Brooklyn-Bred Joe Torre steers the Yankees to a world championship, overcoming personnel troubles and personal trauma.
From the Print Edition:
James Woods, May/Jun 97
Joe Torre strides into his office in an olive green suit and a broad black fedora. After unburdening himself of a briefcase and a stack of photographs that need signing, he sits back in his desk chair. He checks the phone messages piled on his desk, then clips and lights a small Cuban cigar, a Sancho Panza. There have been plenty of smoking and feel-good occasions for Torre lately. A few weeks earlier, the Yankees had rallied from two games down to beat the favored Atlanta Braves for their 23rd world championship, rocking the baseball world in the process. Torre has been rolling ever since.
"Every time I leave home I come back to 23 messages; I can't dig out of this hole," he says. "I mean, I love it, don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining one bit."
"Will it help if you change your phone number?" public relations director Rick Cerrone cuts in.
"Not until after the holidays," Torre says.
Since that raucous Saturday night in October--a night when Paul O'Neill swears he felt the Yankee Stadium ground shake from the deafening din after he crossed home plate on Joe Girardi's third-inning triple--Torre has made the victor's rounds. He appeared on the Cosby and Letterman shows--then Regis and Kathy Lee and other morning stops. He lit the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in Manhattan and has even tried motivational speaking. He walked onto the Radio City Music Hall stage and walked off with an ESPY for "Best Manager of the Year." The Yankees were awarded "Best Team." "It was a big thrill," says Torre, "considering we had to beat out the Bulls and the Packers!" Another accolade came from the Sporting News, which named Torre Sportsman of the Year. When he went to receive the award, "truck drivers and cabbies were yelling," says Cerrone. "He can't go from a car to a door across the sidewalk without people attacking him! The championship didn't happen in a vacuum; everybody related to it." Suddenly, everyone is greeting Torre con amore.
He grew up in New York and now it is his town again. It may be true that Torre's calming influence--as much as any timely hit or strikeout--helped his team to win. "The clubhouse seemed somewhat serene and stable," says Yankees radio voice Michael Kay, "a reflection of Torre."
"This is a tough game to play," Torre says. "It's a tough game to endure; a marathon, not a sprint. You've got to try to eliminate the highs and the lows and just maintain a nice level of play. And I thought that we did that pretty well."
The phone rings. Someone is asking how the family is and what's happening with the Yankees. "My sisters are fine, my brother's fine," he says, referring to older brother Frank, who received a heart transplant on the off day between games five and six of the Series. "Jimmy Key is gone, [Jim] Leyritz is gone and we'll probably lose [John] Wetteland," he continues, updating the caller with the ever-evolving post-Series roster. (Subsequently, the Yankees did lose Wetteland to Texas.)
Half a minute later the phone rings again. It's George. Yes, that George. George Steinbrenner, the one who has presided over 20 managerial changes in 24 years as boss. "You should come down here now," Torre says to George. "Cigar Aficionado is doing an interview and this place is filled with smoke." True enough. The smoke wafts out into the empty clubhouse, where champagne flowed and Torre's eyes welled up with emotion the October before.
Media relations adviser Arthur Richman walks in. Richman and other brass are on hand for a press conference to announce the re-signing of catcher Joe Girardi and the signing of free agent reliever Mike Stanton. "I used to be a cigar smoker," Richman says. "I gave it up. Twice. I used to smoke Berings. I used to stay at the Tampa Terrace hotel which [Bering] owned." Torre hangs up and cuts in. "Arthur, George needs you right now, upstairs." Richman heads out.
Clubhouse attendant Nick Priori comes in, followed by trainer Gene Monahan and general manager Bob Watson. Torre introduces them all. Monahan and Watson are a couple of recent smoking converts. What does Watson smoke? "Whatever he gives me," Watson says, motioning to Torre.
"When we won the division title against Milwaukee, I came in here and I realized that they had raided my cigar collection," says Torre, pointing to the humidor behind his desk. "Every player had a cigar in his face. I remember Kenny Rodgers coming in here and asking [bench coach Don] Zimmer, 'Which ones are the good ones?' He made sure he got a good one. So they depleted my supply.
