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Grand Yankee

Brooklyn-Bred Joe Torre steers the Yankees to a world championship, overcoming personnel troubles and personal trauma.
Ken Shouler
From the Print Edition:
James Woods, May/Jun 97

(continued from page 1)

Torre remembers his first meeting with Ali. "It was a Sunday night, August 23, 1981. I was still managing the Mets. I wasn't in the mood to strike up new relationships, but she was very striking. Bob Gibson was pushing me, and I decided to ask her to lunch. The rest, as they say, is history.

"She's a very unselfish person; she wants what I want, wants me to be happy. When we were dating we'd go around and I'd see a piece of art and say, 'I like that.' She'd say, 'That's nice, get it for yourself. ' I'd say it was expensive and she'd say, 'You deserve it.' That's how our existence has been: 'You deserve it.'"

In 1990 Torre was back with the Cardinals, beginning a six-year run with a team that had already passed its prime. In the 1980s, the Cards reached the World Series three times. But during Torre's tenure they won 351 and lost 354, a lackluster .498 percentage. The result? A third firing. Entering this past year with the Yankees, Torre had been a manager for all or part of 14 seasons, posting an unimpressive ledger of 894 wins and 1,003 losses.

Not exactly the kind of numbers that New York headline writers would cotton to. Many of the media felt that Steinbrenner had forced out Buck Showalter, a manager who in just his fourth year had established himself as one of the best prepared in the game, a man who knew the strengths and weaknesses of opposing players inside and out. Showalter had brought the Yankees to the postseason in 1995 for the first time in 14 years. The preceding year, he had them in first place in the Eastern Division when the players strike wiped out the season in August. It seemed to many that in exchange for the 39-year-old Showalter, the Yankees were getting a retread and National League lifer. No doubt Torre had heard of Steinbrenner's reputation and the ever-changing managerial nameplates.

"I got through that early," Torre recalls. "All the questions about Buck Showalter--and he's a good manager--but hell, I took over for Whitey 'the White Rat' Herzog in St. Louis!" A headline in the New York Daily News read "Clueless Joe," implying that this poor, nice guy didn't know what he was getting into by taking up residence in "The Bronx Zoo." Torre shrugs. "What could George do to me that hadn't already been done? I'd been fired three times before!"

So when Torre was given a two-year, $500,000-per-year contract on Nov. 2, 1995 (earlier this year he received a two-year extension, for $1 million per year) and faced the press shortly after, he wasn't hunched over with trepidation. He sounded as earnest as a detective on a promising trail. "There's a missing piece to my puzzle," he said. "I've managed more than a dozen years, I've played with a few ballclubs, I've had good years and bad years. I have never been in a World Series, and coming to an organization that has the burning desire to win was very important in making my decision." He would pilot the most prestigious franchise in the history of sports.

Torre had grown up a New York Giants baseball fan in the 1940s and '50s when the Yankees consistently ravaged the earth. Their clockwork manner of beating up on other teams even led to a Broadway play, Damn Yankees. "You always respected the Yankees because they always won," Torre recalls. "I remember the first time I faced the Yankees as a 20-year-old kid with the Braves in spring training. All of a sudden, Mickey Mantle comes into the batter's box. It was quite an emotional day for me, realizing I watched this guy on television all those years and when I went out to the World Series in '57 and '58. And here he is up at bat and I'm calling the pitches." He nods. "It got my attention."

Despite his memories of those "damn Yankees," Torre's 1996 Yankees were more than a little unsettled come spring training. Lefty Jimmie Key was coming off rotator cuff surgery and Dwight Gooden was fighting his way back from a two-year drug suspension. He had pitched just 41 innings since 1994. Kenny Rodgers, a $20 million free agent, began the season poorly, keeping to himself an injury sustained after he took a line drive off his pitching shoulder in spring training. The starting pitching was full of enough maybes, hopes and prayers to start an infirmary. The only known quantities were Andy Pettite and David Cone.

Still, Torre viewed the situation as half full rather than half empty. "It's the best pitching I ever had as a manager," he proclaimed. He thought the rest of the lineup also held promise. "When I came to spring training I looked around and I've got Tino Martinez at first, [Mariano] Duncan at second, [Wade] Boggs at third, Girardi behind the plate. O'Neill, [Bernie] Williams and [Tim] Raines in the outfield have all had postseason experience, and I didn't even go into the pitching staff. If I compare it to the previous club I was with, the Cardinals, maybe one or two guys had been in postseason play. It made a big difference. You know what it's like, you stay hungry enough that you want to go back there and do it, and maybe a little bit more and maybe stay in the postseason a little bit longer."

