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Solid Rock

Baseball: Joe Torre, once a sub-.500 manager labeled 'Clueless Joe' by one New York tabloid, has guided the Yankees to four world championships in five years.

March 25, 2001|KEN ROSENTHAL | THE SPORTING NEWS

It is just one Joe Torre story. It is not even the definitive Joe Torre story, for nearly every Yankee can tell you his own.

Sept. 14, 1999. The Yankees lead the Red Sox by 3 1/2 games. Third baseman Scott Brosius arrives early at SkyDome, needing to see Torre.

Brosius is distraught. His father, Maury, 56, died two days earlier of colon cancer. The funeral is still several days away. But Brosius wants to go home.

"He was more supportive than I could have hoped for," Brosius recalls. "He got up, gave me a hug and said, 'Hit the road.' "

No big deal, you say? Something any manager would do? Perhaps, but the Yankees were in the middle of a pennant race, and Torre is accountable to perhaps the most demanding owner in sports.

*

He gave Brosius permission to miss six games, enabling the player to join his family in McMinnville, Ore. Brosius already had missed five games earlier in the month to be with his ailing father.

"I would have felt real bad toward baseball if I hadn't been allowed to go back and spend some time with my dad," Brosius says. "It's something I would have held against baseball.

"(Torre) made it possible to make a bad situation as good as it could have been for me. I can look back with no regrets. That's all you can ask for."

One story. Only one story. But if you're looking for the biggest reason the Yankees have won four of the last five World Series, you start not in the owner's box or even in the clubhouse. You start in the manager's office.

Derek Jeter was a rookie when Torre took over in 1996. Andy Pettitte had made only 26 major league starts. Mariano Rivera was not yet the setup man for John Wetteland. Tino Martinez had been acquired to replace Don Mattingly. Bernie Williams hadn't yet hit 20 homers in a season. Of the players who would form the Yankees' championship core, only Paul O'Neill was an established standout.

And Torre?

He was "Clueless Joe," in the estimation of one tabloid, a sub-.500 manager in 14 seasons with the Mets, Braves and Cardinals, a dubious replacement for Buck Showalter.

The trait he was criticized for most is now the one that earns him the greatest praise. Even Torre asked himself, "Am I too soft? Too much a players' manager?"

"If enough people keep telling you how easy you are, that you're not tough enough, pretty soon you start wondering if that's the case," Torre says. "But I remember picking up one of Bill Parcells' books. There's a little excerpt in there that says, 'If you really believe in something, stay with it.' I decided at that point that I was not going to change anything that I had done in the past."

During his five-year tenure, Torre has protected players as different as Roger Clemens, Chuck Knoblauch and Darryl Strawberry. Instilled a selfless, professional ethic that restrained personalities as diverse as David Wells, Jim Leyritz and David Justice. Counseled players through professional crises and personal tragedies while navigating through numerous health and family issues of his own.

His expression never seems to change, except perhaps when he's wiping away tears after another World Series triumph. But the players see another side, a tougher Torre.

"It's calm, but it's not quiet," Williams says of the atmosphere surrounding the team. "People might get the impression that because it's calm and consistent, it's a country club. It's not, by any stretch of the imagination. We've got a few enforceable rules: Be on time and play hard. If you break any of those, you're in big trouble. But he's a fair guy. Straightforward. He won't talk to you every day. But if he has something to tell you, he'll let you know right away."

Sometimes, Torre doesn't have to say anything. "You just know by the look on his face, how his face changes, exactly what he's upset about," Martinez says.

Other times, he can be downright fiery, most memorably in a postgame eruption after a 7-0 loss at Tampa Bay in 1998. "Kick it in gear," Torre snarled at the Yankees, who were in a minor slump.

For the most part, though, nothing seems to bother Torre--not owner/emperor George Steinbrenner, not the occasional out-of-line player, not even the media, of which he was once a broadcasting member.

He often has said the Yankees job is his "mulligan"--his do-over.

"No question, it was a bonus for me," Torre says. "I had managed the three clubs I played for. I had no connection with the Yankees at all. I interviewed to be their general manager two weeks before they offered me the manager's job. I said, 'Let me get the most out of it.' "

Even now, after all his success with the team, Torre's career record is only 1,381-1,325 (.510). This season presents a new challenge. The Yankees are aging. Their regular-season victory totals have declined from 114 to 98 to 87. David Cone no longer is with the team, helping police the clubhouse.

One of these days--maybe soon--the Yankees will fade. But the Torre era won't simply be measured by wins and losses. O'Neill will remember clinching the '99 World Series on the day his father died, and Torre's telling him as they walked off the field, "Your dad got to watch this one."

Jorge Posada will remember Torre's support last season when Posada's son, Jorge IV, then 8 months old, battled a brain ailment that required surgery.

Torre is the team's emotional center, its stabilizing force.

"With the Yankees, there's so much change," Martinez says. "You don't know what is happening from day to day as far as getting traded . . . you have no idea. But you always know that the manager is backing you and on your side.

"Always."

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