"When my daughter was born a year ago, I gave out The Griffin's, a very nice cigar. For some of my cigar enthusiast friends I also had some Montecristos--those torpedoes. Strong and long." Then he swings around to show the rest of his stash. "Look at what somebody gave me the other day. A Savinelli. Look at these. I'm smoking these now," Torre says. "I'm going to send a bunch of these to Cecil [Fielder] and just have him go bananas. And if he still wants to be a free agent, well...
"That is a nice smoke," he says, taking another puff of the Sancho Panza. "Mild, right?" Some Cuban cigars can "make your eyes cross," Torre adds. "I'll smoke some of this, smoke some of that. I'm pretty good at diversifying. George Steinbrenner gave me this one," he says, pointing to a Por Larrañaga Havana. "Of course, George came in here and said, 'This is the one you have to smoke,' and he hands me an 18-inch cigar shaped like a baseball bat with a knob on the handle. It's so wide you'd need a hacksaw to clip it.
"It's been crazy but I love it," Torre says, still catching his breath from the World Series spin he's been in. "When I think that Derek Jeter and Chipper Jones won the World Series in their first year, these guys think it happens all the time. Derek's been going at it a hundred miles an hour in the off-season, going here, going there, being fawned over, which is deserved. Being 56 years old, I'm walking through this. And I'm not going to jog. This is enjoyable. It's exhausting, but it's terrific.
"I hired an agent in June 1995. Because after I was fired from St. Louis [in 1995], I was going to go into broadcasting. That was going to be it. So I hired Bob Rosen of RLR Associates. All of a sudden my agent is handling all my engagements, my book." Torre's autobiography, Chasing the Dream, written with Tom Verducci, recently came out. "This is stuff I never dreamed about when I hired him. And of course, when you're involved in the World Series, the last thing on your mind is what the Series is going to bring you, other than the World Series ring. You're really in this foxhole the whole time you're in the postseason. Then all of a sudden, when the thing was over, I discovered that I was a hero."
At the Yankees' victory parade in lower Manhattan, broadcaster Michael Kay said that "the Yankees turned the city of New York into a small town." Torre's life has proved it. "I'll just walk by and people are thanking me," Torre says.
When the Yankees won, everyone seemed to celebrate with him. "Even the Red Sox fans like us," Torre says with surprise. Now that is a sure sign that something is amiss in the baseball universe. "I think a big part of that is that I'm a native New Yorker and the fact that during this whole thing, my brother Rocco had passed away, my other brother, Frank, was ill and then got a heart. It's really humanized this whole game of baseball for a change." It was a national story, too. "I spent two weeks in Hawaii with my wife, Ali, walking down the streets of Maui." Naturally, people recognized him there, too. This was the best chapter of the Torre story, a story that began more than 4,000 games and 56 years before, in Brooklyn.
Joe Torre was born on July 18, 1940, in the Marine Park section of Brooklyn. "My sister, Rae, still lives in the house I was born in on Avenue T and 34th Street. She's retired from the telephone company. She's the one who doesn't get any attention--because she's not a nun, she's not a player and she didn't have a transplant. But she's been the stable one in the family. In fact, Ali and I named my baby after her--Andrea Rae.
"I played with a sandlot club, the Brooklyn Cadets. We played about 100 games a year, five games on weekends, a couple of nights during the week, sometimes three games in one day. We usually played at the Parade Grounds in Marine Park. And I played high school ball my last two years at St. Francis Prep in Williamsburg.
"When I was 16, I was 5-11, 240. My mother said I was big, not fat. But I was fat. My dad [Joseph] died in 1971 and my mom [Margaret] in 1974. They split up when I was about 12 years old. So Frank and Rocco, my older brothers, were the two who influenced me most. We were a baseball-oriented family. My sisters, Rae and Marguerite [a nun who teaches at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Elementary School in Queens], were also big baseball fans."
