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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 5)

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.

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