By Jason Keidel
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He is a New York monument, as singular as the city skyline and as monolithic as the Empire State Building, an eternal noun in our baseball lexicon.
We can mimic his slow, stiff walk to the mound, leaning slightly forward, hands buried in his back pockets, or sitting like a statue in the dugout, stone-faced, the bill of his cap slanting down his comically large nose, swollen bags sagging under his sad eyes, his hairline evaporating under the “NY”. He was the avuncular boss of our baseball team, and the dad of a dynasty. He was as popular and pertinent as our mayor. We laughed with him, cried with him, and felt every one of his very public tears. He had to come home to make it right, and right he made it.
F Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives.
He never met Joe Torre.
Hall of Fame inductions always summon some sense of nostalgia. We reflect on the career of the legend, which invariably leads to reflection over our own lives, and how the two intersect. He was younger. We were younger. And we were all better for it.
Joe Torre is the emblem of an enchanted time in New York City, when the team and the town were better and purer and way more intimate. He famously morphed from Clueless Joe to the baseball father of the five boroughs.
Leading the Yankees to four World Series titles in his first five years, Torre assumed almost mystical status, baseball’s Midas, a man and manager who could literally do no wrong. But even fairy tales end under the ornery lord of the Yankees. No one, however tamed the old lion upstairs, George Steinbrenner, as well or as long as Torre did.
We spent 12 years watching the laconic, iconic skipper weave his way across the Steinbrenner obstacle course, make the media his personal echo chamber, and charm eight million moody New Yorkers who have chewed, ingested and excreted far younger and more robust mortals. We watched him win, we watched him lose, we watched him age, we watched him beat cancer, and we watched him beat the odds.
Before Disney bought Times Square, before the tentacles of gentrification choked the life out of our island and the town was ruined by the Whole Foods, red wine and wind chimes crowd, Joe Torre strolled into Yankee Stadium and revived the Yankees, remade his image, and cemented his legacy.
He was our last old-school emperor before we pummeled the old (and only) Yankee Stadium, along with the rest of our city. The Hall of Fame is the proper, final stop of a long road that started in Brooklyn and, 50 years later, ended up in the Bronx.
The symmetry is surreal. After being fired three times, Torre was left in the dustbin of recycled managers, a career retread, a fine player but a failed skipper who just couldn’t cobble together a winner on the diamond. He bombed in Queens, St. Louis and Atlanta. The seat seemed too hot for the sedate leader whose cool mien seemed too apathetic for a psychotic vocation.
Ironically, it was in New York City – a graveyard for myriad managers – where he resuscitated his resume and stirred the ghosts and guided the Yankees back to their ancestral perch atop the sport.
He won right away, won often, and doubled as a buffer between his delicate players and his volcanic owner. The Boss got the best of every manager he hired, until he met his match in Torre, whose managerial skills extended beyond the dugout and up the executive suites. No manager in history has ever kept the Boss at bay the way Torre did.
The Yankees and Torre needed each other, and formed an improbable but supreme symbiosis. It was a divine confluence of timing and talent, one that we won’t see again. The emergence of the Core Four, combined with the sturdy and steady veterans like Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez, and David Cone gave the Yankees the perfect chemistry in the clubhouse and the flawless symmetry on the diamond.
They reflected the stoic steadiness of their manager, who never panicked, never gloated, and always won with grace in the face of historic pressure, under the hard, wide fist of Steinbrenner, who was 18-years deep in a World Series drought. And it was Torre’s task, despite never having sniffed a Fall Classic as a manager, to convince the irascible King George that he had it under control.
Cynics assert that the Yankees were so swathed in talent that anyone could have guided them to a few titles. Torre’s sense of strategy was often trivialized, his job little more than filling out their glittering lineup card.
Yet it’s no coincidence that they took on their manager’s National League ethos. Though they will always be known by their ancient handle, the Bronx Bombers were way more Cardinals, moving runners, playing pristine defense, and a conga line of golden arms on the mound.
For all their success, those dynastic Yankees had just one player hit 30 home runs while winning four World Series in five years. True to Torre’s personal and professional approach, those Yankees were best known for making the enemy bleed a slow drip – taking pitches, extending innings, and making those pay who gave them an extra out.
Torre was often regarded more as gatekeeper than general, his job was simply to stroke the epic egos dotting his dugout. But in the nouveaux sports climate of sensitivity and social media, being a referee is an enormous asset. His singular talent was keeping those stars aligned.
Manager of the New York Yankees is unlike any job in sports, a gig that requires a rack for all the hats he must wear. Despite his historic success, he was never truly appreciated, even by yours truly, who joined the angry chorus in 2004 calling for his vocational head after blowing that 3-0 lead in the ALCS. It feels rather foolish in retrospect. Only neurotic New Yorkers (like me) could find fault with six pennants in eight years, a run not seen since Casey Stengel and not even approached since.
It ended poorly, as it must with George Steinbrenner, with Torre rejecting an incentive-laden contract in 2007 and his protege, Joe Girardi, assuming the helm. Some remember Torre not for the four rings but rather the heartbreaking losses in 2001 and ’04.
Before joining WFAN/CBS I interviewed Torre for amNew York. One of his most indelible memories was having a fan tell him “You’ll do better next year” right after losing Game 7 of the World Series in the ninth inning. Despite his Brooklyn heritage, Torre never understood why fans would consider such a season a failure.
For those of us who made you feel that way, I apologize, Joe. You made baseball better, New York City singular, and the Yankees what they should be – the team of the decade, and the century. New York City is better place because of you. And so is the Hall of Fame.
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