Anyone believing in signs found one on opening day at Yankee Stadium. Andy Pettite beat the Kansas City Royals in a snowstorm. "I knew it was going to be a strange year," right fielder O'Neill said, "when I saw Santa Claus in the front row."

Other early season signs were hardly propitious. The Orioles ran out to an 11-2 record. Their sluggers were launching missiles out of the world's largest phone booth, Camden Yards. Baseballs were threatening to land at the door of Babe Ruth's birthplace several blocks away.

Adding to the early pitching problems of Gooden, Key and Rodgers was the weak hitting of first baseman Tino Martinez, who was batting just .240 on May 17. Martinez had replaced fan favorite Don Mattingly, a retiree after the 1995 playoffs. Mattingly had been a fixture at first base, a nine-time Gold Glove winner. He had won a batting title, an MVP award and was the best hitter in baseball from 1984 through 1988. Because he played through back pain, fans overlooked his declining offense. He was a throwback, a "real Yankee." He showed up, avoided scandal and played with intensity. The last memory he gave New York fans was a .417 postseason average against Seattle in the 1995 Division Series, the highest on the team.

The Yankees began a series of miraculous sweeps even before summer arrived. In Baltimore they rallied to take a two-game series from the Orioles at the start of May, winning the second contest, 15-11, in 15 innings on a Martinez grand slam.

Martinez got out of his early season slump, and would finish the season with 117 runs batted in. The pitching took flight, too. While it appeared that David Cone would be out of the lineup for the season--and maybe permanently--after a May 10 operation on an aneurysm in his right arm, Gooden was discovering his former magic. He ran off start after impressive start, recapturing his control and explosive fastball. On May 14 he tossed a no-hitter against heavy-hitting Seattle.

The trump card was the bullpen. Mariano Rivera and John Wetteland shut the opposition down with 90-plus octane. Rivera was the true Rajah of Relief. A wiry 168-pounder with a silky delivery, Rivera's threw pitches that seemed to explode over the last five feet before they got to the batter.

Torre saw that the job for Rivera was middle relief. Rivera responded by toying with hitters, striking out 130 batters in 107 innings. At one point Minnesota manager Tom Kelly said, "We can't hit him. He should be banned from baseball. He's illegal." Pettite, the Yankees' best starter, was heading off any talk of a sophomore jinx on his way to a 21-win season, the Yanks' first 20-game winner since Ron Guidry 11 years before.

Middle infielders Jeter and Duncan were hitting far above anyone's expectations and providing steady play in the field. Completing the strength up the middle were catcher Girardi and center fielder Bernie Williams. Girardi had been booed at the Yankees' February Fanfest. He was replacing the popular, productive Mike Stanley, who signed with Boston after the Yankees let him get away.

Torre wasn't worried about Girardi's hitting. "We wanted him to catch," Torre says. "If you have great pitching you need someone to catch. In my estimation he was the best catcher in the National League. I checked with [pitching coach Mel] Stottlemyre and Zimmer and they concurred. So I felt pretty good about it. Zimmer told me how tough he was because he had managed him in 1989."

A late-June series at another homer paradise, in Cleveland, would test the Yankees. Jacobs Field was a horsehide launching pad and Albert Belle was the Indians' main wall-banger. But the Yankees swept the four-game series, capping their visit by winning a day-night doubleheader. If any baseball agnostics still remained in the Bronx, their numbers were surely dwindling.

While a turning point for the Yankees, the Cleveland series will always bring sadness to Torre. After the first game of a June 22 doubleheader, he was in the clubhouse when a call came from his wife, Ali.

"My brother Frank was in the hospital at the time in Florida because he wasn't feeling well," Torre remembers. "My wife says, 'Are you sitting down?' Now right away my thoughts go to Frank. But she says, 'Your brother Rocco died.' It knocked my socks off. He had a heart attack. I talked to his wife, Rose, that day. She said he was sitting there watching the first game and we were losing. And he was complaining to her that we had never come from behind to win a game in the ninth inning. And she said, 'There's always a first time.' And then we came back and won the game. And then she went in to see what he wanted to do about dinner and he just grabbed his head and collapsed. He had diabetes and was 68 years old, but he was exercising and doing things and had just been to the doctor and everything seemed to be fine. I stayed for that night's game and part of the game on Sunday, and then flew home to the wake on Sunday night and the funeral on Monday. I put my cap and lineup cards of the game he saw in the casket. It just made me feel closer."

Personal tragedy aside, if there was a time when Torre allowed himself the thought that the Yankees might win it all, that was it. "When we beat Cleveland in that doubleheader, it was really big."

