By Jason Keidel
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You remember the bold ink on the back page: Clueless Joe. A three-time loser in the National League, Joe Torre limped over to the AL and found gold, an unprecedented confluence of timing and talent that stands alone in contemporary baseball history.
Torre came to New York with a stained resume and left as royalty, a retread-turned-Hall of Famer whose legacy was just cemented in the place that produces our baseball heroes.
You remember his dark, brooding face buried under his cap, hands plunged into his pockets; his slow, forward-leaning walk to the mound, as though fighting a hard wind. In a city that celebrates volume, Torre won us over with understatement, with deeds and decency.
The enchanted Torre era — four World Series rings between 1996 and 2000 — spawned a generation of spoiled Yankees fans, those with the “Got Rings?” shirts and microscopic attention spans. They are the folks who inhabit the new Yankee Stadium — the Abercrombie crowd, the sushi and martini bunch with iPhones glued to their ears for seven innings, unaware of the score but keenly aware of the nearest, red-lit camera.
They don’t remember the decade before Torre. They don’t remember the Stump Merrill Yanks, the turnstile managerial approach that left a conga line of unemployed skippers who felt the fury of George Steinbrenner. The ’80s belonged to the Mets, a brutal reality to millions of New Yorkers who were reared on the Bronx Zoo Bombers in the ’70s. As quickly as Steinbrenner built a winner, he lost his grip, spending like Mike Tyson on disparate parts, from Rickey Henderson to Jack Clark to Jesse Barfield.
But when King George was benched over the Howie Spira scandal, Bob Watson and Stick Michael built the most fertile farm system in the sport, and didn’t adhere to Steinbrenner’s old coda of dealing every Al Leiter and Jose Rijo for an aging All-Star.
By the time Steinbrenner resumed the reigns, the Yankees were loaded, with a fledgling Core Four and an army of team-first veterans who checked their pride at the door. All they needed was the right psychological and tactical touch. For whatever reason, Buck Showalter didn’t get a true chance to see the mission through. So we got Torre, who brought a more paternal approach to the team. Perhaps he learned from his mounting failures. Perhaps he was always a good leader. Perhaps both.
But right away we felt the Torre magic, whether it was inserting Darryl Strawberry here, or Cecil Fielder there. The first sign that something special was in the chamber was Doc Gooden’s no-hitter on that raw spring night in 1996.
Six months later, the Yankees were down 0-2 to the Braves in the World Series, which Torre told Steinbrenner would happen. He also said that the Yankees would win the next four, which also happened.
Torre restored stability and returned the Yankees to their ancestral perch atop baseball. They ended the 20th Century the way they started it with Babe Ruth 80 years earlier, making pinstripes the emblem of success. And a Yankees parade became an autumn ritual again.
It ended, like all dynasties do. Some say it ended when David Wells removed himself from the 2003 World Series. Others think it ended when the Yankees gagged that 3-0 lead to Boston in ’04. But you could argue it has as much to do with an aging roster as Torre losing his wand.
It ended poorly, as all dynasties do, with Torre bickering with The Boss in 2007 over his final contract, an incentive-laden pact that Torre found rather insulting. And thus became the frigid friendship between Torre and the Yankees for the next few years, which warmed up as The Boss slowly passed away. Torre was there for Steinbrenner’s memorial at Yankee Stadium, and now he’s back for good, among the immortals, joining the ghosts of Yankees past.
Torre lasted 12 years in New York City, dog years in Yankee Stadium. He toed the corporate line dividing the boss and his players, acting as a stout buffer between the irascible owner and the delicate egos in the dugout. Torre took Steinbrenner’s best shot and still kept his team unified, which is just as miraculous as winning four World Series in five years.
Nothing against Joe Girardi, a fine baseball mind who absorbed ample sermons at the Torre altar. But there was an ethereal quality to the Torre years. Maybe it’s because we were all a little younger, and a little better — like the team, the time and our town. Suffice it to say that New York City, if not the nation, will never see the charmed alchemy we enjoyed from 1996 until that fly ball landed softly in Bernie Williams’ glove in Shea Stadium in 2000.
So it’s quite fitting that the Yankees have decided to retire No. 6, which the laconic, iconic Torre wore with elegance for a dozen years. There are only two single-digits missing from Monument Park. Soon, Derek Jeter, No. 2, will fill the final void.
But for today, Joe Torre is No. 1, sui generis of our generation.
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