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Joe Torre's a skipper who keeps Dodgers' ship on even keel

Joe Torre's real work is done away from spotlight's glare -- his ability to manage people as well as games, with a temperament that keeps players calm and commands their loyalty and respect.

October 07, 2009|Bill Shaikin

The Dodgers' clubhouse had barely been upgraded from dysfunctional to professional midway through last season, when Frank McCourt looked into the television cameras and made this stunning announcement: The Dodgers had just acquired Manny Ramirez.

Ramirez had been run out of Boston, trailed by allegations he played when he wanted to and played hard when he wanted to, yet the owner insisted he had no concerns about dropping Ramirez into the uneasy clubhouse of a .500 team.

"No," McCourt said that day. "We've got Joe Torre."

And, on Torre's watch, the Dodgers have won consecutive National League West championships for the first time in 31 years.

Torre's game strategies sometimes baffle fans, with constant lineup tinkering that has resulted in Matt Kemp's hitting in every spot in the batting order and with a tendency to overwork his most reliable relievers, but the most visible part of a manager's job tends to be the least important.

It is more about managing people than managing games.

"I've had some great managers," Ramirez said, "but Joe is the best."

When Torre signed with the Dodgers, he inherited the crusty Jeff Kent, who had called out young players for what he perceived was a lack of professionalism and respect for the game.

Torre also inherited James Loney, whose response to Kent had been: "Who said he was a leader?"

When the Dodgers needed a pitcher this summer, Torre welcomed Vicente Padilla, who had been cut by the pitching-poor Texas Rangers, to the delight of teammates tired of his alleged lack of accountability.

"About time," outfielder Marlon Byrd told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "We have to get rid of the negatives to make a positive."

The Dodgers haven't heard a peep of protest about Padilla. The story line about the clubhouse divided between kids and veterans has been retired.

And, when McCourt and agent Scott Boras grew infuriated with each other during last winter's negotiations on a new contract, Torre kept in touch with Ramirez, reminding him this was just business and assuring him everything would work out.

"I'm comfortable talking with anyone," Torre said. "From my time in New York, you basically dealt with a lot of stars. George Steinbrenner made sure of that."

Torre garners respect from the four World Series championship rings he won with the New York Yankees, yes, but also from how he exudes calm in the dugout and the clubhouse. He does not let loose on an umpire or his players, even at times when fans might wonder why he would possibly keep his cool.

"Grenades could be blowing up around him," catcher Brad Ausmus said, "and he would still have that same facial expression and body language."

Said Larry Bowa, who coached for Torre in New York and followed him to Los Angeles: "The one thing people don't really see: They never see him angry. I've seen him come into the back room [the coaches' room] very angry. He has a way of masking that with the players.

"I think that's a plus. Not everybody can do that."

That trait was severely tested in May, when Ramirez was suspended for violating baseball's drug policy. Torre walked the fine line between supporting Ramirez and criticizing his behavior artfully enough that he strengthened his relationship with the mercurial slugger.

"He protects his players," Ramirez said. "He keeps it simple: Be here on time, and play hard. If you play hard for him, you'll never be in his office."

That first sentence is particularly interesting, given that the Red Sox got so frustrated with Ramirez's asking out of the lineup that they reportedly ordered him to undergo medical tests when he said his knee was a little sore.

"There are players that say, 'I can't go tonight,' " Bowa said, speaking generally. "Joe played a long time. He knows nothing is wrong with the guy. But he'll always give the player the benefit of the doubt. I've seen him do it with certain players in New York too."

Torre is sensitive to the perception that he works better with veterans, volunteering that he shepherded Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada at the start of his tenure with the Yankees and Melky Cabrera, Robinson Cano and Chien-Ming Wang at the end.

In 12 years in New York, Torre won those four World Series crowns, and nine division championships. In 14 previous years as a manager -- with the New York Mets, the Atlanta Braves and the St. Louis Cardinals -- he had won one division championship, and not a single playoff game.

Turns out he can win without a $200-million payroll.

"You'll never hear this from Joe," Bowa said, "but I think he gets an inner satisfaction, knowing he still has what it takes to be successful."

Torre insisted he had not taken the Dodgers job to silence critics who had claimed he could not win without a megabucks roster.

"It was really for myself," Torre said. "I was curious about what I could do here. I don't think I had to worry about showing anybody else, for my ego."

Torre turns 70 next season. There are easier jobs at that age, and retirement too.

"This team hadn't won in a while," Bowa said. "He's brought along the kids. He's dealt with Manny, which as we all know is not the easiest thing in the world.

"If Joe was ever really disgruntled or saying, 'I've had it,' I'd know. But he's talking about next year already."





Joe Torre's managerial record with average place finish. Torre won six pennants and four World Series with the Yankees, and was American League manager of the year in 1996 and 1998:

*--* TEAM YEARS WIN LOSS PCT. FINISH N.Y. Mets 5 286 420 405 5.3 Atlanta 3 257 229 529 2.0 St. Louis 6 351 354 498 3.5 N.Y. Yankees 12 1,173 767 605 1.2 Dodgers 2 179 145 552 1.0 TOTALS 28 2,246 1,915 540 2.6 *--*


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