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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 8)

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.


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