Former major-leaguer rebuilding life in Winston-Salem
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — When the Winston-Salem Dash named Lary Sorensen as the color commentator for the team’s 2014 television broadcasts, the name might have had a familiar ring to baseball fans.
Sorensen pitched in the major leagues for seven teams during an 11-year career, was selected to the 1978 All-Star Game and was the color analyst on the Detroit Tigers’ radio broadcasts from 1995 to 1998.
But if you type Sorensen’s name into an Internet search engine, what stands out won’t be his accomplishments as a player. Instead, it will be a grainy mug shot from the Michigan Department of Corrections.
Since his playing career ended in 1989, Sorensen has been arrested seven times for driving under the influence of alcohol and twice served time in prison.
“You don’t even have to spell my name right to see exactly what’s up — my statistics don’t come up first,” said Sorensen, who also will handle radio broadcasts of Wake Forest baseball games this season. “But you know what? Those are the mistakes I made. You pay the price, and you move on, and you change — or you don’t.
“I’m working on making a change.”
String of DUIs
Sorensen, now 58, broke into the big leagues with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1977 and quickly found success as a reliable starting pitcher. In 1978, he pitched three scoreless innings in the All-Star Game.
Sorensen joked that as a German Lutheran, alcohol was part of his life from a young age. As a ballplayer, it became more readily available — a couple of beers in the clubhouse or a seemingly endless supply on charter flights.
“You’ve got all that adrenaline from just having pitched, or the game, or whatever,” he said. “You win, you lose, you’re high, you’re low — it’s an (up-and-down) life.”
After his playing career ended, Sorensen moved on to morning sports radio. He also found work as a color analyst for major-league and college games on ESPN before the Tigers hired him in 1995.
“When I was a kid, I had two goals in life. I wanted to be a major-league baseball player, and I wanted Ernie Harwell’s job (the Tigers’ former broadcaster), and by the time I was 40, I had done them both.”
But by the time Sorensen was 43, alcoholism was taking its toll, and he lost that second dream job — the Tigers fired him in June 1998.
What followed was a string of DUIs.
On Oct. 16, 1999, he was charged with DUI and had a blood-alcohol content of .35. After being released on bond, he was arrested again Nov. 27, this time with a blood-alcohol content of .24, and was sent to a treatment program.
He had another DUI arrest in April 2003, his fifth since 1992, and spent 30 days in jail.
His wife, Trish, had seen enough. Their divorce became final on the date of their 24th anniversary, and his relationship with his children became strained.
But that wasn’t the end.
On Oct. 30, 2004, Sorensen was again arrested for DUI, this time after driving his car into a ditch and having his blood-alcohol content measured at .30.
In March 2005, he was sentenced to 23 months in prison.
Sorensen says he still remembers his arrival. Guards knew his story, telling him that they had been waiting for him as they frisked him.
His prison tasks were washing dishes, doing laundry and chopping wood — a long way from pitching at Wrigley Field.
“It’s depressing and humbling, and everything else,” Sorensen said. “You either rise to the challenge or let something beat you. The competitiveness of being an athlete and having pride makes you keep getting up.”
With a probation officer determined to humble him when he was released, Sorensen was assigned a minimum-wage job working the night shift at a McDonald’s in Detroit. He worked there 90 days, riding a bicycle to work five miles each way.
“I don’t believe I’ve eaten at McDonald’s since,” he said, laughing.
Taking steps forward
But that still wasn’t the end.
On Feb. 2, 2008, Sorensen was found unconscious, slumped over the steering wheel of his car on the side of a highway. He had a blood-alcohol content of .48 and was immediately sent back to prison.
According to the National Institutes of Health, death is possible for a person with a blood-alcohol content above .31.
“I went through some nasty times physically,” Sorensen said. “Probably still got some things wrong inside my body that I don’t know about — probably don’t want to know about.”
Sorensen was released from prison the second time in December 2009. He moved to Winston-Salem in 2011 and has avoided trouble while working to stay sober. He said that attending support-group meetings has helped him take ownership of his mistakes.