By the time he was 19, Torre was playing minor league ball with Eau Claire (Wisconsin) of the Northern League. But after a brief stop with Louisville (Kentucky) the following season, he was in the big show for good, playing for the Milwaukee Braves with his brother, Frank. At 19 he also started smoking.
"My brother Frank smoked cigars; he was always my big brother, father image," says Torre. "He was my idol, probably still is. He smoked cigars, and I started with the Hav-a-Tampa Jewels with the wooden tip, then worked to the Garcia y Vegas. In the minor leagues, a friend of mine, Wade Blasingame, was a smoker. We smoked together. We'd even go so far as stopping on the way to breakfast and picking up a couple of those Parodis. They gave us indigestion. You could smoke anywhere you wanted then, on the plane. I watched Frank do it and I picked it up. I smoked during my playing days with the Braves."
The Braves had moved to Milwaukee from Boston in 1953 and were filling up County Stadium to the tune of two million-plus fans a year, ahead of all other major league teams in the mid-'50s. A 6-foot-4-inch first baseman, Frank Torre had already been with the Braves for five years when Joe joined. In the 1957 World Series, Frank was an unsung star, hitting home runs in the fourth and seventh games to help the Braves upset the imperial Yankees. It was the team's first world championship since the Boston Braves had won in 1914.
During his Braves tenure, Joe Torre played with sluggers Joe Adcock, Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron, a terrifying threesome who hit a combined 1,603 homers. "It was great," recalls Torre. "I played eight years with Hank and batted behind him. If you want to get a sense of history--Hank Aaron, who started in 1954, didn't make $100,000 until he went to Atlanta in 1966. In the beginning he was probably making about $7,000 or $8,000." In addition to their long-ball hitters, the Braves had Warren Spahn, the winningest left-handed pitcher in baseball history with 363 wins.
While salaries were lower then, another aspect of the 1950s baseball world had a much more profound impact on the Brooklyn-raised Torre: segregation. "Atlanta had been a great minor league town and Frank had played there," he says. "A thing that was a little shot of reality was going to that ballpark in 1954 and seeing "colored" water fountains and "colored" restrooms. Growing up I never saw anything like that. It knocked me over. In 1961 [the team] moved into the Twilight Motel in Palmetto, Florida, because we decided that we were going to stay together and they didn't let our whole team stay in the good hotel in Bradenton. We had to eat in a private dining room because of the segregation."
Two years later, in October 1963, Torre married his first wife Jackie, and their son, Michael, was born a year later. The marriage didn't last, and in 1968 Torre remarried. He and his new wife, Dani, had a daughter, Tina, who was born that November. Dani had a daughter of her own, Lauren, from her first marriage.
On the field, Torre was establishing himself as a solid catcher and one of the game's top hitters. Catchers usually don't hit for high averages, especially 6-foot-2, 212-pound catchers. But Torre was an exception. He hit .321 in 1964. He displayed power, too, belting 20 homers and knocking in 109 runs.
The 1964 season began an eight-year stretch during which Torre was one of the steadiest hitters in the National League, an era that was marked by some of the greatest pitching that baseball had ever known. Torre, Aaron and other National League stalwarts--Willie Mays and Willie McCovey, Ernie Banks and Ron Santo, Billy Williams and Roberto Clemente, Lou Brock and Orlando Cepeda, Pete Rose and Richie Allen--had to face some legendary hurlers. The mound aces of the day included Tom Seaver, Juan Marichal, Steve Carlton, Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Ferguson Jenkins--the greatest confluence of pitching talent in the game's history. This was not the 1990s, not a decade when lumber dominated, not a time when league earned run averages looked like Midwestern zip codes or when walls in the "power alleys" were marked "362 feet." Torre and a dozen or so other hitters succeeded despite the dominant pitching.
