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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 7)

"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.


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