Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Joe Torre

Though I would like nothing more than to be wrong about this, it seems inevitable that Joe Torre’s tenure as manager of the New York Yankees is about to end. I’m going to add a few more words to the thousands that have already been written in recent days, because if it happens, it signifies the end of an extraordinary era in baseball.

Whether or not one is a fan of the Yankees, their owner, or their payroll, the fact is that since 1996 the team, like no other in baseball, has come to represent sustained excellence. I’m not a Yankees fan, but I fully appreciate what they have accomplished over the past 12 years. In a year like 1998, when they fielded one of the greatest teams in the history of the sport, rooting against them seemed pointless. That team deserved to be savored, whether you liked them or not. In 2001 and 2003 it was easy to root for them in the World Series, against upstarts like the Florida Marlins and the Arizona Diamondbacks. In 2004, it was fun to rejoice in their epic collapse against Boston, if for no other reason that it had never happened before. But win or lose in the end, baseball is better, more meaningful, when the Yankees are successful – in much the same way that football is enriched when teams like the Packers and Bears succeed, and how college football is more fun when Notre Dame is actually good.

Now that the Torre era seems over, his years with the Yankees are being scrutinized; his weaknesses magnified. It’s only natural; when things like this happen in sports, people want to hear explanations. But to say that Torre’s reign in New York was anything less than spectacularly successful would be just plain wrong. With dignity and class, Torre succeeded in the most difficult of circumstances – the least forgiving fans, the most aggressive media, the most demanding owner. He won the loyalty of his players, and guided them to great heights. Sure, he made tactical mistakes. All baseball managers do; there is no such thing as the perfect baseball manager. It’s instructive to recall that when Torre was hired in 1996, the initial reaction was derision – even bonafide baseball experts like Bill James had a hard time figuring it out.

But that’s one of the great things about baseball. Had Torre’s managerial career ended in 1995 when he was let go by the St. Louis Cardinals, it would have been considered a failure. But as it turned out, he was the perfect choice for New York, and exceeded everyone’s expectations in spectacular fashion. He will be missed, and I’ll miss seeing him, whether it be sitting in the dugout, slowly walking to the pitcher’s mound, quietly celebrating the success of his players. A class act, from start to finish.

1 comment:

O.M. Woods said...

Thank you for your post. Great to see there are thoughtful baseball fans out there, and not just the extreme fans, ranting for this or that one's head when their team loses.

I agree with you 100% regarding Joe Torre -- class act all the way. His story has a kind of mythic American quality. In my opinion, his emergence as a great coach, and the Yankees re-emergence (in my mind actually beginning in 1995, when they signed David Cone) as a great team, signalled the beginning of a new era in baseball.

Under Joe Torre, the Yankees, especially from 1996 - 2000, actually taught other teams how to win by showing what it means to never give up, and by not giving up, Torre's teams demonstrated what an impact that can have -- sometimes in the realm of magical. Joe Torre brought NL strategies to AL games, and it worked because in the end, the game is the game.

Mostly though, at bottom, it is the heart and courage of the players, and not talent alone that wins games. Joe Torre knows that. Over the past several seasons, his great talent as a manager has been most tested and most revealed. Recently, despite being given weak pitching staffs (or having the teams suffer devastating injuries), Torre helped give his teams the will to win the division (at least 10 straight times). During the infamous 2004 post season, in my opinion, the team crumbled partly because some of the most talented players lacked requisite heart and courage. Of course, Joe Torre is not perfect (I can remember a time when every move he made was considered perfect, and a thesis could be written on the reason for that).

Joe Torre, in his last years with the Yanks has still been a winner and he got every ounce he could out of his players during the season, but the teams were not well-balanced as a whole, which showed in the post season. George Steinbrenner has himself and his poor decisions to thank for many of the difficulties the Yankees teams have suffered over the last few years. Not resigning Andy Pettitte after the 2003 season was huge.

Thanks again for your post. It is indeed the end of an era. I doubt Joe Torre truly wants to come back. Some feel he may be given a one-year deal, which Joe may decide to pass on, and I don't blame him. I also totally agree with you about the game having more excitement and meaning when the Yankees were winning World Series -- perhaps it has something to do with the long history and tradition of that franchise. Ignoring the owner and the more bellicose, spoiled fans, the Yankees are baseball.

One last observation: I have always found it interesting that the Yankees have not won the World Series since 2000 -- David Cone's last year with the team. He was not only a leader, to me, he was a good luck charm and one of the gutsiest pitchers to ever take the mound.