November 19, 2007


So Long, Joe (Roger Angell, November 5, 2007, The New Yorker)

Baseball will stick it to you; it means to break your heart, and though old fans do understand that it’s losing, in all its variety, that makes winning so sweet, the departure of Joe Torre is something else altogether. Gone after twelve years at the helm of the Yankees, the longest uninterrupted run since Casey Stengel’s 1949-60 tenure, Torre was victim of a corporate midfield takedown: the decision by the owner, George Steinbrenner, and his nepotic front office not to renew—or not acceptably renew—his contract, after the team’s failure to progress beyond the first round of post-season play in the past three Octobers. Torre’s first Yankee team captured a thrilling World Championship in 1996, and three more between 1998 and 2000, at one stretch winning fourteen consecutive Series games. His teams also attained the post-season in each of his dozen years in the Bronx: a far greater achievement, all in all, in an era when the distribution of player talent and the intensity of team competition have been upgraded by a luxury tax imposed on the richest teams, starting, of course, with the Yanks. The Colorado Rockies are the ninth team to represent the National League in the World Series in the past decade, and seven teams have emerged as World Champions in the same period; so far (unless the Red Sox prevail), the Yankees have been the only multiple winner. Quite a performance, but not nearly good enough for those on the Steinbrenner side of the room, where, as has long been understood, only another World Championship is acceptable in the end.

What has set apart the Torre era is not just winning but a sense of attachment and identification that he effortlessly inspired among the fans and the players and the millions of sports bystanders. Already known by the fans as a strong-swinging Brooklyn-born catcher (and, later, a third baseman) with an eighteen-year career with the Braves, the Cardinals, and the Mets, and then for his long tenure as a semi-distinguished manager of the same three teams, he became a sudden celebrity, a Page Six sweetheart, in his first season with the Yankees, when his brother Frank Torre, another former major leaguer, underwent successful heart-replacement surgery the day before the last game of the World Series. The fourth game, in which the Yankees, trailing the Braves by 2–1 in the Series and 6–0 on the scoreboard, came back to win in extra innings, beginning their rush to the championship, changed New York to a Yankee town overnight. Torre’s composure and steadiness in hard times became as familiar as his odd, tilting trudge from the dugout to the mound to call in a fresh pitcher. A habitual modesty interwoven with an awareness of the difficult daily grind powerfully secured him to his players. Whenever someone brought up the batting title and National League M.V.P. award he had captured in 1971 with a .363 average, he threw in a reminder about his .289 mark the following year. Mid-July often brought on a retelling of a game of his as a Mets third baseman in 1975, when he batted into four double plays and also committed an error. This ease with himself and his profession set the tone in his pre-game and post-game press conferences, delivered every day to thirty or forty writers, plus TV and radio and Japan.

Again and again in his long run, Torre would be asked by the writers about some slumping or hurting Yankee player, and he gave back just about the same magical reply. Pressed in late August this year about the veteran Yankee starter Mike Mussina, whose lost mastery had just cost him his place in the starting rotation, Joe said, “Yes, he’s not maybe as proud of his stuff as he’d like to be.” A silence followed, while the reporters saw the crisis afresh from the mind of the player. A month later, Mussina said, “I’d play for the guy anytime.”

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 19, 2007 6:51 AM
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