Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Joe Torre a man of honor, a man of class and a man whose earned respect

The New York Yankees ended April in last place, four games below .500 and humbled by their arch rival the Boston Red Sox, losing five of six games to the ‘Old Towne Team.’ When the 2006 season ended for the Yankees, the Bronx Bombers won the American League East but lost their American League Divisional Series to the AL wild card winners the Detroit Tigers who went on to win the American League pennant before losing the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals. When the 2006 season ended without a World Series Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, an older kinder and gentler Steinbrenner decided to honor the last year of Torre’s contract and give Torre the opportunity to manage the Yankees for at least the 2007 season. Monday, Steinbrenner’s support of Torre and Yankees general manager Brian Cashman remained solid.

"The season is still very young, but up to now the results are clearly not acceptable to me or to Yankee fans. However, Brian Cashman our general manager, Joe Torre our manager and our players all believe that they will turn this around quickly. I believe in them. I am here to support them in any way to help them accomplish this turnaround. It is time to put excuses and talk away. It is time to see if people are ready to step up and accept their responsibilities. It is time for all of them to show me and the fans what they are made of. Let's get going. Let's go out and win and bring a world championship back to New York. That's what I want."

Torre was named manager of the Yankees on November 2, 1995. Even though he had never played or managed in the American League, and even though the New York City press thought his hiring to be a colossal mistake, greeting him with headlines such as "Clueless Joe", it was with the Yankees that he enjoyed the greatest success of his managerial career, leading the "Bronx Bombers" to the playoffs in each of his eleven seasons (1996-2006) with the club. In 1996, Torre, building on the Yankees' Wild Card berth in 1995, made his first-ever trip to the Fall Classic, leading the Yankees to their first World Series since 1981, defeating the Braves. After losing to the Cleveland Indians in the AL playoffs in 1997, the team won three straight World Series titles from 1998-2000, and additional American League pennants in 2001 and 2003. On May 12, 2003, Torre won his 1,500th game.

The 1998 season was Torre's most successful. Despite a slow start that included losing four of the first five games of the season, the Yankees set a then-American League record of 114 regular season wins, including David Wells’ perfect game on May 17. During the playoffs, the Yankees easily bested the Texas Rangers, fought off a major challenge from the Cleveland Indians for the AL pennant, and swept the San Diego Padres in the World Series. Torre won Manager of the Year honors, and the 1998 team is now widely regarded as one of the greatest baseball teams, along with the Yankee teams of 1927, 1939 and 1961, the 1929 Philadelphia Athletics, and the 1976 Cincinnati Reds. When ESPN launched its Who's #1? series on June 15, 2004, the 1998 Yankees topped the network's list of Best Teams over the years 1979 to 2003.

During the 2006 season, Torre had to face numerous obstacles with the team. The largest hurdle was losing star players such as Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui with long term injuries, a problem that was alleviated by trading for Bobby Abreu and bringing up Melky Cabrera, who after a terrible 6 games in 2005, made an impressive mark in 2006. Pitching was once again another major issue for the team. Randy Johnson who in his second season with the team was still inconsistent in many of his starts. After helping the Yankees in the second half of last year's season Shawn Chacón and Aaron Small were both removed from the team, with Chacon being traded to the Pirates on July 31 and Small being sent back to the minors, and being designated for assignment but never going anywhere, early in the season. Despite the problems Torre was able to guide the Yankees to another AL east title.

His success as Yankee manager is generally credited as much as to his patience with owner George Steinbrenner as it is to his baseball knowledge; he is the longest-tenured Yankee manager during Steinbrenner's ownership of the team.

After leaving the Braves in 1984, Torre worked in broadcasting in the late 1980s for the California Angels before being asked to manage the Cardinals in mid-1990. While working as a guest analyst for ESPN during the 1989 World Series, Torre was on hand for the infamous Loma Prieta earthquake (October 17, 1989).

In addition to baseball, Torre is an avid thoroughbred horse racing enthusiast. He is a part owner of "Sis City" winner of the 2005 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland Race Course. She had been the dominant 3-year-old filly that year until finishing fourth in the May 6 Kentucky Oaks. However, a few weeks later on June 26, "Wild Desert", in which Torre is also a partner, won the $1 million Queen's Plate, the first leg of the Canadian Triple Crown. Wild Desert is also partially owned by Keith Jones, an NHL player who played for the Washington Capitals, Colorado Avalanche and Philadelphia Flyers.

Torre was treated for prostate cancer in 1999.

“The question I find comical is you haven’t won a World Series since 2000,” said Torre, who is in the last year of a three-year, $19.2 million contract in a New York Times report. “When I got here, we hadn’t won a World Series since ’78. Everybody’s gotten spoiled, including us. But you know what happens when you work for George. He wants instant results, and sometimes when it doesn’t happen, he has a tendency to do that.”

On December 14, 2005, Torre carried the Olympic Torch in Florence, Italy, running it 400 yards, ending at the world famous Ponte Vecchio bridge.

He is known for letting one of his star players become the manager in the last regular season game, providing that nothing is on the line (Bernie Williams was the manager for the Yankees' last regular season game in 2006 and Rubén Sierra managed the team for one game in 2004, as the Yankees had already clinched the AL East titles by that point. Roger Clemens was the manager in 2003, when David Wells won his 200th game).

In one of the last daily comic strips in the Peanuts series, Charlie Brown was seen trying to perfect a "Joe Torre look", which he hoped would make his team win every game. His sister, Sally, thought he was cracking up.

Most recently, he has been working with Mets manager Willie Randolph on commercials for Subway sandwiches. Most commercials end with Torre asking Randolph, "Are you going to finish that [sandwich]?"

