Legends of October: Joe Torre
For Joe Torre the player, it was a story of near misses.
He arrived as a rookie in Milwaukee just after the great Braves teams of the late 1950s had faded. He was traded from Atlanta to St. Louis the season before the Braves won a division title, which was also the season after the Cardinals made the World Series. Then Torre was shipped off to the Mets just in time to dodge their improbable pennant run in 1973.
In his 18-year playing career, Torre toiled on just five losing teams. He made nine All-Star appearances, won an MVP and notched more than 2,300 hits. But none of it, thanks to bad luck and timing, yielded a spot on baseball’s biggest stage.
Lucky for Torre, though, he yearned to manage. Today, Torre cites being traded as helping him mature as a person — and a baseball man. “When you’re traded,” Torre says, “You realize someone wants you, but you also realize someone doesn’t want you. That will make you grow up a bit.”
As an occasional catcher, his managers leaned on him, spent time with him, bent his ear. As co-captain alongside Lou Brock, he learned about pushing, pulling others toward a shared goal. He would become a manager for the first time in 1977, and eventually he would manage every team he played for. But for a long time — far too long for Torre’s tastes — his story as a manager was no different: a bunch of near misses.
Indeed, at one point in his baseball career, Torre had played or managed a record 4,272 major-league games (2,209 as a player) without ever reaching the World Series — a record that still stands. However, in 1996, his first season as manager of the Yankees, his tenacity was rewarded.
Torre, of course, was at the time an uninspiring hire for so many in the entitled New York media. The Daily News branded him "Clueless Joe," and the suspicion at large was that Torre was out of his depth.
Despite the naysayers, Torre’s Yankees made the World Series in that first season at the helm. Still, the heavily favored Braves thumped the Yanks in the opening two games in the Bronx. As they readied for Atlanta, the story has it Torre assured George Steinbrenner that they’d win all three games in Atlanta. “That’s the truth,” Torre says, “but I was just kidding with him.”
What he said to Steinbrenner was this: “We’re going to Atlanta, and that’s my town. We’ll win three there, and then we’ll win it all for you back here next Saturday.”
Joe Torre, the accidental prophet. The Yankees did indeed win all three in Atlanta and then close it out back in New York. But not without some high intrigue. After a win in Game 3, Torre and the Yankees found themselves down 6-0 in the middle innings of Game 4. As Torre says, he was “just so excited to finally be a part of the World Series,” that the surrounding pressures didn’t get to him. By extension, they seemed not to get to his team. “Just try to cut the lead in half,” he told them after the fifth inning.
Torre knew, of course, that leads, even large leads, can be whittled away so long as that lead is attacked with purpose and not panic. “You feel the pain of blowing lead,” he says, “and you know it can serve you well later.”
Torre refers to his time as manager of the Cardinals, when, on his birthday, he watched his team fritter away an 11-0 lead to the Astros. (Later that same night, he compounded miseries by breaking his toe.) And so the Yankees, anchored, as they so often would be, by Torre’s determined steadiness, pieced together a methodical three runs in the sixth. And then, in the eighth, Jim Leyritz’s unlikely blast tied the score. They won the game in the 10th. They won the Series, just like Torre sorta-kinda promised, back in New York in Game 6.
Suddenly, "Clueless Joe" was the subject of no more tired puns. He was the manager who guided the Yankees to their first championship in 15 years. Of course, he had only begun to burnish his reputation.
In 1998, he helmed one of the greatest teams of all time, and in the process, after all those years, he learned something about managing. Before Game 3 of the ALDS against the Rangers, he sensed a little too much seriousness, a little too much sense of purpose on the part of his team. “You guys are as tight as a drum,” he told them. “They’re the ones down 0-2. The pressure’s on them.”
They didn’t seem to respond. Then Torre realized something: “Those guys were so focused, so driven, that I just had to let them go. Pressure is created when you have a group that you feel you need to say something to. That wasn’t this group.” In the process, Torre learned — re-learned — that the most important thing a manager can do is to “know the temperature of the ballclub on a regular basis.”
And who has done that better than Torre? A manager on the far margins typically doesn’t survive for very long. The unrelenting disciplinarian wears down morale. The permissive “players’ guy” loses the clubhouse. But rare is the skipper like Torre who can play both roles — and all roles in between — depending on mood and moment. No one struck a balance quite like he did.
And so he lasted. He oversaw another win over the Braves in ‘99 and the Yankees’ triumph in the Subway Series of 2000 (the most pressure Torre ever felt as a manger, he says). He also absorbed the toughest loss of his managerial career — Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. Which raised a question: If he could go back and rewrite history, would he win that Game 7 in 2001, or would he win the World Series as a player?
“That’s one of the toughest ones I’ve ever been asked,” Torre trails off. “It would have been nice to win four in a row … I think I would’ve liked to have been in the batter’s box a couple of times, and don’t think I didn’t fantasize about that. I told (Derek) Jeter once, ‘Between you and Chipper (Jones), you guys think this happens every year.’ So that’s a tough call, but maybe winning one as a player maybe edges it out, if I had to choose.”
In reality, though, there’s little Torre would change about the way his baseball life has unfolded. With four championship rings as a manager and a Hall-of-Fame-caliber career as a player, really, why would he?