In 1969, Torre, already a five-time All-Star, was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for a former National League most valuable player, Orlando Cepeda, "The Baby Bull." Torre reached his pinnacle in 1971 when he took league MVP honors and the batting title, hitting .363. Playing third base that year, he also belted 24 homers and knocked in 137 runs. "One of those locked-in summers," Torre says. "The year before I had lost about 20 pounds in spring training. It probably made my hands a little bit quicker. In 1970 I hit .325 and in 1971 I just started out gangbusters and went for it. And it was just one of those things where you'd go home and you'd know who you were going to face the next day and you knew what pitch you were going to hit. It was one of those magical years." Torre racked up 230 hits in 1971 after getting 203 the year before. "Even at that time I would have traded it all for a World Series. Anything you could do as a team is so much better than what you do as an individual."
After the 1974 season, Torre was traded to the Mets, with whom he played his last three seasons. When he called it quits in 1977 at the age of 37, he had been named an All-Star nine times, had a .297 lifetime pro average, had blasted 252 homers and had driven home 1,185 runs. This January, recognizing his accomplishments, baseball writers gave him 105 votes toward inclusion in the Baseball Hall of Fame, not enough for induction but still indicative of the respect accorded Torre over the past three and a half decades.
Hitting is baseball's isolated act. A pitcher gets help from eight others, but a hitter must rely on himself. As a manager, however, you depend on 25 others. Torre surely found that out when he began managing the Mets in 1977. In five years with the club, he managed a team from Queens that was worth Flushing. His best hitter that first year, Steve Henderson, hit just 12 homers and knocked in 65 runs. The offense was so anemic that Torre was named player-manager for 18 days during the season, in an attempt to generate more runs. Alas, ineptitude was contagious. Torre hit only .176 and then ended his playing days for good. It was also the shameful year that the Mets traded the greatest player in the history of the franchise, Tom Seaver. To make matters worse, across town the Yankees won the World Series in 1977 and 1978.
Under Torre, the Mets played without glory, winning just 286 games and losing 420 during his five-year tenure. Mercifully for him, Torre was fired after the 1981 season. He was back in uniform with Atlanta in 1982, leading the Braves to 89 wins and first place in the Western Division. Dale Murphy slugged 36 homers and racked up 109 runs batted in, nailing down his first of back-to-back MVP awards. In the championship series the Braves were swept three straight by the Cardinals. "If you look at the Texas [Rangers] last year," Torre says, "they had never won a division, and once they got the division [title] it seemed to make their year, that they had accomplished something. I think subconsciously it happened to us in 1982. We won the division we weren't supposed to and the Cardinals ran through us."
Torre would learn firsthand what a volatile profession managing is. After two second-place finishes in 1983 and 1984, Torre was fired for a second time. In 1985 he had his first hiatus from playing and managing in 25 seasons. He became a television broadcaster with the California Angels for several seasons.
In August 1987 he married Ali, whom he had met in Cincinnati in 1981 when she was a waitress at Stouffer's Hotel. When they met, Ali was 23; Torre 41. Explaining the termination of his first two marriages, Torre takes his share of the blame. "I wasn't up to the responsibility; I came first. That's the way I went about my career."
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.
Though the Rangers and Orioles were no slouches, New York would have to vanquish the best team of the 1990s, the Atlanta Braves, if they wanted to win the World Series. Between right-handers Greg Maddux and John Smoltz, the Braves' starters owned the last five Cy Young awards; Tom Glavine and Denny Nagel rounded out the best pitching staff in baseball. With Mark Wohlers' 98-mile-per-hour fastball, the world champions had seemed to solve the bullpen woes that plagued them in 1991, 1992 and 1993. While there had been only two dynasties in baseball since the Second World War--the 1950s Yankees and the 1970s Athletics--the Braves were the nearest candidates in the 1990s, appearing in five consecutive postseasons.
They looked dynastic in games one and two. Behind Smoltz and Maddux the Braves won 12-1 and 4-0. The Yankees looked so inept and provided so little excitement that several frustrated fans took to running around the field. "I remember after we lost the first game to the Braves, and George [Steinbrenner] came into my office right here," Torre recalls. "He told me the second game is 'a must win.' And I was in a little bit of a goofy mood. I hadn't slept much in the last few days and said, 'Well, we're a little out of whack and we're liable to lose this game tonight. But don't worry about it. Atlanta's my town; we'll sweep 'em there and win it here next Saturday.' He looked at me like I was goofy, and I was goofy, and it happened--not that when I said it I thought it was going to happen."
