Saturday, October 20, 2007

Mike Lupica: Joe Torre's goodbye signals end of more than one era

Saturday, October 20th 2007, 4:00 AM

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According to the message board just off the lobby of the Hilton Rye Town yesterday, the Latina Leadership Symposium was to your left, arrows pointing you toward ballrooms A and B and C.
There was no arrow pointing you toward the Yankees, at this hotel maybe half an hour from Yankee Stadium. But the Yankees were here all right, because Joe Torre was here.

The Yankees were just around the corner, past the desk where the women were checking in media members, through a door and past tables set up with ice and soft drinks and cookies, in the Hilton's Grand Ballroom, the one filling up fast for Torre.

This is how things work out sometimes. Torre became one of the biggest guys in town because of the way he managed the Yankees for 12 years. Now because of the way he leaves them, if he is leaving them for good, he is bigger than ever.

Once Torre, who had been fired three times as a manager before he got to Yankee Stadium, needed the Yankees. Now the whole town and the whole world think the Yankees need him much more, even after another first-round loss.

"You gotta be kidding," Torre said when he came through a side door and saw the crowd for him, a little bit after two o'clock.

Then Torre sat down and looked at some notes and started talking, his voice thick with emotion. The first thing he did was thank George Steinbrenner "for trusting me with his club for the last 12 years."

And the more Joe Torre talked at the Hilton Rye Town, and he talked for more than an hour, the more you saw and heard something important, not just about him, we know all about him by now, but about the Yankees. You understood that if the Steinbrenners don't change their mind this weekend or next week, if they don't reach out to Torre one last time and try to make this right, that this wasn't just the end of one era yesterday, it was the end of a lot of them.

If this sticks, it was the end of Torre's Yankees and everything they have meant and everything they have been. And it was the end of George Steinbrenner's Yankees, just because nobody will ever believe he is really calling the shots there ever again.

It was the end of all that. It's almost as if Torre and Steinbrenner leave the Yankees together.

The Yankees will win again someday, maybe as soon as next season, with another manager.

There is still too much talent around and too much money to spend, and everybody can see they have a farm system again, and young arms. So this wasn't the end of the Yankees. Just the end of what they have been under Torre.

It wasn't all him, because it's never just the manager or coach in sports, and if you don't believe that, ask Phil Jackson how much of a genius he was with the Albany Patroons before he got with Michael Jordan.

It is still a fact that the Yankees became more important and more profitable during Torre's years managing them than at any other time in the history of the team. And made their fans more passionate and more present for them than at any other time in their history.

"You can feel (the fans' heartbeat)," Torre said at one point yesterday.

It was something he has said before, a wonderful description of the relationship between the team and the city, and between the city and this manager.

It doesn't mean he was a perfect manager. There aren't any of those. It doesn't mean that because of what Torre did in those first five years in town that nobody was ever allowed to think about getting rid of him when the Yankees started losing in the first round. Even now, it is as if somebody else managed the team this season until they were 14-1/2 behind the Red Sox and then Torre came back. Then left again right before the Indians series.

But the Steinbrenners would have been better off just firing him instead of doing it this way, asking him to take that pay cut, even with the incentives, in the Year of the Rocket. Think about it. One of the reasons Torre goes is because of a sum of money that works out to two Roger Clemens starts.

Take all the time they took and then present this kind of humpty-dumpty offer to Torre? The people in charge of the Yankees now don't just lose Torre at that point, they lose anybody prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt, even two Steinbrenner sons I thought were in a bad spot.

It would have been one thing to fire Torre last season, clean, with somebody like Lou Piniella standing there, a replacement for Torre who wouldn't have required a search committee. Just don't do it like this.

There was Torre talking about those incentive clauses they wanted to put in his new contract and saying, "I took it as an insult."

"It was the way it was offered," he said.

Do it like this, a $200 million team trying to cut the manager's salary by $2-1/2 million, and no Steinbrenner, father or sons, can be surprised about what is happening. Somehow, after three first-round losses in a row and four in six years, the Yankees make such a mess of things that their customers want to start building Joe Torre a monument right now.

Those same people watch the way Torre goes out and probably wonder how it will end for Jeter someday.

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