every day.” !