"The Braves should finish this up in Atlanta," one correspondent for The Atlanta Journal Constitution wrote, "so they won't have to go back to New York, that festering boil of a city where everyone looks like an extra in the movie Taxi Driver." "The Braves are no longer playing against the Yankees," another wrote, "they're playing against history." He went on to compare the Braves to the 1927 Yankees.
"But in baseball you can't run out the clock," Torre observes. "You have to get 27 outs." Was the skipper nervous? "I was calm. I was happy to leave town. I just felt that when you start in New York you have to win one game because you're going to Atlanta. I think there was a lot of pressure on. All the distractions, after not playing for a week, to try to be on your game, plus the players trying to disperse all their tickets, families flying in, so many things. Just getting away from home, I felt better about it. Then having David Cone pitch made me feel pretty good." Torre made some bold but necessary moves. He replaced Boggs at third with Hayes, O'Neill in right with Strawberry and Martinez at first with Fielder.
Behind Cone, the Yankees took Game 3, 5-2. But in Game 4, the Braves pounded Rodgers and jumped out to a 6-0 lead. In the sixth, hits by Fielder and Hayes halved the lead to 6-3.
Atlanta manager Bobby Cox removed an overpowering [Mike] Bielecki in favor of Wohlers in the eighth, even though the reliever had only once before been called on to deliver two innings. In the most pivotal confrontation of the World Series, Wohlers got two strikes on Jim Leyritz and then his killer instinct seemed to desert him. Instead of going with the 98-mph heat that Leyritz was swinging late on, Wohlers, in the words of Fox broadcaster Tim McCarver, "did what Leyritz couldn't do himself." McCarver meant that Wohlers sped up Leyritz' bat by throwing sliders. "While he's up, my mind is going elsewhere," Torre says. "Because if he walks, it's going to be Boggs pinch-hitting. If he makes an out, now I have to make a decision whether it's going to be Boggs or [Mike] Aldrete. Because Aldrete likes to hit that fastball pretty good. So while he's up I'm not even paying attention, other than watching."
Wohlers hung a slider eye-high and Leyritz konked it, a three-run blast that tied the score. "I knew it was out when he hit it," Torre said. "I've managed and I've played in that ballpark. It's the launching pad. When the ball gets up in the air, it doesn't come down. It was a hell of a rush and yet it didn't surprise me. Once we had cut the lead in half, I figured we were close."
After Boggs worked a bases-loaded walk and [Ryan] Klesko lost a pop-up in the lights in the 10th, the Yankees had the game, 8-6. Only the 1929 Athletics had come back from a bigger deficit in a World Series contest.
Outrageous fortune showed her face on the Yankees again in Game 5 when the Yankees scored their lone run after a routine fly ball fell between Jermaine Dye and Marquis Grissom in right field. The run was enough for Andy Pettite, and the Yankees won, 1-0. Unbelievably, the Yankees had swept the Braves in Atlanta. They had won all eight of their postseason road games.
The day before the Yankees would play Game 6 at Yankee Stadium, Frank Torre was getting the heart transplant he needed. The donor was a 28-year-old man, a man from the Bronx as it turned out, who had died of a brain injury. As John Harper and Bob Klapisch note in their book Champions, Torre was highest on the list of eligible recipients whose blood type matched the donor's. By noon on Oct. 25 the doctors had pronounced the surgery a success. If all this good fortune were not enough, two priests from the University of Notre Dame would throw out the first balls before Game 6.
People throw around words like "destiny," signaling their belief that some power determines events in advance. While no proof of such a metaphysical force exists, it was apparent the Yankees had their own power, an imminent power built on good starting pitching, very good defense, timely hitting and a bullpen for the ages. And a few breaks. In Game 6, Key outpitched Maddux and the Yankees went into the ninth leading, 3-1. Torre handed Wetteland the ball.