A contestant on the February 26, 2007 episode of Deal or No Deal mentioned that they were a huge fan of the New York Yankees, prompting a special guest appearance, via satellite, from Joe Torre.

Torre and several other players were considered by the Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans Committee (none were elected). Torre received enough votes in each of his 15 years of eligibility to remain on the ballot from 1983-1997. He received just 5.35 percent of the vote in his first year, the lowest total he received in his 15 years. His support ranged from 9 to 14 percent over the next 13 years, and he topped out at 22.20 percent in 1997, his final year on the ballot.

"I was never disappointed, but for your ego, when you get the number of votes to stay on the ballot, it makes you feel good," Torre said. "I never really held my breath over whether I was going to make it."

When Torre was on the writers' ballot, he was always curious to see how many votes he would receive. In his opinion, he was on the same level as players such as Ron Santo and Tony Oliva, two players who also failed to earn enough votes for election.

"Ronnie hit more homers than I did, Oliva was a better hitter, but I always felt that catching, and the fact that I played three positions, may have been a plus with what I did," Torre said. "I always felt that, to get the recognition to go into the Hall of Fame, having played in the postseason or a World Series was a huge benefit."

"I know I should be more excited about it, and if it ever happens, I'm sure I will be," Torre said. "But after winning the World Series -- especially in your hometown -- it's going to be tough to top that. It's like no other feeling I've ever had."

Of the 12 managers with more career victories than Torre, nine are in the Hall. Two of the others, Tony LaRussa and Bobby Cox, are still active (Gene Mauch is the other). Only four managers -- Walter Alston, Connie Mack, Joe McCarthy and Casey Stengel -- have matched or exceeded Torre's four World Series titles, and all are in the Hall.

"When you see how many managers have done that, you have to think there's a pretty good chance," Torre said. "It would be a huge honor."

One of the all time winning baseball managers and having won four World Series as Yankees manager it’s inevitable Torre will one day be enshrined in the hallowed halls of the Baseball Hall of Fame. But it’s the reaction of Yankees owner, at times known for his abrupt firing of Yankees managers (parodied in a Seinfeld episode) remains the calm in an every increasing storm surrounding his managers future with the Yankees.

"I am here to support them in any way to help them accomplish this turnaround," Steinbrenner said. "It is time to put excuses and talk away. It is time to see if people are ready to step up and accept their responsibilities. It is time for all of them to show me and the fans what they are made of."

"We're going to have to come out of it," Torre said. We're a much better club than our record indicates. You play this thing over 162 games."

Members of the Yankees led by team captain Derek Jeter made it clear after the Yankees lost to the Red Sox Sunday how they felt about Torre.

“It’s common sense,” said Derek Jeter, the captain Steinbrenner selected in 2003. “He’s not playing, that’s the bottom line. That’s pretty much all I’ve got to say. It’s unfair. It should stop. We should never talk about his job. He’s been doing a great job. He’s doing a great job this year.”

“We’re a direct reflection of our manager, there’s no doubt about it,” Jason Giambi said. “We’ve never really panicked. We’ve always been in there. I think Joe did an incredible job last year, with all the guys we had hurt.

“There’s nothing you can really do. We’re just not playing good baseball. We have some guys struggling offensively, some guys struggling on the mound. You’re not going to be a good baseball team when you’re playing a good team like the Boston Red Sox.”

“Joe deserves to manage,” former Yankee and now Yankees Don Mattingly told The New York Times before the Sunday’s game. “The way we’re playing has nothing to do with the manager. Changing managers isn’t going to change one thing. Joe has respect in the clubhouse. Joe has guys believing in him. If you have a manager you don’t believe in, that’s one thing. They believe in this guy and they should. He deserves all that respect. He gives it and he deserves to get it back.”

Mattingly never played for Torre, having retired before Torre’s first season. But he played for plenty of other managers in his 14-year career.

“I played for Billy three times, I played for Lou twice, I played for Stump, Yogi, Dallas Green, Bucky, Buck,” Mattingly said. “There was somebody in September ’82, when I was a September call-up, maybe Clyde King.”

If Steinbrenner was going to fire Torre Monday would have been the perfect day, at least the Steinbrenner of old. The Yankees had Monday off and head to Arlington Tuesday (today) to open a three game series against the Texas Rangers. The Bronx Bombers return home for a six game homestand Friday. Torre’s brother Frank, will undergo a kidney transplant today in New York. Frank Torre’s daughter is donating a kidney. “He hasn’t been feeling all that strong,” Torre said. “He’s anxious to have it done.” Frank Torre, 75, played seven seasons in the majors.

The evolution of George Steinbrenner has been remarkable. The Steinbrenner of old would have fired Torre at the end of the 2006 season and as his track record indicates would have certainly fired Torre yesterday. But the George Steinbrenner of today is older and wiser and understands what it takes to win and be successful. No, you can’t fire the man who has managed your team for 12 years and led your team to four World Series titles the day before his brother was scheduled for surgery. But it’s much more than the optics of Steinbrenner firing Torre yesterday would have represented.

The Yankees under the leadership of George Steinbrenner (proof positive that no matter how old you are you’re always maturing) have become the most valuable sports franchise in North America. Last week Forbes Magazine released their 2007 MLB financial valuation. Not only does Forbes believe the Yankees are worth more than $1.2 billion but the Yankees are nearly $500 million ahead of the nearest franchise on the Forbes list, the New York Mets. What has made Steinbrenner such an effective owner is his ability to learn from his mistakes. A key to strong leadership is the ability to learn from the lapses in judgment you’ve made over the years. By not firing Steinbrenner and by showing empathy and understanding once again George Steinbrenner is proving why he’s become the best owner in Major League Baseball.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: Wikipedia, The New York Times, MLB.com and the Baseball Almanac

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