Everyone’s talking about change these days. Presidential candidates on all sides of the aisle want change. Baseball officials want to change the perceptions of a drug culture surrounding baseball. And, hey, there’s a new manager in New York, and things have changed.
Now, as you can pretty well guess based on the headline, I’m not about to write some nostalgic piece pining for the days of Joe Torre or noting how weird he looks in Dodger blue. Today, in my office, a few people were commenting on Torre’s appearance in a Dodgers hat, and to me, it wasn’t that big of a deal. But then again, I signed off on Joe Torre shortly after midnight on Thursday, October 21, 2004.
In the comments to Mike’s short piece about Torre’s appearance on ESPN’s Sunday Conversation, opinion seemed divided on Joe Torre and whether he should be considered the “right” person to manage the 2008 team or should have been let go long enough. It seems now that the writing was on the wall for longer than we thought.
Yesterday, in a piece that nicely complements the ESPN interview, Torre talked with Paul Hagen of the Philadelphia Daily News about his tenure with the Yankees. Here’s what the man once dubbed Saint Joe by the New York press had to say:
The last 3 years were difficult. I think it started probably with losing to the Red Sox. Because that becomes a mortal sin,” he said. “And even though the Red Sox were obviously a very good team that year, we got lucky early. They didn’t play well. Then we had two leads in Games 4 and 5 we couldn’t hold onto.
“Since that time, it may be a little too strong to say [the Yankees] wanted to make a change. But for me it wasn’t as comfortable. It could have been self-induced. I don’t know. Last season was very uncomfortable, especially with the bad start we had. There were a lot of questions and stories I had to address.
“I’m sure it took its toll on me, but when you walk into the clubhouse and all of a sudden the players aren’t sure what they should say, what they shouldn’t say, your coaching staff, that made it doubly uncomfortable for me. I just think over the last few years it was gradually getting to the point of not being a helluva lot of fun. The baseball was still fun, but aside from that…”
I know that Joe Torre wasn’t responsible for the way the team played during that 2004 ALCS, but his decisions impacted the game. He decided to all but ignore Kenny Lofton on the bench; he decided not run on Jason Varitek while the Red Sox catcher tried and failed to catch Tim Wakefield’s knuckleballs. He decided to allow Tom Gordon to pitch to David Ortiz in a pivotal at-bat late in game 5. Sure; hindsight is 20-20, but I vividly remember screaming at the TV while the games were played. It is just as easy to second-guess Torre for his managing during the ALCS as it was then, and my critiques have not changed.
Meanwhile, Torre’s impact on the team grew to the point where he openly feuded with key players. He played favorites with the bullpen; he gave guys like Miguel Cairo way too many at-bats long after they ceased being usable. In fact, Brian Cashman had to step in and trade Joe Torre’s guys away from the Yanks because Joe kept using them despite obvious ineffectiveness.
It was, in other words, long past time to go for Torre in 2007. It was well past time to go for Torre in 2005, but his saintly status kept him on.
Now, I know this sounds harsh. That’s the problem with taking an unpopular opinion, and it certainly understates Torre’s impact on the Yanks. His 1173-767 career New York record (.605 winning percentage) and his 12 straight playoff berths have long earned him my admiration. He did a masterful job handling the Yankees in the late 1990s with Don Zimmer at his side and always dealt well with the media even after Zimmer left.
But there was something about the way 2004 unfolded that seemed to bode ill for the future. Torre’s trust in his team was gone, and a lot of people started viewing his moves with skepticism.
I love Joe for what he brought to the Yankees; I don’t expect Joe Girardi to duplicate 12 years of unparalleled Major League success. But there comes a time for every team and every manager when they part ways. The 2007 split was far from ideal, and both the Yankees and Torre didn’t seem to handle it well. It was, in fact, a rare misstep for Torre who didn’t come out looking too sympathetic one way or another.
I’ll miss Joe for what he symbolizes — the winning ways of the Yankees during my high school years in the late 1990s when the Yankees were supposed to win the World Series because that was the way things were. I’ll wish him luck in Los Angeles and hope that the eventual mediocrity won’t tarnish his Hall of Fame credentials.
But I will look forward to the next Joe Era, the one of Girardi, the one in which players come to camp ready to compete and ready to get along better with their manager. It won’t be perfect, but it’s something new. And the Yanks have needed something new since that fateful night in October of 2004 when I sat alone and watched history unfold incredulous and shocked.