Bring Me the Head of Joe Torre
In his 1997 Guide to Baseball Managers, Bill James noted the positive effect of changing sergeants, which he had observed during his stint in the Army. "One first sergeant," he wrote, "took down some old, tawdry curtains which hung in the NCO club. The next first sergeant put the curtains back up. One first sergeant changed the seating in the mess hall. The next first sergeant shifted it againmore or less back to what it was." And so on. Change for the sake of change often had a positive effect because "over the course of the year the company grew stale, petty problems ground us down, and the attitude turned sour." The same thing is often true for baseball teams, James concluded: "A new manager owes nobody nothing. He can bench or release unproductive players without apology. An established manager can't do that . . . If a new manager throws Charlie out of the boat, everybody else says, 'Uh-oh, my job isn't safe here. I better bust my hump trying to impress this guy.' If an old manager throws Charlie out of the boat, it's a betrayal." In other words, because he has worked so long and hard to earn the players' loyalty, a veteran manager just isn't in a position to make the decisions that a team in trouble demands.
The 2007 New York Yankees are, as of the second week in May, a team in trouble, a fact now obscured by the euphoria over Roger Clemens's return to the Bronx. They are not dead, by any means, but 5 1/2 games behind Boston as we go to press. The Yankees are in need of drastic changes, and the brass in the front office has responded not by changing sergeants but by firing a corporal (actually, Marty Miller, a conditioning coach whom they're blaming for all the hamstring injuries). More drastic measures are needed, and have been for some time now.
In fact, the Yankees' failures from 2002 through 2006 reveal an ugly similarity: In each of the five postseason series in which the Yankees were eliminated (including the 2003 World Series against Florida), Torre's teams started strong, winning eight of the first nine games in those series. In the last 17 games of those five series, the Yankees went a collective 116. The pattern has been to build up a head of steam and then, suddenly, to collapse. The most dramatic collapse, of course, came in the 2004 AL championship series against Boston, where they won the first three games and then lost four straight, the only time this has happened to any team in postseason play, yet oddly typical of the Yankees' postseason failure over the past five years.
There are no simple explanations for the breathtaking difference between the way the Yankees have begun each key postseason series since 2002 and the way they have finished them, but the results of those series offers an eerie contrast to Torre's first six years. From 1996 through 2001, the Yankees appeared in five and won four out of six world championships and displayed an amazing capacity for clutch performance (most notably in the 1996 World Series, when they lost the first two games to the Atlanta Braves and then went on to win four straight, three of them in Atlantaalmost the opposite of last year's loss to Detroit in the division series). However you break it down, it comes to this: For the first six years that Joe Torre managed the Yankees, his teams showed remarkable grace under pressure, and for the last five . . . well, we don't want to say the word "choke," but that 116 record is a stunner.
Yes, much that's being said in Joe Torre's defense is true: He's a great and courageous guy, his players love him, and he isn't responsible for the mediocre-to-bad pitching staffs that Brian Cashman has saddled him with over the past few seasons. And there isn't much a manager can do to prevent hamstring pulls. But there's also much being said about Torre that can be filed under the heading of "excuses."
A malaise has fallen over the Yankees, especially in the playoffs, and whether or not Torre is responsible for much or even any of it has become a depressingly academic question. The real question is: Can he do anything to snap his team out of it? And on the evidence of the last several postseasons, the answer must be an emphatic no.
In past decades, as we all know, many of the Yankees' problems have stemmed from Steinbrenner's impatience. Now, perhaps, the Yankees' main problem is that Steinbrenner has been too patient. Even his staunchest supporters agree that Torre was never much of a baseball strategist. His primary value to the team, they concede, was an avuncular attitude that provided a buffer between the players and the turbulence of the Yankee front office. It's possible that a little turbulence right now is what the Yankees need; or, perhaps, with Steinbrenner's apparent mellowing, that buffer is no longer needed anyway.
It's being argued that the Yankees can't let Joe Torre go because they don't have a Billy Martin drill-instructor type waiting in the wings to jolt this team out of its complacency. It may be, though, that such a veteran team doesn't need a DIjust a manager who is more of a first sergeant and less of an uncle.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.