Major Leagues: East or West, Torre’s the best
By Jim Litke
Some outtakes from the commercials that Joe Torre made about his “new life” on the Left Coast are much funnier than the scenes that made the final cut. No matter. Whether he’s pretending to surf or practice yoga, or just driving around town in a convertible, what comes through is how much the man loves LA.
What you might not know watching the same laid-back guy manage the Dodgers is that still he loves winning baseball games even more.
Torre was born and raised and Brooklyn, and the first time we met was in 1990 in Chicago, by way of St. Louis. He’d just been hired by the Cardinals to replace Whitey Herzog, marking the third club Torre toiled for as a field hand that thought enough of his acumen to bring him back as a field manager. Candidly, Torre admitted having second thoughts.
He’d managed the Mets for five season without distinction, then turned in a first-place finish and two seconds in Atlanta in three years and got fired anyway. He could make fun of those experiences, but they convinced him to take a job in the broadcast booth for the Angels, certain he didn’t need the aggravation any longer. For six years, Torre had a cushy job, a wife happy that he was home most of the time, good hours, lots of golf ó just about everything he ever wanted.
But he had just turned 50, too, and said he decided that what he wanted more than any of it was the World Series ring he never got as a player. So he’d come back for one more shot, determined to get it out of his system rather than moan about passing it up forever. And what Torre found surprised him.
“I guess I just realized that I like the view better from this dugout,” Torre said, running his hand along the padded bench, “than anywhere else in the park.”
The self-deprecating humor served Torre well when he landed the Yankees job a half-dozen years later. In a clubhouse always brimming with alpha males, he figured out which screws to tighten and which to loosen, and did both without turning anyone off. He kept the Boss at bay, let everyone do his job and took the heat every time they didn’t.
In all, Torre won four World Series, six pennants and made the playoffs every one of his dozen seasons there. Never mind that the last team he was handed looked like it would have trouble qualifying for the Little League World Series, let alone the grown-up version. Hank Steinbrenner’s idea of a reward was to cut Torre’s salary roughly into thirds, and hand over the final chunk only if the Yankees made it all the way to the World Series.
Torre, who knows his way around a racetrack, knows a losing bet when he sees one. More important, he’d lost the stomach to prove his worth to the Yankee brass one more time and walked out the door. He didn’t have a contingency plan, but when the Dodgers came calling, Torre couldn’t resist.
“That was an insult. Like I had to be motivated to win with more money. It’s nice,” Torre recalled just ahead of Los Angeles division series with the Cubs, “not to have that here.”
What he didn’t have at the outset with the Dodgers were a few of his best players. Table-setter Rafael Furcal and starter Brad Penny wound up injured and missing-in-action for big chunks of the season, requiring Torre to play mix-and-match with his lineups. That’s tough for any for any manager to do, but even tougher when you’re new to the job.
But Torre’s patience was rewarded when the Dodgers added Manny Ramirez, then got Furcal back in time to launch the club’s most successful postseason run in 20 years. If their underdog role heading into the series in Chicago wasn’t motivation enough, Torre got all the bulletin-board material he needed from a column Hank Steinbrenner wrote for the Sporting News.
Complaining about baseball’s divisional setup, Steinbrenner whined “it isn’t fair. You see it this season, with plenty of people in the media pointing out that Joe Torre and the Dodgers are going to the playoffs while we’re not.
“This is by no means a knock on Torre,” he added. “Let me make that clear. But look at the division they’re in. If LA were in the AL East, it wouldn’t be in the playoff discussion.”
Torre didn’t rise to the bait, having learned from his dealings with Hank’s old man that some things are better left unsaid. Instead, he did the same things he always done ó put his players in a position to deliver and then gets out of their way. His teams never doubt how much Torre wants to win; trusting them to find a way to win is why he always gets their best.
That approach has served Torre well not just in the clubhouse, but at the track as well.
Last Saturday at Belmont Park in New York, a horse named Vineyard Haven that Bobby Frankel trains and Torre owns a piece of won the Champagne Stakes. The 2-year-old thoroughbred still has plenty to prove before he’ll be pointed toward the Kentucky Derby. But if somebody said a year ago the same guy might have a shot at both the World Series and the Derby by now, most of us would have guessed it was the Boss instead of someone who used to work for him.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org