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.