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New Start for Torborg, Mets : Baseball: Manager who helped turn around the fortunes of the Chicago White Sox faces similar task in New York.


NEW YORK — Very quickly, if the players are paying attention, the New York Mets will discover that Jeff Torborg is smarter than they are. Also better organized, more prepared and more perceptive.

And they better be paying attention. That's the new manager's first rule. Or, in his words, "They won't be playing." They won't be able to blame him for their failings. Maybe he will even enable them to be better players.

The people on the search committee -- General Manager Al Harazin; Frank Cashen, GM emeritus; Gerry Hunsicker, the vice president of baseball operations; and Fred Wilpon, the owner whose baseball input is greater than meets the eye -- were so impressed by him that they looked nowhere else. Torborg is the very model of the modern major-league manager. He will use computer technology of the 1990s and personnel skills that are more important than ever.

Plus, he has a master's degree and can stand in front of a group in a double-breasted navy blazer, gray slacks and red power necktie, and his appearance is that they all fit. As reinforcement, he has a four-year contract.

He is more like the people on the search committee than anybody they could have found except for Tony La Russa, who has had his own share of success. No wonder they didn't search anywhere else.

That's not a negative. Those people who have been negative about Torborg, you wouldn't want as allies. Torborg is the right man for the job. For that matter, he's probably the right man for any job. Baseball happens to be his line of business; his values go beyond an understanding of the hit-and-run. You would not expect him to spit on the floor in your living room. You would not expect to find him in an embarrassing position on the road. He does not drink and he is a regular at the chapel meetings, but he does not impose that on people around him.

He has a sense of humor. He has a sense of media. They are important parts of the equation. He will have to drive the fog out of that clubhouse.

All the while, we have to understand that a manager can do just so much to change around a team that wasn't good enough. He isn't a miracle worker, but he did turn the direction of the Chicago White Sox, who had been moribund for years.

When it became clear to Harazin and Cashen that they wouldn't bring back Bud Harrelson, they searched their knowledge of the National League and asked those people whose judgment they trusted in the American League. And Wilpon spoke with his good friend Sandy Koufax, whose evaluation of Torborg goes back to their days as pitcher and catcher with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Torborg was so far ahead of the field, they stopped counting.

Harazin's list of qualifications said Torborg had experience as a major-league manager, had demonstrated managerial ability, knew and had a great feel for pitching, had strength of character and respect of his players, was smart and enthusiastic, could communicate, was easy to work with, could work in an organization, knew and understood New York, had strong media skills, was a gentleman they'd want to represent the organization, "finally, and probably first in importance, he knew how to win."

Torborg took his position with a characteristic response. "Maybe," he said to Harazin, "your credibility is at stake."

A sense of humor is very important in a job that leaves a man wide open to attack from all sides, no matter how skilled he is. He has learned a job that was at first over his head. He was hired to manage in Cleveland in 1977 and fired at Cleveland two years later.

He was Frank Robinson's coach with the Indians and turned down the job five times, by Torborg's count, in one day. He regarded Robinson highly and had his own sense of loyalty, but Robinson advised that the job was no longer his and Torborg ought to take it. "I hope I'm better now," Torborg said. "I just wasn't ready for it. I had just finished playing, I'd been a coach and I was too concerned about players' feelings."

George Steinbrenner, who was very big on advanced technology and even bigger on an academic image, hired Torborg as a Yankee coach. When Torborg agreed to take the job aw coach at Princeton, Steinbrenner made him a seven-year offer he couldn't refuse. In 1982, Steinbrenner even offered to make Torborg general manager. Torborg said he wasn't yet ready to take a necktie career. It was also clear that however good a survivor he might be, general managers had short lives with the Yankees.

He was not offered the Yankee manager's job, then or now. "Y'know, it's funny," Torborg said. "People said at the Yankees, 'He's too easy.' At Cleveland they said, 'He's too easy.' You haven't heard that in Chicago."

All the while he was assimilating what he had ween from his earlier managers and the succession of Yankees managers, including Billy Martin, whose manner was at the other end of the spectrum. Walter Alston showed patience, Bobby Winkles a gung-ho attitude, Lefty Phillips a respect for pitching, Del Rice a willingness to let players play, Martin an intensity and a fearlessness about making any move, Bob Lemon's calming effect in the clubhouse, Yogi Berra's great instinctiveness, Dick Howser's ability to get along with everybody, Gene Michael's organization, Clyde King's handling of players. His elegance is all his own.

"Billy and I didn't get along several times," Torborg said. "He didn't think I was a loyal coach. I'm not a drinker, so I didn't go out and drink with him. I had the seven-year deal."

He also saw examples of what not to do and has the diplomacy not to identify them.

He's ready for the job. The players better be ready for him.

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