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Keefe To The City: Spending Time With Torre

Joe Torre (WFAN)

Joe Torre (WFAN)

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By Neil Keefe
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I read The Yankees Years, so when I attended the WFAN/Joe Torre breakfast on Wednesday at the Hard Rock Cafe, I wasn’t sure what stories and information I would hear that I didn’t already know. I felt like it was going to see a stand-up comedian perform after already seeing their HBO special in that you didn’t know if there would be new material or just the same old stuff repeated.

There were a few stories that overlapped with the book, and that was expected, but for the most part, Joe Torre gave the audience a real look at the team he managed for 12 years. It was informative and insightful and left me leaving the Hard Rock with more respect and appreciation for the him than I already had.

After the way Torre’s tenure came to an end in the Bronx, and the fact that the team didn’t win during his final seven seasons sort of made his value to me depreciate, and I took for granted what he did in his first five years with the Yankees. I can admit that I wanted change after 2007 and thought that Joe Girardi was the right answer to some of the Yankees’ problems, but I can honestly say now that I wish Torre had stayed.

As a Yankees fan, Torre always presented optimism when he was the manager. After hard losses or during stretches where the Yankees just didn’t look like the Yankees, he would deflect the team’s real problems and tell the media, and more importantly the fans, that everything was going to be all right, and you believed him. For someone that has never met the man, I think it’s easy to trust Joe Torre and his decisions. With his calm demeanor and approach and his soothing voice just sipping away on Bigelow Tea, it’s almost impossible to not trust that he is going to lead you the right way.

Torre told the audience on Wednesday that he was initially offered the general manager job for the Yankees in 1996, but turned it down because it didn’t include vacation time. He also said that George Steinbrenner once told him not to call him ever because he had a way of talking George into things. I know that the four championships are enough to be thankful for, but when you think of the combination of Torre as general manager and the idea that he was one of only a handful of people in the world that could talk George out of things, it’s hard not to think that maybe the Yankees would have won even more times with Joe in the front office than they did with him as manager. And when you think of some of the terrible free-agent signings and trades that took place while Joe was managing, maybe they would have been prevented if he had the upper hand and a prominent role in the front office. But I’m happy with how things turned out and I can’t complain.

Torre told a lot of stories on Wednesday. He said how Bernie Williams was his favorite and that he could always tell that Derek Jeter was destined for great things in the game, but my three favorite stories from the breakfast were:

1. While Mel Stottlemyre was recovering from multiple myeloma, he was watching Game 2 of the 2000 World Series in Torre’s office with George Steinbrenner and eating cheeseburgers. After Roger Clemens threw the broken bat in the direction of Mike Piazza in the top of the first inning, Clemens went into Torre’s office where Stottlemyre and Steinbrenner were in the middle of the first inning and just began crying like a baby and saying that he didn’t mean to throw the bat at Piazza.

2. One of the first times Andy Pettitte was making a start for the Yankees, Torre saw Pettitte preparing by just staring aimlessly at a wall with this scared look on his face and Torre wasn’t sure what was going to happen with Pettitte. When Torre told that story, I couldn’t help but think of the opening scene from the movie The Scout, and when you think of Pettitte now being the winningest postseason pitcher of all time, there is no chance that Torre thought that is who he would become from the way he looked that day.

3. My favorite story by far. Mike Francesa asked Torre when he knew in 1998 that he had a special team, and Torre said he knew during the 1997 playoffs against the Indians. He said when he took out Paul O’Neill for a pinch runner in the ninth inning of Game 5, he could see veins popping out of his neck. And when Bernie Williams made the last out of the series, he had to be peeled off the steps in the dugout. Torre said that those teams went battled everyday for one another and all they cared about was winning, and he knew that in 1998 they would only care about winning after going out in the first round in 1997. I would like to think that the present day Yankees have the same drive that the Yankees of the late 90s had, but I don’t think it exists, and I don’t know if it will again.

I think the most amazing part of Torre’s storytelling was his incredible memory. He managed 1,942 regular season games for the Yankees and another 123 postseason games. But he remembered when he pinch ran and who pinch ran, when he called for an intentional and who he walked, and why he brought Mariano earlier in some games because of who was due up in certain innings. When I talk to my friends about specific events in Yankees games from the past, they can never understand how I can remember the most intricate details, but even my Yankees memory doesn’t hold a candle to Joe Torre’s. But I guess if I were the one who had to actually make the moves and decisions, I would remember all of them as clearly as Joe does.

