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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 4)

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.

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