Friday, October 19, 2007

Joe Torre: The first manager to fire George Steinbrenner

Friday, October 19th 2007, 4:00 AM
By Mike Lupica

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He was a gentleman to the end, Joe Torre was, on the day it ended for him with the Yankees, at least for now. He flew down on a private plane to Tampa, and he already knew the Yankees were going to cut his salary, about to officially find out that they were only prepared to bring him back on a one-year contract, with some nice incentives attached. It meant a lightweight like Isiah Thomas had more job security.

So maybe Torre had already decided, before he ever got near Legends Field, that he was going to be the first manager to ever fire George Steinbrenner.

Manager fires Yankees. The Yankee version of man bites dog.

And it is some man. This is the great gentleman of modern Yankee history, whether you are in the majority of Yankee fans and wanted him to stay, or from the minority who thought it was time for a change, that not even Torre gets to manage the Yankees forever, that if he got all the credit he had to get at least some of the blame.

There has still never been anybody quite like this managing the Yankees or anybody else.
You knew it would end badly someday between Torre and the Yankees, even after all the winning they did together. It ended badly yesterday, with the Yankees making Torre an offer they had to know he would refuse and Torre walking away from the best baseball job he will ever have.

To the end, though, all the way into that room with George Steinbrenner and his two sons and Randy Levine, the team president, and Brian Cashman, the general manager who saved Torre's job a year ago, when he had a year left, not the two weeks he had when he walked into the room yesterday, Torre carried himself with a kind of grace with which you must be born.

Hal Steinbrenner, the youngest Steinbrenner son, did most of the talking for the family. There was a lot of explaining on both sides, all those from Yankee management talking about the money they were offering in the new contract - $5 million for next season, million-dollar bonuses for each round of the playoffs the Yankees won, an $8 million contract for '09 becoming automatic if the Yankees made it back to the World Series for the first time in five years - and Torre ultimately explaining why he had to turn them down.

Torre never acted insulted, never raised his voice. The mood was never confrontational in that room yesterday, on either side. But then it never could be with Joe Torre in there.

The old man let the others do most of the talking and shook Joe Torre's hand when it was over. Who knows what George Steinbrenner meant during the Yankees-Indians series when he said Torre was gone if the Yankees went out in the first round again? Who knows what he is really like these days? What we know is that if the family, and Yankee management, really wanted Torre to come back, they would have made him a better offer than they did.

But Torre was not confrontational yesterday at Legends Field because it has never been his nature, this Brooklyn kid who grew up with a hatred of loud voices and any kind of violence, who has dedicated his fine Safe at Home Foundation to fighting domestic abuse in such an important way. Of course, he never yelled enough to suit Steinbrenner, even in the old days, when the old man was still inclined to yell back.

Joe Torre never was one for making a scene, in all the years when he turned Yankee hating into as much of a chore as it has ever been. He didn't make a scene yesterday as he listened to all the reasons why he should accept what he considered a lowball offer, even as the Yankees said they were still prepared to make him the highest-paid manager in baseball.

Torre decided he deserved better, even if it meant walking away from the job that will put him in the Hall of Fame. He didn't act insulted as he heard them out in that room, but had to be.

If this all holds - if the deal that went down yesterday meets the Hollywood standard of not just being set, but "set set" - he walks away from the Yankees, at least for now, the way Yogi Berra did when Steinbrenner fired him 16 games into the 1985 season after promising him he would give him the whole year, swearing that Yogi would have the job all year. Yogi Berra walked away from the Yankees that day, walked away from the Stadium, stayed away a very long time. We'll see how it goes with Joe Torre if this is really the end.

Torre told them all, in his quiet voice, his quiet way, yesterday how well he had done for the Yankees, how much he had done over the past 12 years. And they told him he had done pretty well BY the Yankees, everybody knowing that if the Yankees had ended up winning the World Series this year, they might have been talking about $10 million a year for Torre yesterday, not $5 million with incentives.

An agreement about a disagreement, that was what happened in that room yesterday, what they all felt when it was over.

It was just the most famous disagreement we are ever likely to see in baseball, the most famous manager telling the people who run the most famous team to take their job and shove it. A manager finally fired the Yankees yesterday. Got up and walked out of the room. It was always going to be this way with Joe Torre, like 100 men leaving the room.

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