By Ernie Palladino
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Managers never win world championships. The great players he puts on the field do.
But a manager can mess up a talented team quite easily by letting his own ego get in the way of those doing the actual hitting and fielding.
Joe Torre never did that, which is why the expansion era committee flung open the doors of Cooperstown for him Monday.
They put in Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox, too, and both were deserving of the honor. But of the three, Torre was the one who didn’t have the ego. He was the one who never believed he invented the game, the one who played his players like a finely-carved violin and kept a hungry media at bay with wit and charm, especially on those few occasions when things turned dark.
From 1996 to 2007, Torre won four championships and six AL pennants with the Yanks. That’s in the books. You can look it up. And he won them with players like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Tino Martinez, Paul O’Neill, David Wells, Bernie Williams, and a host of others.
You can look that up, too.
What doesn’t appear in the great book, though, is how Torre kept all the various personalities in check. The Yankees’ never-ending collection of talent brought together by the late George Steinbrenner’s win-now spending philosophy could easily have turned into the worst incarnation of the Boston Red Sox of that era. You know, 25 players, 25 taxis to the game.
But Torre somehow managed to keep them together, all focused on a singular goal, with a mixture of baseball acumen and humor. He could be hard when he needed to. There were a few harsh locker room meetings, especially when the late owner wasn’t delighted with a slow start or stammering mid-schedule.
Yet, there was generally the understanding among the players that Torre knew what he was talking about, knew what he was doing. Over-managing was rarely a word associated with him as it was with La Russa, unless one was privy to one dugout press conference when Jeff Nelson and Mike Stanton were setting up Rivera in the early 2000s.
“Well,” Torre told the media around midseason, “of course we’ve got Mo closing, and we’ve got Jeff for the eighth inning. We’ve got Stanton for the seventh. I’m just looking for that one guy to pitch that little slice of the sixth, those one or two outs or that tough lefty that comes up. If I find that, we’ll be set.”
Cutting things a little fine there, admittedly. But that was how Torre thought. It was Steinbrenner’s non-budget budget that allowed him to think in those terms to begin with. You don’t collect baseball talent with credit card bonus points, you know.
Beyond that, there was his grace and humor. Many a day did Torre regale the media and, by extension, newspaper-reading fans with his stories of the old days and comments about the present day.
Most telling was one he made about Jeter in 2004. Jeter was heading for his ninth of the 12 postseasons that began his career. Torre had been talking about the team at large, about how lucky his collection of thoroughbreds were to be looking at yet another postseason. And then he stopped himself.
“You know who I really feel sorry for?” Torre asked rhetorically. “Jeter. He thinks this happens every year! It doesn’t. You’ve got have some luck to get to the postseason.”
Jeter had it, in spades. By the time Torre was finished, he had added four more championship trophies to the display case.
He did it all with class, sometimes while battling prostate cancer and advocating on behalf of abused children. He did it with superlative on-field talent, something without which even the best managers in the world can’t win.
He was the right man at the right time for a club that had fallen on hard times before 1996.
And he didn’t mess it up when it would have been so easy to do just that.
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