Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Bob Klapisch: Joe should leave the Yankees on his terms

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

NEW YORK -- So the Joe Torre deathwatch continued for another day, with everyone trying to interpret the meaning of the stay of execution granted by George Steinbrenner. Deciphering The Boss' moves is not unlike monitoring the CIA, where decisions are made covertly and factions wrestle each other for power.

Only, this time it's Steinbrenner alone who's mulling Torre's future. After a day of teleconferencing with his general manager, vice presidents and other high-level advisers, the Yankee owner flew back to Tampa, Fla., where, according to one insider, "he'll be making this decision all by himself." That means no one -- not even general manager Brian Cashman, Torre's greatest advocate -- can protect the manager now.

The injustice here is that Torre is being forced to wait, like some misbehaving school kid sitting outside the principal's office. He deserves better. He deserves more. If Steinbrenner intends to fire Torre, he should've had enough respect to do it quickly and cleanly on Monday and moved forward on a much-needed overhauling of the organization.

Instead, Torre was a prisoner in his Westchester County home, forced to stay indoors to avoid the army of reporters on his front lawn. Imagine the indignity, after 11 successful seasons in the Bronx, to have to feel like Martha Stewart. All that was missing was the electronic bracelet around his ankle.

Of course, Torre didn't manage a particularly crisp AL Division Series, marked by his decision to start Bernie Williams over Gary Sheffield in Game 3. And who can understand why Chien-Ming Wang wasn't brought back on short rest? The Yankees themselves will forever be remembered for the way they were outplayed by the younger, hungrier Tigers. But nothing justifies the silent treatment from The Boss, even for one day.

That's why Torre should tell The Boss goodbye. He should negotiate a fair buyout of the final year of his $7 million contract, and let Lou Piniella inherit the coming storms. Torre certainly has to know Steinbrenner has no real love for him, never has. The Boss has been waiting for years for the upper hand, and now he's got it.

Put it this way: If Steinbrenner doesn't fire Torre today or Wednesday, he will surely do it after the first losing streak in April.

Torre would then walk out of Yankee Stadium as humiliated as Yogi Berra was in 1985, canned after 14 games. That started a two-decade cold war with the kindest man in baseball. Torre and Steinbrenner are risking the same ugly end. Torre is on his way to the Hall of Fame, but his legacy will be soiled by the drumbeat of dark whispers that preceded Yogi's firing, too.

But Torre can beat George to the punch by saying it's time to move on, that he wants to spend more time with his family. Joe Cool should say exactly that, even though what he really means is that he no longer wants to be sabotaged by the Yankee hierarchy, or his own listless players. Talk about injustice: If the Yankees really loved Torre as much as they claim, why didn't even one of the club's stars show up at the Stadium on Monday to support him?

If ever there was a forum to save Torre, it was during the five-hour locker-cleaning session in the clubhouse. Reporters waited all day, and all they got were a handful of quotes from Ron Villone, Jaret Wright and Miguel Cairo. That's it.

There was no Jason Giambi, no Randy Johnson, no Mariano Rivera or Bernie Williams, Torre's strongest ally in the clubhouse. Derek Jeter issued a statement through his agent that Torre wasn't at fault for the collapse to the Tigers, but didn't make the 25-minute journey from his East Side apartment to the Stadium, where he knew his words would have a more powerful impact.

The captain could've made Steinbrenner aware that the manager still has the support of his clubhouse, and don't think The Boss would've ignored that sentiment. This is all about public relations; Steinbrenner has spared Torre until now because he didn't think he could get away with a dismissal. But the players' silence confirms The Boss' hunch that Torre is vulnerable.

And he is. Eleven years is too long for a coach or manager in professional sports. It's a near-certainty that Torre's reign would've ended after 2007, anyway, no matter how successful the Yankees are. It's simply time for a change in chemistry. The Mets recognized that in hiring the charismatic Willie Randolph to replace the soulless Art Howe, and look at the result.

Thing is, Torre has been the right man for the Yankees all along: calm, mature, able to shield his players from New York's excesses, not to mention The Boss'. Torre turned the Yankees into a respectable organization after years of anarchy. In return, Steinbrenner gave Torre enough talent to win four world championships and six American League pennants. Both men have profited from this marriage.

But Steinbrenner's genetically coded anger is back, and this time there's nothing (and no one) to save Torre. For once, The Boss feels he has the public on his side. After the Yankees went 20 scoreless innings against the Tigers, Steinbrenner is betting that fans won't really mind if Torre is replaced by Piniella.

Torre is no dummy. He knows which way the wind is blowing in the Bronx. He doesn't need to wait another minute for the principal to summon him. Walking away will preserve Torre's legacy forever. It's the ultimate power play against baseball's greatest power broker.

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