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Joe Torre, witness to domestic abuse, helps others to manage

T.J. SIMERS

Dodgers manager seeks to help fight the cycle of domestic abuse through his Safe at Home Foundation.

November 06, 2009|T.J. SIMERS

He's Joe Torre, a household name from coast to coast, the stoic statue in the dugout, talking now about a lack of self-esteem -- his own.

Of all people. He's MVP as a player, World Series champion four times as Yankees manager, the Dodgers under Torre the most successful they have been in 20 years.

But he's still also little Joey in so many ways, a witness to domestic abuse in his own home, and the shame and embarrassment that come from believing only his family had such ugly problems.

"I get to be 55 or so," Torre explains, "and my wife, Ali, is going to a Life Success seminar. So I go along, but 'Oh Lord,' I tell myself when I arrive, 'what am I getting myself into?' I'm a very private person and I don't want to share stuff with anyone."

Two days into a four-day session he finds himself "standing in front of perfect strangers -- crying. I'm talking about things I never thought I would. I'm telling them why I was so shy, why I'm so sensitive to loud noises, why I'm so nervous."

The next day he's on the telephone talking to his sisters and wanting to know if his father had hit his mother.

He already knew the answer, confirmation providing more details, his father throwing his mother down the stairs, enraged to learn that Margaret Torre was pregnant again -- this time with a baby who would be named Joseph.

"There were things that frightened me," he says, his father a bully, and young Joey going to a friend's house after school if his father's car was still parked in front of the house.

He says his older sister never married, "because I think that was her role model and what men would be like."

He was maybe 9, and "I remember hearing shouting in the kitchen, and seeing my sister with a knife standing in front of my mother and protecting her," he says. "My father, a New York policeman, was going for his pistol. I took the knife away from my sister and said, 'There.' I remember him closing the drawer where he had the gun."

He was 11 when his older brother Frank forced his father to leave home. But the healing more than a half-century later continues.

"You know, I'm not sure it wouldn't have been better to get hit and realize it wasn't that bad, than to have the fear of what might happen. But that's how I grew up."

It stayed with him. He was afraid to go to school if his work was not finished because of what might happen. He went hard after baseball, a place to hide, he says. "It was where I was motivated to excel because it made me feel like I was worth something."

When Torre was fired as Braves manager, Ali asked him how he would like to be remembered now that he was no longer in baseball.

"A guy who wanted to achieve this and that, but who never got to realize his dream," he told her -- Ali firing back, "Are you dead yet?"

"No self-esteem whatsoever," she adds now. "He was seeking approval from his father and when he took his uniform off -- who was he?"

He would see his father again, but he says, "There's a certain bond between father and son, but I don't think I loved him as much as I wanted to please him."

It's such an easy transition to George Steinbrenner, Ali saying, "George was such a domineering figure in Joe's life and his father was like that."

Joe sees the connection.

"That was a big part of it with George too," he says. "I don't know how many times I told George, 'The only thing I wanted to do was make you feel proud of what I've done.' "

The abused going full circle, five times as likely to become the abuser, the experts say, or become abused again. Or go to work for Steinbrenner.

"When it came to the end with the Yankees, I took things way too personal," Joe says, Ali telling him earlier, "You're too sensitive," and then for emphasis, adding, "not much really changed from when you started the job.

"The parallel was very similar to what you had with your father," she tells him. "Some of the people in the Yankee organization were bullying you and not treating you with respect all along. You kept trying to survive until you got worn down."

The record books suggest it might've been easy, more playoff wins than any other manager in baseball history. But uniform off, there were two failed marriages, and then trouble communicating with Ali before counseling.

"All of a sudden this wasn't the same guy I was dating," she says. "He wasn't speaking to me. I almost felt like a victim of domestic abuse; he didn't even realize he was doing it. It's just another horrible consequence of domestic abuse."

Ali & Joe are a team now, combining their efforts to end the cycle of abuse and doing so with Safe at Home, a foundation designed to focus on the education of children.

Maybe surprisingly short on self-esteem, honesty comes easily to Torre, telling his story so maybe someone else's life might take a turn.

"We can make a difference," he says.

Ali is the brains behind the foundation and obviously the beauty as well. She has her focus on L.A. now, and a plan to introduce three safe rooms to schools by September -- a considerable task given the $300,000 price tag that comes attached for each.

Each safe room has a professional counselor trained in domestic violence intervention while also serving as a haven, if only a place to read or play.

"Our message," Ali says, "is you are not alone, it's not your fault and we're here to help."

They've already done so, 10 safe rooms, known as "Margaret's Place" in honor of Joe's mom, in New York-area schools as well as a pair of justice centers.

"I was speaking to a class in the Bronx and we were doing a video for the foundation," Torre says. "I was explaining why the camera was there, I told them how I grew up afraid of my dad.

"I looked around the room and there were about 12 kids nodding their heads."

--

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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