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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 3)

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!"

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