The Yankees went into the All-Star break at 52-33, six games ahead of Baltimore. After the 72-hour respite from planes, buses and hotels, they traveled to Baltimore and swept the Birds again. "By the middle of July, we had beaten Cleveland all six games in Cleveland and Baltimore all six games in Baltimore," Torre marvels. "I think that at that point my club had a great deal of confidence, knowing that if they could beat those clubs on the road, we could do anything."

But there was no time to exhale. A baseball regular season is 162 games, practically as long as the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League seasons combined. The season begins with four-game weeks, then six-game weeks, and by the dog days of August teams are playing every day.

On July 28 the Yankees' lead peaked at 12 games. But every great drama includes conflict, and the Yankees would have to overcome obstacles they didn't know about. It was a tribute to their depth that they'd gotten over the loss of Cone, the right-hander whom they'd signed to a three-year, $19.5 million deal. But now their starting arms got heavy. Compounding the problems, Wetteland went down with a groin injury on Aug. 16. Torre did the only thing he could do, moving Rivera to the closing role. The starters were getting lit up, every night it seemed, pounded for three and five and eight runs in the early innings. Their most valuable commodity, Rivera, was wasted, sitting with his arms folded and staring in from the bullpen bench. The lead, once 12 games, tailed off to 10, then to 6.

Even some good deals they made--the Yanks picked up Darryl Strawberry from the Northern League and got Cecil Fielder from the Detroit Tigers for Ruben Sierra--didn't stop the bleeding. The game has always been about pitching and if you don't have enough of it, August will find you. After a loss to Seattle on Aug. 28, the lead was just four games over Baltimore. What looked like a summer breeze was turning into a fall to forget.

When he was a broadcaster with California, Torre remembers visiting with Yankees manager Billy Martin during the game. "Billy had a cigar going all the time. But he had it hidden. I mean, it wouldn't be in the dugout, but in the runway. He'd get it off a shelf, puff it, put it back, go back out to the dugout." Torre laughs. Did Torre think of smoking between innings in the runway? "I probably would have bitten it in half," he snaps.

But while a tension convention might have been building in the clubhouse, the Yankees saw no fright in their skipper. "There are times as a baseball person when you say, 'This is the day the food table goes flying,'" says public relations director Cerrone. But with Torre it never happened.

"To me the last thing you want to do is panic," Torre says. "Because if the players sense that you're worried, they're going to be worried. And I didn't want that to happen. It was a really tough run."

Broadcaster Kay remembers the time well. "There was a palpable sense of nervousness around, but nobody was panicking," he recalls. "Torre called the team together and said, 'We are going to win this, don't worry about it.' "

Says Torre, "The only thing we kept reminding ourselves is that we were in better shape than anyone else. And they kept their heads. We had enough veterans on the club and they didn't panic."

Then Charlie Hayes, acquired from Pittsburgh on Aug. 30, drove in three runs the following day to help beat the California Angels. But a bigger, more unexpected boost was coming. Nearly four months after his arm operation, David Cone took the mound on Sept. 2 in Oakland and silenced the Athletics' big bats, nearly pitching a no-hitter in a 5-0 victory. The Bronx Bombers' lead dwindled to two and a half games on Sept. 10, but then the Yankees won five straight and split a crucial four-game series against Baltimore at Yankee Stadium in mid-September. They clinched the division title at home against the Milwaukee Brewers on Sept. 25 and finished at 92-70, four games ahead of Baltimore.

In the playoffs the wins seemed to come easier than in August and September. The Yankees lost the first game to Western Division leader Texas. But falling behind no longer scared the Yankees. They rallied to win three consecutive games, including the last two in The Ballpark in Arlington. Again, it was the Yankees' bullpen that triumphed while the Rangers' pen surrendered leads in all three losses. Juan Gonzalez, the league's most valuable player, had a stellar series, bombing five homers.

Against Baltimore, the same lose-one-and-rally-later pattern seemed about to emerge when the Yanks were saved by a 12-year-old boy from New Jersey, Jeff Maier, who interfered with a fly ball in the eighth inning of Game 1. Umpire Richie Garcia clearly missed the interference and called it a home run. That tied the game at two and Bernie Williams ended it in the 10th inning with a home run off of Randy Myers. The Yankees lost Game 2, 5-3, and again had to go to the opponent's park, having squandered their home-field advantage. But again they swept the Orioles on their own turf.

In all, the Yankees had played nine games in Camden Yards and had won every one. The Yankees shut down a team that had hit 251 homers during the regular season, shattering the previous record of 240 set by the 1961 Yankees. But against Yankees pitching the Baltimore bats were strangely impotent, even in the close confines of Camden Yards. One Baltimore beat writer labeled the Orioles "Tin Men," implying they lacked heart.


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