“Realizing it instead of denying it,” he said. “Realizing that you’ve got this disease and you’ve got to figure out how to deal with it. There certainly were times that I shouldn’t have come back from it — there’s no disputing that.”
Sorensen also jumped into activities at Calvary Baptist Church after his mailman invited him to attend an Easter program. Since then, he has joined the choir, and church members have tried to keep him involved.
Sorensen said that his relationship with his second wife, Elaine, who doesn’t drink, has been another significant step in his sobriety. He had a drink about five months ago, he said, but his drinking didn’t snowball because he feared losing her.
“It’s a partnership now instead of just one,” he said. “I went from a period where I didn’t care that much what happened to me, because I was just taking life as it came for a while, because I was kind of only responsible for me.”
Despite his troubles, Sorensen said he never doubted that he would eventually find his way back to the broadcast booth — even if everyone else did.
“In my mind, I always thought something good would happen,” he said. “I don’t think too many other people did, because I had plenty of chances, and I blew plenty of chances. I had opportunities, and I let them get away from me, but you just keep trying to bounce back.
After moving to Winston-Salem, Sorensen reconnected with Ron Wellman, the athletics director at Wake Forest, and opportunities started to open up. Wellman and Sorensen came to know each other in 1985, when Wellman was at Northwestern and Sorensen was with the Chicago Cubs.
Before meeting with Steve Shutt, Wake Forest’s associate athletics director for athletic communication, Sorensen spent an hour with him on the phone, making it clear where he had come from.
“I think that’s very important,” Shutt said. “If you have been down the road he’s been down and to try to minimize and not recognize it as a problem, then — as well-documented as it’s been — I would say that’s a problem. But he has been very, very straightforward. He encouraged me to Google him and see his story, which I’ve done. He’s definitely owned up to all of the mistakes he has made.”
Geoff Lassiter, the president of the Dash, said he was blown away when he spoke with Sorensen.
“I went in very open-minded because of the high recommendation from very trustworthy individuals and was very open to it,” Lassiter said. “Meeting with him, he was very impressive from the start — loved to talk about baseball, loved and knew the history, and was very frank, very quickly (saying), ‘Hey I’ve made some really bad mistakes in my life.’”
After those meetings and internal discussions, neither organization had reservations about hiring Sorensen.
“Outside of playing, I’m happiest doing this, which will help me on the other side of things, on the negative side of life. Obviously, the happier I am, the easier it’s going to be for me to keep things the right way,” Sorensen said.
Winning the battle
Sorensen takes a bus from his townhouse off Country Club Road, arriving at Gene Hooks Field hours before Wake Forest games to talk with players and coaches, just as he did with the Tigers.
Coach Tom Walter of Wake Forest recently thanked him for his dedication.
“It just made me feel so good,” said Sorensen, with tears in his eyes. “It shows that he knows that I’m working at it, that I’m not just doing this because I can walk in and do this and it’s no big deal. These kids work their tails off, and he works his tail off. His staff works their tails off.”
Sorensen knows that alcoholism is an everyday battle. But with so many positive things happening, he said he rarely thinks about having a drink.
“Before, there were a lot,” he said. “And there are still moments where you can’t forget that it’s a struggle. You can’t forget how easily you can fall back into it. You’ve got to remember every day that I just can’t do it.”
Something as simple as walking his dog puts him face to face with his past.
“There’s a liquor store three-quarters of a mile up the road with a gas station next to it that sells beer. … The big thing is, I take the dog for a walk, and I make a right instead of a left. If I make a right, I take the dog to the park, and we walk around for half an hour,” Sorensen said. “If I make a left, I’m exposed to some different things … you have to remember every single day, you’ve got this problem.”
Things also have improved with his family.
Sorensen beams when he talks about his daughter, Lauren, a social worker, and his son, Mark, a law student in New York who played minor-league baseball.
During phone conversations, Mark used to call Lary “old-timer” rather than “dad” if he could sense Lary had been drinking.
Sorensen said he hasn’t heard “old-timer” in a while.
“Now, it’s, ‘Dad,’” he said with a wide grin.