Monday, June 04, 2007
Bob Klapisch: Mattingly always loyal to Joe Torre
Joe Torre and Don Mattingly during spring training.
Bergen County Record
Monday, June 4, 2007
BOSTON – Don Mattingly admits he's caught in the worst kind of Catch-22 these days, inching closer to a career as Yankees manager, but knowing it'll take Joe Torre's firing for that fantasy to become real. Mattingly doesn't just work for Torre, he respects him -- practically worships him -- so it kills him to hear the bloggers' latest war cry: Joe must go.
Dump Joe? Mattingly's eyebrows arch as if to say: Are you kidding?
"That's crazy. Joe's done so much for this team, he should be able to write his own ticket," Mattingly was saying Sunday night, hours before the Yankees and Red Sox concluded what should've been a monster weekend at Fenway with a 6-5 New York victory.
It would've been, had it not been for a collapse that has plunged the Bombers into a double-digit deficit. The race in the East is over, and now even the wild-card berth seems beyond the Yankees' grasp. The sense of crisis is everywhere; someone, it seems is about to pay for this $200 million embarrassment.
The list of potential villains is long, indeed: the aging Bobby Abreu, the cowardly Carl Pavano, the fragile Johnny Damon and the creaky Mike Mussina.
Or maybe it's Brian Cashman, whose personnel decisions all have backfired. Still, Torre is an easier target. He's in the final season of a three-year contract, apparently putting the finishing touches on an unprecedented 11-year run of excellence.
But the Yankees look dead – even Tino Martinez and Paul O'Neill have said it – and plenty of outsiders are blaming Torre, as if those 11 years never happened. And that's what bothers Mattingly – that mindless belief that a 1980s-style firing by George Steinbrenner will, magically, heal the Yankees, even if Mattingly himself is next in line.
"Look, Joe has always been able to right this ship, and I believe he's still the man to do it," Mattingly said. "Are you telling me that just because we've had one bad half-season that Joe can't do the job anymore? That's stupid. I just don't believe that."
Mattingly is serious about Torre dictating his own future; he feels the manager deserves that equity from Steinbrenner. Whether it's another year or two -- or whether Torre moves on after 2007 -- Mattingly doesn't want to inherit the job at Torre's expense.
It's a crazy dynamic between the two men, considering that they sit side by side in the dugout, night after night. To his credit, Torre has never let his uncertain job status affect his mentoring of the young bench coach. Torre continues to teach Mattingly the way he taught Joe Girardi before he was hired by the Marlins.
"Even before he became a coach, I always thought Donnie had it in him to be a great manager," Torre said. "First, he's a man's man. Second, he has experience in New York. Third, he's not afraid of the field. And he's not lazy; he wants to keep learning."
Torre is generous with his wisdom. Whenever a strategy decision is at hand, he'll quiz Mattingly, asking him: What would you do? Torre often agrees with his pupil, but when he doesn't, he's quick to explain why not. Little by little, Mattingly is acquiring that in-game machinery that's like oxygen to a manager, although when you ask Mattingly if he's ready to actually replace Torre, he shakes his head and says, "I'm in no rush.
"I've got plenty of time, there's a lot for me to still learn," he said. Like gauging a team's mood, coaxing the stars to get along, keeping the role players motivated, managing the press, placating the owner. No job in baseball is tougher than managing the Yankees, and too few people realize just how well Torre has done that.
Maybe that's why Steinbrenner has not yet acted. Maybe he understands that before you humiliate a future Hall of Fame manager in his final season, you had better have an obvious upgrade ready to replace him.
As smart as Mattingly might some day be, he wouldn't change the Yankees' karma -- not overnight, anyway. He's the first to admit that. Remember, Mattingly is a refugee of the unstable '80s, when Steinbrenner went through managers faster than Madonna used to go through boyfriends. While the quick fix satisfied The Boss' need to flex corporate muscle, it never really made a difference on the field.
"It's the players who end up winning and losing games," Mattingly said. "I've seen too many managers get fired for me to believe it makes a difference. Maybe for a few days it does, but then it comes down to the team you have. Does it have confidence, experience, character? That's how you win and lose."
Torre's teams always have had character, simply because of the leadership that flowed from the manager's office. Torre knows how to handle Steinbrenner, he knows how to keep a slumping veteran from panicking, he's made the Yankees an attractive option to free agents.
That's the unquantifiable part of Torre's resume – invisible to many, but certainly not to Mattingly.
When asked if the Yankees can still salvage the season, Donnie Baseball said, simply, "You bet."
When asked if Torre is the man to lead the resurrection, the eyebrows flexed one more time, as if to say: Do you really have to ask?