Sunday, April 29, 2007

Bob Klapisch: Was Torre Dead Man Walking?

Sunday, April 29, 2007.

Bergen County Record

NEW YORK – Kevin Youkilis' pop-up had just landed softly in Robinson Cano's glove, setting off a small celebration in the Yankee dugout. They high-fived and chest-bumped their way into the clubhouse, finally liberated from a seven-game losing streak that was threatening to get Joe Torre fired.

Yes, it's (crazy but) true, the Yankees rescued their manager with an unlikely 3-1 win over the Red Sox on Saturday – a day that started with a near-tragedy (a line drive that cracked a bone in Jeff Karstens' leg), was fueled by a near-miracle (Kei Igawa threw six shutout innings in relief) and ended with a rush of dejà vu, as Mariano Rivera's revived cutter finished off the Sox without incident in the ninth.

Throughout the game, though, Torre felt the winds of war swirl around him. The New York Post reported that the manager's job was in jeopardy, and that he would've likely been dismissed by Monday had the Yankees been swept. A club insider acknowledged, "tensions are high" although it's still unclear whether it's actually George Steinbrenner who's out to get Torre.

Yankees' pitcher Jeff Karstens writhes on the ground after he was hit by Julio Lugo on the first pitch of the game.

If we know anything about the Yankees, it's that they're baseball's version of the CIA: multi-layered, riddled by warring factions with crossed agendas. General manager Brian Cashman still is a key Torre ally in New York, but the manager lost a layer of protection when Steve Swindal, Steinbrenner's son-in-law, was arrested for DUI in February. Jennifer Steinbrenner, The Boss' daughter, promptly filed divorce papers against Swindal, leaving Torre politically vulnerable to his enemies down south.

It didn't help that the Yankees were losing games in an awful, steady blur. Nor did Torre help his cause by summoning Rivera in the eighth inning a week ago Friday in Fenway, or by using Andy Pettitte in relief twice this month, which may or may not have sabotaged the left-hander in Friday night's disastrous start against Boston.

Torre managed like he was scared, and the people who wanted him fired in October sensed his fear. Those same backroom operators have Steinbrenner's ear once again, exerting even greater influence now that The Boss is in declining health.

The old Boss is just a memory now. He's so frail and unstable, insiders say his support staff had to disable his car at Legends Field to keep him from driving away. Steinbrenner relies entirely on a chauffeur for transportation, but sometimes demands that he be taken to work at 7 p.m., where he will sit alone in his office until 10 p.m. or later.

Given that bizarre behavior, it's fair to ask just how aware Steinbrenner is of the Yankees' day-to-day fortune, let alone whether Torre is to blame. In any case, the pressure is off Torre, at least for now, and the controversy could evaporate altogether if Chien-Ming Wang outpitches Julian Tavarez this afternoon.

Indeed, if the Yankees take 2-of-3 from the Sox, they'll be able to declare the weekend a success. Igawa apparently has corrected the flaw in his mechanics, Mike Mussina is returning on Thursday, and if Wang pitches deep into the game, coupled with Monday's off-day, the Yankees should arrive in Texas on Tuesday with a fully rested bullpen.

Yankee pitcher Kei Igawa, who pitched seven innings of relief Saturday against Boston

Does this guarantee Torre's job for the rest of the summer? Silly question, obviously. But surely those in the anti-Torre army, such as Tampa-based pitching guru Billy Connors, know there are no attractive alternatives to replace him.

Don Mattingly? Only one month into his apprenticeship as a bench coach, he's just not ready.

Joe Girardi? Despite his obvious intelligence and track record for motivating young players in Florida last year, Steinbrenner has never been enamored with him.

Larry Bowa? Has the experience, but is too hard-nosed and old-school for most of the veterans. His hiring, even on an interim basis, would not be received well.

This isn't 1978; there's no Bob Lemon waiting to pick up the pieces from Billy Martin's shattered reign. Torre will stay, if for no other reason than there's no one out there who can do a better job. And none other than Yogi Berra, who was fired by Steinbrenner after just 16 games in 1985, says The Boss would be wrong to let history repeat itself.

Yankee reliever Mariano Rivera celebrates with his teammates after closing out the Yankees' win over Boston at Yankee Stadium Saturday.

"None of this is Joe's fault," Yogi said before batting practice on Saturday morning. He was standing outside the manager's office, waiting to pay a visit to Torre. Berra likes to show up at the Stadium about once a month, insisting that Saturday's trip to the Bronx had nothing to do with Torre's current crisis.

But Yogi sees whatever is plain to the rest of the world.

"It's the pitching," he said. "We score a lot of runs, but we can't hold them down. What's Joe supposed to do about that?"

That sentiment is heard all around the room. Pettitte said he was "embarrassed" at the way he failed the Yankees on Friday, getting knocked out in the fifth inning. Derek Jeter said it was "distressing" to hear that Steinbrenner is even considering taking down Torre, since, in the captain's words, "He's not the one who's out there."

But firing the blameless manager is the game's oldest axiom. To Torre's credit, he accepts that inevitability, saying, "It's up to me to find a way to win. That's my job."

The hard part, of course, is tip-toeing around the shadows and whisperers in the organization. Steinbrenner's decline has started what could turn into full-blown chaos with the Yankees. Torre has been spared for a day, but only a fool would feel safe in this cut-throat environment.

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