Friday, October 19, 2007

Bob Klapisch: Pride of a Yankee

Bergen County Record

Friday, October 19, 2007

New York Yankees manager Joe Torre, left, owner George Steinbrenner, center, and general manager Brian Cashman, right, look on during batting practice at spring training workouts in Tampa, Fla., in this Feb. 26, 2005.

The Joe Torre era didn't end with a bang or a whimper, just a polite "no thanks" from the man who could've (and should've) told the Yankees exactly where to go. After 12 classy years in pinstripes, Torre is history -- and so is the era of Yankee professionalism. Even in his final hour as manager, handed an offer he couldn't possibly accept, Torre handled his execution with remarkable grace.

One person who was in the room with Torre on Thursday afternoon was stunned at how amicably the manager said goodbye. "I'm sorry, I just can't accept this," is what Torre said of the one-year, $5 million contract. There were no arguments, no raised voices, no attempt to change anyone's mind. Torre deserved more, he deserved better, but he wasn't about to start begging. Not after the best run in Yankee history.

It's a lousy way to treat a future Hall of Famer, although the Yankees are already cranking out their own spin. They're insisting the offer was more than fair, maintaining Torre's status as the game's highest-paid manager, with performance clauses that would've made him even wealthier in 2008 than he was in 2007. But it wasn't the money that bothered Torre; it was the one-year commitment, the imposition of a forced audition for 2009 that drove him out.

Make no mistake, the Yankees wanted Torre to go away. The front office's second-guessing of the manager had reached epidemic proportions by 2007, leaving Torre without a single dependable ally. The loss to the Indians in the division series was the final straw; everyone blamed Torre for not taking the Yankees off the field while they were being swarmed by the Jacobs Field midges. Now the only problem was finding an exit strategy.

That was no easy task, considering George Steinbrenner had turned Torre into a martyr by firing him in the newspaper before Game 3. After the Yankees were eliminated, ownership found a loophole, giving him an easy $5 million with a chance to make it $8 million if only he could reach the World Series. But no one was fooled. Attaching postseason performance clauses to a manager's contract is the equivalent of madness; the randomness and unpredictability of a short series is beyond anyone's control, especially a manager's. It was the 162-game regular season where Torre left his mark on the Yankees, year after year.

But Torre shouldn't have been surprised at the stripped-down offer. The fact that this process took 10 days should've been a tipoff to the Yankees' lack of warmth toward him. They turned Torre into a prisoner in his own house, forcing him to dodge photographers perched on his front lawn. Not that anyone in the front office felt particularly sorry for Torre under siege.

"Oh, I'm sure he's loving this," one insider said matter-of-factly. Too bad the Yankees lost sight of what Torre really meant to the organization. Too bad the Yankees don't understand that ballplayers, especially superstars, sense weakness in a manager, and that there's nothing more vulnerable than a skipper who doesn't have the front office's support.

After a dozen years in office, Torre would've been politically crippled in his own clubhouse had he accepted a one-year contract. The players would've never said so, of course, but they would've subtly started drifting beyond Torre's grasp. His words, his message, his closed-door meetings would've had reduced impact. Torre would've sounded like a man desperate to keep his job.

Good for Torre that he finally said no to the Steinbrenner family. He walks away as the winner, and today at the Rye Brook Hilton in Westchester County, N.Y., Torre will tell his side of the story. But you can bet there will be no recriminations. Joe Cool had his chance to tell the Steinbrenners off on Thursday, alone in that Legends Field conference room, but he never lowered himself to that. Good for him.

Now it's the Yankees' turn to learn a lesson. They'll find out the hard way how difficult it is to manage in New York. They'll watch Torre's replacement squirm under the unrelenting pressure from the fans, the tabloids, talk radio programs, from the Steinbrenners themselves. They'll learn that there's more to running the Yankees than knowing when to bring Mariano Rivera into the game or finessing the batting order.

It's about managing a room full of celebrities, dealing with A-Rod's insecurities, Jason Giambi's steroids scandal, Mike Mussina's eccentricities, Robinson Cano's excess-cool. It's navigating through the ever-expanding roster of Yankee power brokers.

Once upon a time, surviving as Yankee manager meant getting along with one person, George Steinbrenner. Now there are three Steinbrenners in this equation, not to mention GM Brian Cashman and team president Randy Levine. Good luck to the next guy trying to play five-on-one politics. Good luck to the next manager who's stuck with Giambi cogging the bases or Chien-Ming Wang's balky sinker. Good luck to the next guy if A-Rod doesn't come back. Or Rivera. Or Jorge Posada.

Torre was willing to shoulder those burdens, but not in exchange for a one-year deal. He loved the job, but not at the expense of his self-respect. Torre did what any emotionally healthy person would've done on Thursday: he said goodbye, no thanks. He could've (and should've) said more, but Joe Cool doesn't roll like that. He'll be missed.


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