Thursday, October 11, 2007

Joe Torre deserves better or old habits are hard to break

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Early in the 2007 Major League Baseball season (the end of April) the Yankees where staring at the abyss, dead last in the AL East on April 30, 6.5 games behind the Boston Red Sox. On May 31 the Yankees were 7 games below .500, 13.5 games behind the Red Sox. The rest of the Yankees 2007 season stands as a testimony to the talent on the team and the leadership Joe Torre provided as Yankees manager.

The Yankees never caught the Red Sox, finishing 2 games behind the BoSox but did manage to win 94 games, winning the AL wildcard, making the playoffs for the 12th consecutive season.
Monday night the Yankees were eliminated in the American League Divisional Series for the hird consecutive year. Four years ago the Yankees experienced the biggest collapse in baseball history – losing the American League Championship series to the Red Sox after having a 3-0 lead in the best of seven series. With Torre as manager the Yankees have won four World Series in the 12 years he’s been manager, but unless most observers are miss-reading the tea leaves, Torre has managed his last game in a Yankees uniform.

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.

One of the most successful managers in recent baseball history (the last 25 years) deserves better treatment than he’s received from George Steinbrenner and his son over the last few days. Steinbrenner made it clear during the Yankees ALDS series with the Cleveland Indians -- if the Yankees didn’t win their first round series the organization would consider their options regarding Torre’s future. Two thoughts with Steinbrenner’s thought process – tying Torre’s future to the Yankees wining or losing their first round series took away from the Yankees focus during that series and his inaction since the Yankees where eliminated Monday night serves to draw out the process and embarrass a man who has brought honor (Torre) to the Yankees organization.

Steinbrenner was steadfast in his support of Torre throughout the 2007 season and Torre delivered. Between the All-Star Break and the end of the regular season the Yankees had the best record in baseball.

Since the Yankees Monday night loss the support Torre has received has been universally in favor (save for Yankees management) of Torre remaining as manager of the Yankees.

"My one regret is that I didn't get to play for him sooner," said Doug Mientkiewicz, his part-time first baseman. "I would have been a much better player and a much better man."

"He had an innate ability to keep a team together," said Ron Guidry, his pitching coach.

"Where we were in May, a lot of teams might have quit," Guidry said. "But this team never quit because he never quit on them."

"No matter what happens, no matter what the decision is, Joe Torre needs to be treated with respect," said Don Mattingly, his bench coach and successor-in-waiting. "Anything less than that, to me, would be unacceptable."

“I would think it’s like following John Wooden or somebody,” Mattingly said Tuesday. “The guy’s won championship after championship, and he’s in the playoffs every year. It’s pretty much a no-win situation for someone to come in here and be able to experience what he’s done. It’s not going to happen. So as far as coming in here and taking on that job, it’s not necessarily a great situation.”

“Joe treats everybody with respect, whether you’re a batboy, a coach or a trainer,” said Larry Bowa, the third-base coach. “He does everything the right way. What he has to go through, after all that he’s done, it doesn’t seem right. But we’ve all been in baseball for a long time. That’s the process.”

“Everyone knows that I love Mr. T.,” Jeter said. “He’s the best in my opinion. Hopefully, he is back.”

“It might have a lot to do with it,” Mariano Rivera who’ll be a free agent once the World Series ends (Rivera talked about his future with the Yankees if Torre isn’t with the Yankees next year). “I’ve been with Joe for so many years. The kind of person he has been for me and for all my teammates, he’s been great. The thing is, I don’t see why they have to put him in this position.”

His players and coaches supporting him – that was expected. After all Torre treats his players with respect and he hired his coaching staff. Much has been made of Yankees broadcaster Suzyn Waldman tearful reaction during Monday night’s Yankees radio post game show. As Waldman (a cancer survivor like Torre) told first the New York Times and then New York Newsday she has nothing to apologize after her emotionally charged broadcast moment Monday night.

That’s who I am,” she said by telephone. “It’s unusual, but not for me. I am emotional. I’m a conduit between the players and the fans, and everyone was crying.”

She added: “That’s what I felt. I am who I am. I’m emotional. A lot of people like it, a lot of people don’t. I didn’t do it in a game, and I recovered.”

“There are a lot worse things than crying on the air,” she said.

Besides both Waldman and Torre facing their own mortality at the same time, Waldman remains one of the few women who is a member of a day-to-day professional sports broadcast crew. Starting with the 2005 season, she has been the color commentator for New York Yankees baseball, working with John Sterling on radio broadcasts for WCBS-AM in New York City.