If given the opportunity to sit down and ask Joe Torre questions, I could do it for weeks, probably even months, and I believe he would give me thorough and truthful answers to any question. I decided to make a list of questions that I would ask Joe if given the chance, but the list ended up being way too long. So, I decided to cut it down, and then cut it down again and again. I was finally able to get it down to six questions and then I couldn’t cut it down anymore. So here are the six questions I want answers to (actually I need answers to) from the man who made the decisions.

Game 4, 2003 World Series: Why Jeff Weaver instead of Mariano Rivera?
After the Yankees won Games 2 and 3 of the 2003 World Series the series was proclaimed over. And not the way that Michael Kay said the Yankees-Rangers series was over after the Yankees won Game 1 in this year’s ALCS, I’m taking over like every person in the world aside from the 25 guys on the Marlins thought the series was over. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Yankees’ 27th championship. And that funny thing happened to be the performance by arguably my most hated Yankee ever: Jeffrey Charles Weaver.

Tied 3-3 in Game 4, Torre brought in Weaver to start the 11th inning and he retired the side (Jeff Conine, Mike Lowell and Derrek Lee) in order on eight pitches. But Jeff Weaver was Jose Veras before Jose Veras was Jose Veras. If you got one shutdown inning from Weaver it was like hitting big on red. Just walk away with your winnings! Instead Torre put it all on black on the next spin and went back to Weaver in the 12th, and Alex Gonzalez hit a walk-off home run on a 3-2 pitch, and the Marlins never lost another game in the series.

Sitting in the bullpen while this happened was Mariano Rivera, just the best relief pitcher in the history of baseball. No big deal. I have had countless arguments with people about bringing closers into must-win tied games or games you are trailing and I always come back to the same point: Don’t lose a must-win game without using your best reliever.

On Wednesday, Torre talked about Game 7 of the 2001 World Series and how he was going to bring in Ramiro Mendoza into the 0-0 game unless Alfonso Soriano hit a home run against Curt Schilling. Torre said his coaches wanted him to being in Mariano, but he said to them, “Who I am going to bring in if we get the lead?” But just like that, Soriano hit a home run, so his decision to bring in Rivera instead of Mendoza was made for him.

This was always my biggest problem with Torre. He was worried about who he was going to bring “if” he got the lead. I always think you should worry about extending the game long enough until you get the lead and worry about the lead once you get it. Never lose a postseason game, let alone a World Series game, with your best reliever going unused. Never.

2004 ALCS: Why Tom Gordon ever?
At the breakfast, Torre said that Tom Gordon was the guy that scared him the most entering the 2004 ALCS and the guy he was most worried about bringing into games. So what did he do? He used him in every game of the series except Game 6. Again, no big deal.

Gordon actually pitched well in Game 4 (2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 1 K), but in Games 1, 2, 3, 5 and 7 he was a mess (4.2 IP, 10 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 2 HR).

In Game 5, (which I regretfully attended for the small price of all my spending money for the first semester of freshmen year of college) after relieving Tanyon Sturtze in the seventh inning with runners on first and second and Manny Ramirez up, Gordon got a 5-4-3 double play to end the inning.

He came back out for the eighth with a two-run lead. David Ortiz homered over the Monster to lead off the inning and then Kevin Millar walked on six pitches. Trot Nixon singled on a 3-1 pitch and suddenly the Red Sox had runners on first and third with no one out and Tom Gordon had the face of a kid lost in a department store on Christmas Eve. Mariano came in and allowed a sac fly to Jason Varitek which tied the score and gave Mariano a blown save, which I am still bitter about since he didn’t ruin the game. Rivera retied Bill Mueller and Mark Bellhorn to follow, but the damage was done and it was all Tom Gordon’s fault once again.

Game 6, 2004 ALCS: Why not bunt against Curt Schilling?
I can barely talk about this game without breaking some personal belongings, but all I know is the one time I remember Curt Schilling having to cover first base, he moved as gingerly as Chien-Ming Wang running around the bases in 2008.

Why didn’t you bunt, Joe? Why didn’t you bunt? WHYYYYYY?

Game 7, 2004 ALCS: Why Kevin Brown?
I read this in the Torre’s book and I couldn’t sleep for three nights after reading it. He retold the story on Wednesday.

Torre said his options for Game 7 were Kevin Brown, Javier Vazquez and Orlando Hernandez, but he said El Duque was hesitant to pitch and didn’t think he could physically perform, so Torre was left with Brown and Vazquez. A rock and a hard place. A noose or the chair. There was no right answer.

