Sunday Morning Links

Here’s some Sunday morning links while we wait for Yankees-Orioles followed by Pats-Jets (my pick: Pats 27, Jets 13).

In light of the recent news that Joe Torre is stepping down as Dodgers manager, Chad Finn at the Boston Globe takes a look back at the 1998 Yankees.  Finn takes shots at the Yankees from time to time but it’s all in good fun and he’s one of the Boston writers who I can actually read when it comes to baseball.  He gets a shot in at Joe Morgan and calls Tim Raines a Hall of Famer, so he’s good in my book.

Within a piece at AOL Fanhouse Andrew Johnson has an interesting take on the Jeter situation comparing him to the Dave Matthews Band.  Once you read it, it does make some sense.  The best line of the whole piece however, is this “I’m a sportswriter, not an ethicist.”  If only more people that write or talk about sports for a living understood that.

Carl Crawford was upset for the criticism he took after getting thrown out at third base to end Tuesday nights game.  Personally I’m not buying that the Yankees will be all in on Crawford in the offseason, but if he got upset by this and he ends up in pinstripes, he’ll have quite an adjustment to the New York media.  It’s also interesting that the writer notes Crawford seemed pretty stung by the criticism coming from the Yankees.

Ken Burns is back in the baseball business as his new documentary “The Tenth Inning” is set to air on PBS on September 28th and 29th.  “The Tenth Inning” is a sequel to Burns’ 1994 “Baseball”, and will cover new things that have happened in baseball since the last film.  For many of the readers here the past 15 years or so covers a lot of the time we’ve been avidly following the game, so it is sure to be a very interesting watch.


Two former Bronx icons near the end of the line

Joe Torre and Lou Piniella talk during a 2001 game. Credit: AP Photo, Ron Frehm

Last night in Philadelphia, the Dodgers lost a game that summed up their season. Jonathan Broxton, the once-untouchable closer, allowed four runs without retiring a batter in the 9th, and Joe Torre’s previous bullpen machinations failed. Minus Mariano, it was a familiar story for Yankee fans as Torre used five relievers to try to get the final seven outs of the game.

With their loss, the Dodgers dropped to 59-56, nine games behind the Padres and in fourth place. They’re just 6.5 out of the Wild Card but behind five teams, and the team is treading water as the season nears an end. Their manager too is just treading water, and Los Angelenos are awaiting to see if Joe Torre will come back for another stint in Chavez Ravine or call it a career. Fans, it seems, are ready to let him go. Jon Weisman for Dodger Thoughts opines:

There’s also the fact that Torre has always felt like something of a visiting professor here. There was a ticking clock –partly self-imposed by Torre — from the moment he hastily replaced Grady Little in the fall of 2007. Torre has been liked by many and loved by some — but he hasn’t penetrated the hearts of Los Angeles’ baseball community in a meaningful way. His ties to New York’s string of World Series titles can’t be broken by a couple of NLCS runs. It took Jackson several NBA crowns before Lakers fans could begin to feel that the former Chicago Bulls coaching legend was really theirs. Torre is never going to reach that level in Los Angeles, and the people here intuitively know this. It’s noteworthy that the single act Torre might be most remembered for as Dodgers manager could be coaxing the greatest Los Angeles Dodger of them all, Sandy Koufax, into a rare public conversation earlier this year…

Things might have been different if the Dodgers had been able to take advantage of their chances to even the 2008 and 2009 NLCS at two games apiece. But Torre’s magic couldn’t save Los Angeles those years, and now the odds are against him doing any more.

“My feeling is that Torre won in New York because of an unlimited payroll, though he couldn’t do it every year,” another Dodger Thoughts commenter said. “That’s not necessarily to say he’s bad under a more financially constrained regime, but I consider him replaceable in every aspect except his celebrity (which he owes to his time in New York City). I would not miss him, but I’d like to see him go out with a World Series championship – which, however, would probably bring a clamor for him to stay.”

Since leaving New York, Torre has had to face a legacy not of success but of late-career failure. After setting himself up with impossible standards, Torre hasn’t won anything since 2000. A bitter defeat in 2001 wasn’t really his fault, but both the World Series defeat in 2003 and the ALCS collapse in 2004 bore his managerial signatures. A post-New York tell-all memoir didn’t endear him to fans who demand nothing short of a World Series trophy every year. If he retires after this season, he will be feted in New York, but we continue to grapple with the complexities of the Torre Years.

A few thousand miles closer to New York but years removed from Torre, another ex-Yankee manager is calling it quits after this season plays out. Late last month, Sweet Lou announced his intentions to depart from Chicago after the 2010 campaign. Piniella got his managerial start in New York in the mid-1980s, captured a World Series title in Cincinnati in 1990, and hasn’t been able to push the Mariners, Devils Rays or Cubs past the finish line. He’ll retire with over 1850 wins and three Manager of the Year awards.