She is famous for various "pioneering" feats in regards to female sports broadcasters. She is the second woman in major league history to serve as a full-time color commentator on a regular basis. (Betty Caywood of the Kansas City Athletics served as a color commentator for a year in the 1960s.) In the mid-1990s, she was a play-by-play announcer for the Yankees' local TV broadcasts on WPIX, which made her the second woman to serve that role for a major league team. (Gayle Gardner was the first to do so in 1993 for the Colorado Rockies.)

Torre always treated Waldman with the respect he’s treats everyone else with. She is right in saying she owes no one an apology for how she reacted to the prospect of Torre managing his last game in Yankees pinstripes.

"This one's getting me angry, because I don't play this card a lot, but this is as sexist as it gets," the Yankees' radio analyst said Wednesday. "What's the big damn deal? That I cried for four seconds of a 10-minute postgame?

"The idea that I can't choke up because a man I went through cancer with 11 years ago is going to lose his job and I was describing his coaches crying? It's absolutely ludicrous." The man to whom Waldman referred is manager Joe Torre, who is unlikely to have his contract renewed. (Waldman is a breast cancer survivor; Torre has survived prostate cancer.)

"I'm not Walter Cronkite," she said. "Who are these arbiters of journalism who are ripping me on the radio?"

"I'm talking about a man who is so loved in this city and we all know what's going to happen. I actually thought I was very poetic. I'm very surprised how it got out that smoothly."

During her report, she said, "The coaches are sitting in Torre's office and they are watching this, and the tears that you hear in my voice are coming down the faces of the coaches in that coaches room."

Waldman called the reaction "anti-female" and insisted she serves a valuable role.

"I take it seriously that I am a conduit between that locker room and fans," she said. "Every person was so busy ripping me for crying, they didn 't hear what I was saying . . . If I got choked up doing it, so what?"

The other side of the coin (Yankees ownership and management) hasn’t been quite as supportive when it comes to Joe Torre’s future with the Yankees.

“His reign so far here has been terrific,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said of Torre. “You’d sign up for it right now, if you could find that. It’s been magical and it’s been incredible through ’07. What goes on going forward, in ’08 and beyond, is the discussion topic on the table.”

When asked about Torre's accomplishments during his 12-year tenure, Hank Steinbrenner, a vice president, told The New York Daily News, "The record speaks for itself, but nothing lasts forever."

"Everything really is up in the air right now," Steinbrenner said. "We're in no hurry, it's a long offseason."

From a business perspective what does all of this really mean?

Its clear Joe Torre has brought honor as Yankees manager throughout his 12 year tenure. His record as Hank Steinbrenner suggested does speak for itself; but it’s been seven years since the Yankees have won a World Series.

Steinbrenner has spent close to $1.4 billion in those seven years, including an estimated $189.7 million during the 2007 season. Cleveland Indians (No. 23), Colorado Rockies (No. 25) and Arizona Diamondbacks (No. 26) – team payroll rankings in 2007. Those three payrolls total $168.2 million, $21 million less than the Yankees' entire outlay. The $143 million Boston Red Sox, with the second-highest payroll according to USA Today's salary database, have reached in the American League Championship Series.

A Business week column suggested Steinbrenner’s treatment of Torre was doing damage to the Steinbrenner brand. “I'm not talking about the Yankee brand, but the Steinbrenner brand. Time was that "Big Stein," as he was known on Seinfeld, defined the image of an executive who was bold, risk-taking, brash, a doer. Like him or hate him (Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps was a disaster trade of his making) he stood for something.”

The bottom line as is so often the case is just that – Steinbrenner has every right to decide who he wants managing his team, but the timing of when Torre’s future with the Yankees is far from certain.

There remains an unwritten baseball rule at this time of the year – the commissioners’ office doesn’t like to hear about managers being fired during the playoffs and the World Series. Red Sox owner John Henry wanted to fired then Red Sox manager Grady Little (now the Los Angeles Dodgers skipper) during the Red Sox plane trip home following the Red Sox painful game seven loss to the Yankees in the 2003 American League Championship Series. Nothing prevented Henry from cutting Little lose before the Red Sox plane touched down at Boston’s Logan Airport that night, nothing other than respecting the wishes of the commissioners’ office.

With the National League Championship Series beginning tonight and the ALCS series set to start tomorrow night at Fenway Park it could be almost a month before Torre’s fate is decided. Still at the end of the day would it not seem right to end the suspense now and announced Joe Torre’s fate as Yankees manager?

For SportsBusinessNews this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: New York Times, New York Newsday and The New York Daily News

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