Torre sat down next to Brown in the lunchroom and asked him if he could pitch Game 7 and told him he didn’t need someone to try to be a hero, he needed someone that could go out and win, and Brown said he would win. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Kevin Brown’s word might not mean much.

I still don’t know how Torre trusted Brown. I think I would have an easier time leaving a bag of money on the subway with a note that says, “Please don’t spend, and return to this address” and trusting the money to actually be returned than I would looking Kevin Brown in the eyes during that 2004 season and having him tell me he could win a Game 7 and believing it.

If I were Torre I would have scrapped Brown and Vazquez, and started Mariano and worked my way backwards through the game by piecing together the game out by out and inning by inning. Unorthodox? Yes. Unusual? Yes. Crazy? Maybe. But maybe the Red Sox would still be without a championship if Torre went this route. Then again, how could he use Mariano that early? Who would he use “if” the Yankees got the lead? The Red Sox made that easy by going up 6-0 in the second inning off Brown and Vazquez.

Game 2, 2006 ALDS: Why leave Mike Mussina in?
Some people forget about this game. I didn’t.

I was at the Stadium for Game 1 of the series when the Yankees won 8-4 and it felt more like 18-4. River Ave. was full of “Sweep, Sweep, Sweep” chants after the game and Yankees fans could taste the path to the World Series. No, the Yankee didn’t have a great rotation (Chien-Ming Wang, Mike Mussina, Randy Johnson, Jaret Wright) or even a good one, but they had Murderer’s Row and Cano, and the Tigers rotation was equally as bad (Nate Robertson, Justin Verlander, Kenny Rogers, Jeremy Bonderman) for the series. And if the Yankees could get by the Tigers, waiting would be either the Twins (their whipping boy) or the A’s (their other whipping boy).

The following day, the game was rained out, forcing a day game for Game 2. A day playoff game at Yankee Stadium was and is never a good thing. It takes away the crazy atmosphere of playing in Yankee Stadium and in the city at night that is supposed to instill fear into the opposition in October. But the Yankees had a 3-2 lead after five innings and you could feel like a 2-0 series lead coming. Then Mike Mussina turned into Mike Mussina.

In the sixth inning, Mussina allowed a game-tying home run to Carlos Guillen, and it was disappointing, but there was still that feeling that the Yankees would win the game. Then in the seventh inning, the combination of a single, passed ball, bunt groundout and triple gave the Tigers the lead and they would never trail again in the series.

One of the Yankees I trusted the least from 2001-08 was Mike Mussina. That may come as a surprise to some because I am pretty sure most people liked Mike Mussina and his knuckle curve and his crossword puzzles, but the Moose just wasn’t a favorite of mine. I know that he had some big games for the Yankees in playoffs (like his relief appearance in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS), but he was 5-7 in the postseason for the Yankees, and I always felt like he would pitch just good enough to lose, and this game was a clear example.

It was hard to trust any other starter for the years that Mussina was on the team, so I understand why Torre always stuck with him a little longer than he should have, the same way that Joe Girardi always stays with A.J. Burnett one hitter too long.

Game 2, 2007 ALDS: Why didn’t you pull the team from the field?
Here is Joba Chamberlain’s line for the 2007 regular season:

24 IP, 12 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 1 HR, 6 BB, 34 K, 0.38 ERA, 0.750 WHIP

When you look at those numbers, you would just assume that the combination of Joba and Mariano in the playoffs would be unbeatable, and it should have been. That is, if a million midges didn’t take over the field in Game 2 of the 2007 ALDS.

In the regular season, Joba walked six in 24 innings, hit one batter and threw one wild pitch. But here’s what happened in the eighth inning of Game 2 with Joba on the mound:

Grady Sizemore walks on four pitches.
Sizemore goes to second on a wild pitch.
Asdrubal Cabrera sacrifice bunts. Sizemore moves to third.
Travis Hafner lines out.
Sizemore scores on a wild pitch.
Victor Martinez hit by a pitch.
Ryan Garko walks. Martinez moves to second.
Jhonny Peralta strikes out.

In six hitters, Joba doubled his wild pitch total for the season, hit as many batters as he had in the regular season and walked a third of his walk total for the regular season. Meanwhile the Yankees trainers were soaking Joba in bug spray, which we later found out is exactly what you don’t want to do when midges appear, and on the other side of the mound, Fausto Carmona was basically eating the midges and continuing to shut down the Yankees lineup.

Sometimes there are things in baseball that you can’t explain, and the midges appearing for one inning in Game 2 of the 2007 ALDS that changed the course of the game and the series before disappearing is unexplainable. Then again, so is the decision to not take your team off the field.

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