March 27, 2008

PALEONEO:

Cool in any Language (Eric Neel, Sports Illustrated)

I expected him to be cool. I'd heard the supremely self-possessed Derek Jeter call him "Mr. Torre," as if kneeling at the feet of an ancient elder, and I'd had Dodgers broadcaster Charlie Steiner tell me, with just the slightest hint of exaggeration, that Torre "is like Neo in 'The Matrix,'" a man capable of moving objects in space with a supernatural flick of the wrist. But what I hadn't quite anticipated is the way Torre's calm confidence seems to radiate, seems available to those around him, like a campfire at which they might warm their hands. Some of that comes from winning four World Series rings; he's quick to say his success buys him time and goodwill with people. But some of it is just this: When you're with Joe Torre, you get the feeling -- though, as a student of postmodern culture and a working writer in the world of sports journalism, I know such things are impossible -- that he might actually be for real.

The Dodgers are taking a team photo against a smog-blue sky at the Badaling section of The Great Wall of China. Tourists, most of them Chinese, pass by on their way up a staircase to a nearby watch tower, rubbernecking the mysterious men wearing crisp white jerseys. A small woman with crab apple cheeks tugs at my sleeve: "Please? These are American basketball men?" After team photographer Jon SooHoo gets a dozen or so shots, the players disperse with their own cameras, posing for each other in the Wall's stone archways.

Torre, hands in his pockets, hunched against a swirling canyon wind, pulls his wool cap snug and stands alone. For an instant. Three young Chinese men in American jeans, one with a white bandana tied around his head, quickly surround him, cell phone cameras poised. "Mr. Joe Torre! Mr. Joe Torre!" Torre smiles as two of them position themselves, one to his left and one to his right, while Mr. Bandana aims his phone. Torre wraps one arm behind each fan, gently pulling them both in closer for a better shot.

I'd seen him make this move before. At Torre's first news conference in Los Angeles, back in November, he stood on an ad hoc stage in center field at Dodger Stadium with team owner Frank McCourt and general manager Ned Colletti. As photographers moved toward the stage for the first shots of the new era in Dodger baseball, the new kid in town looked like the gracious host, easing McCourt and Colletti in tight for their close-up, affectionately squeezing each man at the shoulder. "When you're with Joe, even if you're just getting to know him, even if you're meeting him for the first time," McCourt says, "you feel like you're with an old friend."

A husband-and-wife team from Tennessee, both decked out in Volunteer-orange sweatshirts and hats, swoop in on Torre as he's heading for the stairs down the Great Wall. More smiles and pictures. More familiar embraces. "Joe Torre at the Great Wall of China. Joe Torre. I can't believe it," the woman says afterward, shaking her head. "Forget the rest of the trip. I just had my picture taken with Joe Torre. We can go home right now."

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 27, 2008 8:24 AM
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