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Torre rediscovers the joys of managing

May 06, 2008|Helene Elliott

The words on the door to Joe Torre's office are faint, nearly obscured by countless coats of Dodger-blue paint.

A close look reveals a bit of history -- and a lot about the occupant of that cramped room.

Printed neatly is this:

ALSTON MGR.

That would be Walter Alston, winner of seven pennants and four World Series titles in 23 seasons of managing the Dodgers.

It was his office, but his successors abandoned it to their coaches, sometimes five men sharing a space the size of a walk-in closet.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, May 07, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
Dodgers: In Tuesday's Sports section, Helene Elliott said in her column that Dodger manager Joe Torre was delighted to see Matt Kemp take initiative and knock on his door to ask for permission to steal some bases. It was James Loney who knocked on his door and asked to be allowed to steal some bases.

The managers moved to a bigger room, one that accommodated Tom Lasorda's buffet table and photographs of his celebrity friends, and, most recently, held Grady Little's desk.

Torre, sizing up his options after the Dodgers hired him last November, took Alston's old office and gave his coaches the roomier location.

He doesn't need a big office to feed his ego. He's sure of who he is and is gradually becoming more comfortable as he settles into his new surroundings.

"Looking at the Dodgers' history and growing up with them in Brooklyn, I was just curious if managing could be fun again," he said.

"It's been fun so far."

He was reminded how enjoyable it is when the New York Mets visited Dodger Stadium on Monday. With them came a troupe of reporters with familiar faces and eager questions about Torre's exit from the New York Yankees and cross-country migration.

They asked him whether managing here is different than in New York, where his every move was second-guessed a million times a day on every subway line and any phone call could signal a tirade from owner George Steinbrenner.

Of course it's different.

And at this point of Torre's life and career, nearly 68 and with four World Series titles on his resume, he welcomes the lower intensity level and his lower blood-pressure readings.

"It's a little more laid-back, and in saying that I'm not saying they don't have the hunger to win because I'd certainly have a problem with that," he said before the Dodgers' 5-1 victory.

"But right now, and I say right now, baseball is in the sports section. And that's a nice change."

Here, his team isn't starring in a soap opera performed in huge, front-page headlines. Reporters and photographers don't camp out on his front lawn.

"It's baseball," he said, with the joys of getting to know his players and the challenge of managing without the daily luxury of a designated hitter.

He will never go native. He still talks about the Yankees as "we" and "us," and his wife, Ali, and youngest child, 12-year-old Andrea, won't join him here until July.

But in Los Angeles he has found passion mixed with perspective, an ideal prescription for a tired soul.

"I think it was just time," he said of his departure. "I loved the time there. It made my career. There's no question. I always thank George Steinbrenner for that opportunity."

He landed in the right place, where he has calmed a clubhouse that was fractured between veterans and youngsters. He has led the Dodgers to nine wins in 10 games despite injuries that have forced him to craft 28 lineups in 32 games.

"The feel that you get from him is the experience, just the winning he provided over there in New York," said Andre Ethier, part of Torre's four-outfielders-for-three-spots juggling act.

"He's probably seen a lot in the last 12 years and been through a lot and been through all the situations."

The star-driven Yankees had little use for youngsters. With the Dodgers, the heart of Torre's lineup is young -- Ethier, Matt Kemp, Russell Martin, James Loney, Blake DeWitt. In the not-too-distant future, add Clayton Kershaw and Andy LaRoche.

With the Yankees, "You have young players and it's easy to say, 'We'll get this guy and forget the young player,' " Torre said. "But we have good ability here and I think you have to find out what part of the future they're going to occupy."

He said he's three-quarters of the way to learning his players' quirks and has made happy discoveries along the way. For example, he knew shortstop Rafael Furcal had great tools but has developed a new appreciation for his overall game beyond the power that produced Furcal's team-leading fifth home run Monday.

"The leadership qualities, the love of what he's doing and knowing what he's doing," Torre said. "This isn't just a guy with ability. This is a guy that knows how to use it. I'm very, very impressed with the type of player he is."

Torre was delighted to see Kemp take initiative and knock on his door during spring training to ask permission to steal some bases. He learned Martin "certainly isn't afraid of the field," that he likes to compete and was enthusiastic about shifting to third base.

As it turns out, Torre knows his players better than he thinks.

"As a manager, the main responsibility is to kind of see the individual personalities of the players, and I think that's what Joe did a good job of in spring training," Loney said.

"The meetings we've had and the talks that we've had have been very positive for us, and I think it's helped.

"Overall, it's been great. The atmosphere has been great. Even when we were losing, we still had that winning mentality that we knew we had the opportunity to win again."

They have won often enough to climb to within three games of division-leading Arizona. It will be a race, no place for a laid-back manager, but the perfect situation for Torre.

--

Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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