When the Yanks picked Piniella to take over from Billy Martin in 1986, the choice was controversial. Lou had a fiery temper but no managerial experience, and few in the Yankee organization knew how this approach would play at the Big League level. He led the Yanks to a 90-72 second place finish and earned himself a two-year deal. Following the 1987 season, Piniella was promoted to GM while Martin returned until he was fired again in mid-June. Following the 1988 season, Piniella would be gone from the Bronx.

Over the years, Lou and the Yanks would be forever intertwined. As he headed up the Mariners from 1993-2002, a fierce East Coast/West Coast rivalry emerged. The Mariners stunned the Yanks in 1995, and the Yanks returned the favor in both 2000 and 2001. Piniella’s name briefly popped up when Joe Torre’s tenure ended, but the two sides never had their long-awaited reunion.

As these two men prepare for what comes next, both will be linked forever with the Yankees even if both left on less than ideal terms. As a player, Lou won some memorable titles, and as a manager, he served as the perfect foil for Joe Torre’s victorious Yankees. That they will probably retire at the same time is fitting indeed.

The complicated New York legacy of Joe Torre

He started out in the tabloids as Clueless Joe, the mediocre manager with a sub-.500 record who wouldn’t put up a fight against George Steinbrenner. On the way to a bitter divorce, he became one of the Yanks’ all-time winningest managers with four World Series championships to his name. Along the way, he managed the biggest post-season collapse in baseball history and watched his once-reliable team sputter through some Octobers. Then he burned many in a book and hasn’t been back since.

Last night, that man — Joe Torre — found himself in an odd position. For the first time since leaving New York amidst the turmoil of a midge-inspired playoff to the Indians in 2007, Torre faced off against his old teammates. The coverage has see-sawed from bittersweet to hyperbolically over the top. In other words, it’s just another day in the world of New York sports.

Two of the better takes come from opposing sides of the Torre Divide. Buster Olney, in a piece to which Joe linked yesterday, looks at Torre’s “bittersweet reunion” with his former team while Mike Vaccaro remembers the good times. Nothing sums up the city’s mixed feelings over Joe Torre better than those two conflicting takes. Is his legacy The Yankee Years, a book I called unnecessary last year? Or is his legacy the return to greatness for a Yankee franchise that had been saddled by George Steinbrenner?

As is often the case, the answer lies somewhere in the middle, but there appears to be a growing sense among Yankee fans that Joe Torre outlived his welcome in New York City. He was never as good a manager by himself as he was when he had a strong cast of supporting coaches. In fact, after Don Zimmer’s departure following the 2003 World Series, Torre seemed to lose a lot of his golden touch. Working with flawed teams, he reached the playoffs every year, but after the 2004 collapse, he couldn’t guide the team past the first round.

While pondering Torre yesterday, I asked my Twitter followers if they thought Joe should have been fired after 2004 instead of after 2007. Even though we could argue that the 2004 Red Sox were a far superior team to their 2004 New York counterparts, the Yankees were up 3-0 and couldn’t put the team away. Mariano Rivera struggled to close the door in Game 4, but Torre then went with Tom Gordon in the 8th inning of Game 5 to disastrous effect. Mo had to get six outs anyway, and he couldn’t squeeze out of a first-and-third, no-out jam.

The responses were varied. Some thought Torre should have been fired after 2003 when he went with Jeff Weaver over Mariano Rivera in the 11th inning of a pivotal Game 4. Others thought that if not 2004, maybe after 2006 when he dropped A-Rod in the batting order and generally seemed to have no idea how to escape from Detroit. By the time the midges descended on Cleveland and Torre didn’t want to waste a mound visit to try to pull his team off the field, the ship had sailed. The Yankees weren’t going to fire Torre outright, but they weren’t going to play nice either.

After the book came out, sentiment turned against Saint Joe. He burned Alex Rodriguez, the player with which the team has a love-hate relationship but who drives fans to the team; he threw Carl Pavano and Kevin Brown, admittedly easy targets, under the bus; he slammed Brian Cashman. It was an ugly, ugly affair.

Today, I have very mixed feelings about Joe Torre. As last year’s team and this year’s show, the Yanks don’t need that Joe win; they have another one who is perfectly capable at handling the team’s owners, the New York media, and his high-priced superstars with their fragile and not-so-fragile egos. Yet, I’ll always have a soft spot for Torre. He came onto the scene after 12-year-old Ben lived through his most heartbreaking moment as a Yankee fan, and then, Torre turned the team into winners. He had a way with the Yanks that made him a commanding and comforting presence. I wasn’t, though, sad to see him go. He had outlived his time in New York and burned a bridge with that book.

When Mariano Rivera took the mound last night and threw 10 of 13 pitches for strikes, as the Dodgers’ 4-5-6 hitters failed to put a ball on play, Torre grew disgruntled. His team had beaten him, and it was great.

