Joe Torre is a sweetheart of a guy, but there’s the same demand for his services as a manager as there was for Darryl Strawberry’s as a ballplayer.
— Mike Lupica, in “Below Average Joe,” Daily News, October 31, 1995
Hard though it may be to remember, as Joe Torre moves closer to his triumphant return to Yankee Stadium, but Lupica was pretty much just spouting the consensus reaction to Torre’s hiring as Yankee manager in late 1995: Nice guy. Lousy manager. But try, if you will, to rewind past the ticker tape parades and look at Steinbrenner’s October Surprise without the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. Torre was brought in to replace a brilliant, if tightly wound, young manager named Buck
Showalter, who had led the Yankees from the depths of Stump Merrilldom to their first playoff appearance in 13 years. Showalter’s reward? A pink slip. Torre’s credentials— a career record of 994-1003, zero World Series appearances— more than justified tabloid comments like Lupica’s. His hiring seemed like the managerial version of Dale Murray for Fred McGriff.
And initially it didn’t look too promising. Whereas the credenza in the Yankee Stadium manager’s office had once supported Showalter’s copy of Total Baseball, it now displayed Torre’s copy of the Godfather trilogy. (“It’s a Sicilian message. It means that Randy Velarde sleeps with the fishes.”) Mel “Pitch count? What pitch count?” Stottlemyre was the new pitching coach. And the sacrifice bunt suddenly seemed like a religion.
But when the ’96 Yankees jumped out to a fast start and a comfortable division lead, all this was forgotten as quickly as the Macarena. And over the course of that summer— and succeeding ones— any serious discussion of Torre’s decision making abilities was replaced by talk about the melodrama of his life: A baby daughter. A brother’s death. Another brother’s heart transplant. A career-long wait to get to the World Series. A Showtime bio flick (Curveballs Along the Way). Another World Series. A cancer diagnosis. Another cancer diagnosis. It seemed, at times, that Torre just dropped in from Central Casting.
So while there’s been plenty of ink spilled on Joe Torre the mensch, Joe Torre the cancer patient, Joe Torre the lunch-meat pitchman, there has been precious little discussion of Joe Torre the baseball manager.
So let’s do just that. How about a quick scan of Torre’s résumé? The highlights are higher than a Cheech and Chong film festival. He’s won two World Series. Among active managers, only Tom Kelly of the Twins can make a similar claim. Forget about 114 wins. In merely winning 100, he joins a pretty select club: Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa, Davey Johnson, and Mike Hargrove, among those still coaching.
But despite this, he’s rarely mentioned in the same sentence as LaRussa and Jim Leyland. Why not? The lows. His career winning percentage is .502. That’s just a shade below Don Zimmer. And below such luminaries as Bill Virdon and Tom Treblehorn.
So which is it? Is the glass of Lambrusco half full or half empty? While most analyses of managers begin with the hit-and-run and end with how long they’ll let their starters twist in the wind, these in-game judgments are really the least important part of a manager’s responsibilities. Let’s instead take a look at some of the really big decisions of the Yankees’ Joe Torre Era.
Could we have seen it coming? Torre had always shown a willingness to gamble on young players and good judgment when he did. Ray Lankford, Todd Zeile, Bernard Gilkey, and Brian Jordan won their jobs under Torre.
Could we have seen it coming? No. His handling of Ozzie Smith’s decline was one of the contributing factors— along with lots of losses— to his dismissal in St. Louis.
But Torre has always believed in a structured bullpen. In ’96 John Wetteland was his closer. Period. And instead of succumbing to the temptation to put Rivera back into the rotation— remember, Jack McDowell was in Cleveland and David Cone on the operating table— he deeded the seventh and eighth to the young fireballer. The result? Rivera smoked hitters in innings that Steve Howe, Bob Wickman, and the rest of the bullpen-by-committee had so deftly soaked in lighter fluid the year before.
Could we have seen it coming? Torre was actually one of the pioneers of the closer-in-the-ninth philosophy, getting Lee Smith a then-NL record 47 saves in ’91.
Could we have seen it coming? Loyalty to his players, albeit sometimes misguided, has always been a big Torre strong point.
Could we have seen it coming? No. His teams in St. Louis and Atlanta were always middle of the packers in walks and OBP.
So, is Joe Torre a genius? Well, no, but then again Stephen Hawking can’t figure out when to hit and run. But as LaRussa and Leyland have shown, you can win without horses. You just can’t win championships. On the other hand, Torre’s proven he’s no Joe Altobelli either. You can luck into one World Series but not two. What’s the verdict on Torre? Against all odds, and with a little luck, he took a good team and made it great. Can you really ask anything more from a manager?