Above Average Joe


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.

  • The Anointing of Derek Jeter: Understand this. In 20 years, Joe Torre may well be best remembered as the man who gave Derek Jeter his job. He took a 21-year-old kid who only two seasons before made 56 errors in Greensboro and basically said “It’s your job to lose.” While a preseason injury to Tony Fernandez made the decision a little less second-guessable, Torre was clearly sticking his neck out. If Jeter had started the season, say, 3 for 21, and sailing his throws into the box seats, the Bronx Street Boy might still be riding the Columbus Shuttle or performing his magic for the Anaheim Angels. But instead, he’s still calling his manager “Mr. Torre,” and is the odds-on favorite for AL MVP.

    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.

  • The Exorcism of Don Mattingly: You will remember that Donnie Baseball was still technically an active player when Torre took over the Yanks. In fact, he was still an active player, albeit one sitting at home in Indiana, when the Bombers played in their first World Series since the year before Mattingly came up. (Anyone notice a pattern here?) Having a first baseman who hit like a second baseman clogged up Buck Showalter’s offense like the world’s largest hair ball. Torre handed the job cleanly and unequivocally to Tino Martinez, who has not only hit like a first baseman, he’s hit like Mo Vaughn. Torre did not allow the ghost of Don Mattingly to haunt his clubhouse. And his early support allowed him to bench Tino in the World Series, and still have him respond with a career year in ’97.

    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.

  • The Shuffling of the Bullpen: Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. Entering the ’96 season, Mariano Rivera had exactly one save in professional baseball— it came five years and one arm operation earlier in A-ball— and his most notable regular season performance was pitching a rain-shorted, five-inning no-hitter. And he didn’t impress his manager much, either. “Mariano Rivera, who I heard had a live arm, showed me an average fastball that was very straight. I knew other teams wanted Rivera and I told the front office to listen to any deals for him,” recalls Torre in his 1997 bio, Chasing the Dream. Fortunately, Bob Watson didn’t listen.

    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.

  • Catching On, Finally. Granted, the Yankees’ mess behind the plate in ’98 was a problem of Torre’s own creation. But he slowly recognized that Joe Girardi was the out-eater of the lineup, and his defensive work— he only threw out 20 percent of would-be base stealers— was slipping, too. So without ever saying so, Torre handed the job to Jorge Posada, who responded by catching a perfect game and passing Girardi in career home runs this spring, despite Joe’s seven-year head start. At the same time, he convinced Steinbrenner to re-sign Girardi as a backup, giving him a $3.4 million sort-of going-away present. This kind of goodwill goes a long way around the clubhouse.

    Could we have seen it coming? Loyalty to his players, albeit sometimes misguided, has always been a big Torre strong point.

  • Not Screwing Things Up: This is probably the most important thing Torre did. He inherited a good team— the Yankees were on pace to win 100 and 88 games respectively in strike-shortened 1994 and ’95— and he quickly grasped what made them tick. This was a team built around taking pitches, drawing walks, and making the other team’s hurlers throw 100 pitches by the fifth inning. It’s easy to mess this up. To try to be more aggressive on the bases. To try to hit more home runs. To attempt to just be more entertaining— because walks aren’t nearly as fun as upper deck dingers. But, to his credit, Torre understood the pitfalls in this. He stuck with the club’s strengths, and the team got, well, stronger. Over the last three seasons the Yankees’ on-base percentage has actually gone up, both in absolute terms and relative to the league.

    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?

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