CHICAGO – Joe Torre is no longer bombarded by questions about his boss, no longer caught up in the New York tumult. One constant remains for him, though: October baseball.
So here he is again, managing in the playoffs and leading the Los Angeles Dodgers against a Chicago Cubs team looking to break its 100-year championship drought.
While his old Yankees sit this one out, Torre discovered he could again have fun in the dugout.
“The last couple years in New York were not very comfortable,” he said Tuesday.
This certainly wasn’t his easiest season, going into Game 1 today.
The Dodgers (84-78) made it despite trailing Arizona by 4 1/2 games on Aug. 29. They had a losing record as recently as Sept. 3.
But they rallied to win their first N.L. West title in four years thanks to an 18-5 spurt, with late pickup Manny Ramirez providing the big hits and Torre the steadying hand.
“As far as the satisfaction, you never really know when you go someplace new, especially when you’ve been in one place for 12 years, how you’re going to be received,” Torre said.
“I know I’ve had success, but that doesn’t mean that the players should believe what you’re telling them because you haven’t proven anything yet as far as what you can do with this new ballclub,” he said.
Relaxed out West, he loves his L.A. life. Just look at him in that TV commercial – on a surfboard, doing yoga, zooming around the freeways and pitching a screenplay.
Those days under George Steinbrenner seem like forever ago, when his job status made for daily tabloid fodder. By the end, some people made it sound as though he was a failure, rather than a guy who’d won four World Series titles.
“Joe’s not the kind of guy who’s going to say, ‘I told you so,’ ” said third-base coach Larry Bowa, who spent two years on Torre’s staff in New York. “I’m sure maybe deep down he’s very happy that some of the negative stuff that you read about that he couldn’t do, he came out here and did.”
The Yankees never missed the playoffs in Torre’s 12 years, but after three straight first-round exits, they offered him a one-year deal worth $5 million – a $2.5 million cut. Insulted by pay incentives for postseason performance, the Brooklyn native declined even though he still would have been the game’s highest-paid manager.
“I thought it was just time for (me) to leave, and I have a feeling they felt the same way,” Torre said.
Communication with Steinbrenner had eroded over those final three seasons, and the Yankees’ offer seemed more like a nudge toward the door than a welcome embrace, ending one of the most successful eras in the franchise’s history.
Only Joe McCarthy (1,460) had more wins for the club than Torre, who went 1,173-767.
Torre’s reign was the longest uninterrupted stint by a Yankees manager since a 12-year run by Casey Stengel, who was let go after his team lost the 1960 World Series to Pittsburgh in seven games.
Two weeks after he left New York, Torre agreed to a three-year, $13 million contract with the Dodgers and joined Stengel as the second person to manage both franchises. Players were quick to embrace their new manager.
“It’s just amazing how he can reassure everybody,” second baseman Blake DeWitt said. “He keeps showing confidence in everybody, not having any doubt. I think that’s the reason why we’re here.”
Along the way, Bowa believes Torre debunked several myths, including one that he didn’t handle inexperienced players well. The Dodgers made it this far even though a good chunk of the team is in its early-to-mid-20s.
“He was unbelievable with the young players,” Bowa said.
Then, there was the theory that Torre should win every year given the Yankees’ talent.
“They had a good team this year, and they didn’t win,” Bowa said.
Finally, there was the notion that Torre couldn’t win in the National League.
“He adjusted to the league,” Bowa said. “We did all kinds of stuff. We hit-and-ran. We squeezed. We double-switched. That myth that all he could do was manage in the American League was gone, too. I don’t think he’ll say, ‘I told you so,’ but deep down, he says, ‘We did this.’ ”
Away from the Bronx madness, Torre seems more at ease now – even though he always had that calm and laid-back demeanor, Bowa said. In New York, it was the perfect antidote. In Southern California, it’s a good blend.
“The coasts are different,” hitting coach Don Mattingly said. “I’m sure he’s enjoyed it. When we celebrated the other night, he seemed really happy with being able to accomplish this with this club.”
Near the end of Torre’s tenure in New York, there was a steady flow of questions about his future. There was even a rumor at one point that Lou Piniella, who played for and managed the Yankees, would replace him.
Of course, Piniella wound up taking the Cubs job after the 2007 season, and Torre continued to twist last year. Things got so intense that reporters even camped out at his house in his final days.
Now, he and Piniella are in opposite dugouts – the lone managers each with at least 1,700 wins and 1,700 hits meeting for the third time in the playoffs. Torre’s Yankees beat Piniella’s Seattle Mariners in the 2000 and 2001 ALCS.
This time, the Cubs hope to end a 100-year championship drought, while the Dodgers want to put their postseason struggles behind them. Los Angeles is 1-12 in the playoffs since winning the World Series 20 years ago.
Torre said the rumors about Piniella “never bothered” him and added he has a “good relationship” with Piniella “as far as I know.”
Piniella said: “I have a tremendous amount of respect for him, obviously, as a person and a manager.”
That puts him in a long line.
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