Root, root, root for their old team

When the Yanks won the World Series against the Phillies a mere 10 days ago, Yankee fans all over breathed a collective sigh of relief. The team had finally beaten down the ghosts of 2001, 2003 and 2004 and the lack of pitching depth in the years after.

In a sense, this year’s victory let Joe Torre off the hook for his lack of postseason success over his final years as a Yankee. Our lasting postseason images wouldn’t be Jeff Weaver pitching in Florida before Mariano Rivera, A-Rod‘s batting eighth in a playoff game or midges swarming Joba Chamberlain in Cleveland as Torre stood idly by. Rather, we can toast Hideki Matsui, A-Rod, CC, Andy Pettitte and, of course, Mo. We could feel confidence in Joe Girardi and look back fondly on the Joe Torre Era while recognizing that it probably had to end when it did, if not sooner.

The divorce, though, between Torre and the Yanks was an ugly one, and it followed a decade-long tradition of ugly divorces between the Yanks and their coaches. Don Zimmer had a public split with George Steinbrenner; Mel Stottlemyre continually felt undermined by the Yankee brass and left on bad terms. Torre and the Yanks engaged in public battle over their one-year offer following 2007, and no one felt too good about it.

But time — and World Series wins — heals all wounds. Speaking yesterday at the annual Safe at Home gala, both Torre and Zimmer revealed that they were rooting for the Yanks to beat the Phillies. Torre called it “surreal” to watch his Yankee friends playing in the Fall Classic. “To watch what they’ve done with Joe Girardi at the helm really made me feel good, even though I’m supposed to be a National League fan and all that stuff,” he said. “When you’re as close to these guys as I’ve been for all these years, I was just really pleased for them.”

Torre spoke at length about his trepidation at facing the Yankees. He and Derek Jeter have a tight bond, and it would have been weird, to say the least, to see Torre managing to get Jeter out. Still, the Yanks head to Los Angeles next June, and those games should make for compelling baseball.

Zimmer, who has known Joe Girardi since the Yanks’ manager was a rookie with the Cubs in 1989, was even more emotional in his support for the Yanks. “I was pulling so hard,” the Rays’ adviser said. “I spent the first 10 years he was in the big leagues, we were together. Joe’s quite a man and a very good friend of mine. I was happy for him and I was happy for the Yankees.”

In a way, now, the ball is in the Yankees’ court. The team should retire Joe Torre’s number 6, and they should have Zimmer — and all of the rest of the dynasty-era Yankees — at the ceremony. It sounds to me as though Torre is more than willing to thaw out this relationship, and it’s only a matter of time before the Yankees do too.

Joe won’t go home again

As late as next summer and as early as October, the Yankees and Joe Torre will have a reunion of sorts. Next year’s preliminary schedule has the Bombers visiting the Dodgers while this year, the Yankees find themselves just three games worse than the Dodgers.

While that eventual meeting is sure to generate more coverage than any of us could stomach, even a simple Dodger trip to Citi Field leads to a few Torre articles. This one from Newsday caught my eye this week because it seems fairly clear that Torre and the Yanks are on icy terms at best.

Earlier this week, Torre and Anthony Rieber chatted about Torre’s thoughts on both the new and old Yankee Stadiums. The former Yankee manager was unequivocal in stating that he will not be going back to Yankee Stadium. Writes Rieber:

Torre didn’t want to leave the Yankees after 12 seasons and four World Series titles. When he turned down the Yankees’ please-don’t-take-it one-year contract offer, he decided to not look back.

He said he already made his goodbyes to The House That Ruth Built after his final days as Yankees manager following their defeat in the 2007 ALDS to Cleveland. He hasn’t been back since. With the ballpark being slowly torn down, he’ll likely never get another chance. He’s OK with that. “When I left there, I would have been very surprised if it wasn’t my last time,” he said. “I took everything in. I had so many great memories there.”

Torre said he bought a couple of Yankee Stadium seats, something he has also done for other defunct stadiums he managed in (Shea, Fulton County in Atlanta, Busch in St. Louis). But he didn’t want any other memorabilia from Yankee Stadium other than what he packed up from his office.

“I’ve been asked, and even some people from the Yankees have called me, ‘Is there anything you want here?’ ” he said. “I already made arrangements for a couple of seats . . . Aside from that, everything that went on there was enough for me. It really was.”

Torre also told Rieber that he doesn’t want to visit the new Yankee Stadium unless of course it is with the Dodgers in October. He might just get his chance to visit anyway.

These sentiments from Torre are a part of the continuing feud he has with the Yankees. It was clear from his book that he has little respect for the men running the show right now, and while he should carry some of the blame for the messy divorce and probably outlived his years in New York, the Yankees and, in particular, Hank Steinbrenner messed that one up in 2007.

Joe Torre will long be remembered as a great Yankee manager. He won four rings and 1173 games. He never missed the playoffs, but since leaving after 2007, he hasn’t come back. He missed the closing ceremonies at Yankee Stadium and the All Star Game. He shouldn’t have, and that one is on Hank.