For the umpteenth time, Wetteland made the faithful sweat. One caller on a New York sports radio program called him "John Sweatland" because he always gave fans sweaty palms waiting for the outcome. After three singles the Braves were within a run. Then a pesky singles hitter, Mark Lehmke, came up. Lehmke lifted two foul pops to the left side. The first fell just beyond Hayes' reach into the Braves' dugout. But the second was in play and Hayes squeezed it. A deep, deafening roar filled the stadium, spilling out onto River Avenue.
Torre was swarmed by his coaches. "I felt exhilaration, exhaustion--everything you want to think about, I felt. All my coaches just mobbed me. I was sitting there and they were all over me. It was a feeling I can't describe. You feel like you were let into the club." At Zimmer's suggestion, a victory lap around the stadium ensued, and Boggs even joined with NYPD Blue for a horseback turn around the field.
The Yankees had their 23rd world championship, as many as the next three teams combined. It would be hard to argue that this team was the best Yankees team ever. But none of the other champions had--dare we say--any more heart than this edition. In the series the Yanks had been outhit by the Braves (.254 to .216) and outpitched (.233 earned run average to .393).
So why did they win? Because this was an irrepressible comeback team. Because after the sixth inning the Yankees were essentially unhittable, they hung together, they never got rattled and, yes, they had some breaks. They had a $66.6 million payroll, but at no time did the team's stars disintegrate into separate egos. "I'm not impressed, other than their ability," says Torre. "You start in spring training and say there's one stat we're concerned with, and that's wins."
But in these days of free agency, as soon as a team wins, it is already beginning to dissolve. Leyritz, seeking more playing time, signed with California. A free agent, Wetteland was offered more money from Texas than from the Yankees. Then the Yankees didn't offer Jimmy Key a two-year deal for the right money, and he left for Baltimore.
"It hurts because of what Key did for us," Torre says. "He stood out. He took on the responsibility and--well, first of all, he won Game 6 in the World Series. But backtrack and he won an enormous Game 3 in Baltimore and an enormous Game 3 in Texas. Those two games stopped the bleeding. And Leyritz got a home run in Game 4 [of the World Series] that will go down as a Carlton Fisk home run for us."
After Key got away, New York had to sign 34-year-old lefty David Wells, an 11-14 pitcher with the Orioles last year, for $13.5 million, nearly twice as much as the he made in 1996. Since he signed, Wells broke his pitching hand in a fight and was sidelined briefly with gout in spring training.
In the end, the Yankees will have to count on free agents, like Wells and reliever Mike Stanton, to plug the gaps left by the departures. "In order to win that much, you have to have a quality organization," Stanton said on the day he was signed, shortly after meeting the press. "You have to have an organization that wants to put a team on the field that's going to win. The Yankees try to do that every year."
After the press conference, Torre signs some 50 posters for a charity that benefits the children of deceased New York firemen and policemen. He then leaves the clubhouse and heads toward his car. He turns on WQEW, the Sinatra station, and drives toward his New Rochelle, New York, home. After a year like he had, he finds time to savor things. Besides listening to Sinatra (he met the legend in 1985), Torre likes to indulge in red wine, especially Pétrus. One of his friends, Joe Ponte, owns a restaurant in St. Louis and lets him keep his wine collection there. Being such a good friend, Ponte promised Torre a bottle of Pétrus if the Yankees won the World Series.
Ponte owns another restaurant, in Manhattan, and when Torre is in town, he sometimes stops by for a smoke. "After games, I would call him or he'd call me," Torre says, "and if we won by a big score he'd say, 'It was a cigar game,' indicating it was a nice, comfortable easy win." Most of the time the Yankees play close games, not "cigar games." Never mind. Joe Torre just had a cigar year, a year when one thousand smokes wouldn't be enough for the miraculous occurrences in the Bronx.
Kenneth Shouler, a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado from White Plains, New York, is the author of The Experts Pick Basketball's Best 50 Players in the Last 50 Years (All Sports Books, 1977).
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