Saturday, October 23, 1999

Torre soothes savage New York beasts




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ATLANTA — Joe Torre is two tough customers. One is the man who came back from cancer. The other is the manager who works for George Steinbrenner.

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        Both challenges call for perseverance, for faith, for intestinal fortitude and for second opinions. The man who maps game strategy for the N.Y. Yankees probably needs his head examined, to say nothing of his prostate.

        But Joe Torre has a gift for survival and a genius for defusing delicate situations. If he weren't a baseball guy, he might have hit cleanup for the diplomatic corps. He is chasing his third World Championship this week in his fourth season with the Yankees, but his tougher task has been to restore dignity and stability to the most insecure job in the game.

        “As managers, I don't give much credit, take much credit, anything like that,” Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said Friday. “But I think Joe really has meant a lot to that organization, just the calming effect that he can have ... Because it is a volatile situation over there — has been for a long time. George is so hands-on and he demands the best; he demands winning; and it can get pretty touchy at times.”

Steinbrenner Reich
        Touchy? Yankee Stadium was a tinder box until Torre came along. Counting Billy Martin's five incarnations, Steinbrenner had made 20 managing changes in 22 years before he hired Torre in 1996. German generals had greater job security in the dog days of the Third Reich.

        Steinbrenner took the most storied tradition in American sport and turned the Yankees into a punch line. Torre has put a more beguiling face on the franchise. He is as elegant as Martin was edgy; as smooth as Lou Piniella is coarse and as intuitive as Yogi Berra with no need for subtitles.

        Cancer gets some of the credit for Torre's serenity under stress. No mature man can undergo that experience without some shift in his priorities.

        “Let me tell you something,” Torre said Friday. “In spring training, when the cancer got me, baseball was the furthest thing from my mind ... When I came back in May, it was still a tenuous thing at best, not knowing how important it was going to be.

        “However, you get into postseason play, you're back trying to sell your soul again, and you want to win a ballgame and that's the only thing that's important.”

        You would never know it. Trying to read Torre's expression during a big game is an exercise in exasperation. He betrays so little emotion sometimes that you wonder if he's even awake. Torre will talk afterward about how his insides were churning, but his exterior typically bespeaks tranquility. If he has sold his soul, it is in exchange for baseball's best poker face.

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        Joe Torre does not have all the answers. Unlike Bobby Valentine, he never did. He had been fired from three different managing jobs before he finally landed in the Bronx, and his hiring aroused so little enthusiasm that he was briefly known as “Clueless Joe.”

        He won immediately because the Yankees had the right players already in place, and the ready cash to fill any holes. He won again in 1998 — spectacularly so — because all his stars were in perfect alignment. If the Yankees should subdue the Braves, and claim their third crown in four years, Torre must be acknowledged as a skipper of exquisite skill.

        Within the last week, the Yankee manager has had to sell second baseman Chuck Knoblauch on the wisdom of late-inning defensive help and tell five-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens he was being demoted to the fourth spot in the World Series rotation. Torre succeeded on both of these sensitive scores by persuading the players that the team comes first.

        “Joe's great at dealing with people,” said Joe Girardi, the Yankee catcher. “The focus here has been on winning the World Series and he's instilled that in us. Sometimes you have to sit the bench or you might not start the game, but I've been on teams where you played more and don't get to the World Series. This is a lot more enjoyable.”

        Working for George Steinbrenner can be pleasurable if you leave him no reason to complain.

        Columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

       



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