When one door closes, another opens, goes the old saying. Today’s news not only finds Joe Girardi accepting the Yankees’ offer to manage, but the man he replaced and the man he beat out headed to the dugout of the Dodgers. Reports out of LA have the Dodgers firing Grady Little and hiring Joe Torre, with Don Mattingly — whose son Preston was the team’s supplemental first-round pick in 2006 — coming along for the ride as well as bench coach. Prior to Girardi being offered the Yankees job, rumors about him either joining Little’s staff or replacing the current skipper had surfaced, hinting that the Dodgers were up to the kind of backroom intrigue that saw GM Paul DePodesta ousted in late 2005.
My head is spinning on this one, but I’d be elated to see Torre land on his feet in LA. Little did a very good job with the Dodgers in 2006, but it all fell apart for him last year. On July 16, they were first in the NL West, a season-high 13 games above .500 at 53-40. They went 29-40 the rest of the way, including a 1-10 skid in the second half of September that featured Plaschke-fueled squabbling between the veterans and youngsters (notably Jeff Kent and Matt Kemp, with Luis Gonzalez and James Loney chiming in as well) and some frighteningly ignorant pitcher handling by Little. The manager called setup man Jonathan Broxton’s number 10 times between September 6 and 19. Broxton, who’d been brilliant all year, put up an 11.05 ERA in that span, allowing five of his six homers and a .794 SLG. In one of the more damning quotes by any manager last year, Little dismissed both that stretch and Broxton’s own complaints of arm soreness: “It’s not a fatigue situation. It’s a situation where they’re doing more adjusting than he is…. He’s just snake-bit right now and he’s paying for mistakes with the long ball.” Yikes.
Still, the open question is how well Torre will handle the youth movement that caused Little to stumble. The latter said the right things at times, but he found the club’s two top hitters, Kemp and Loney, just 686 plate appearances in 2007, and he futzed with the third base situation all year long with no great resolution. While Torre’s New York tenure was hardly flawless, his efforts the past few years to integrate Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera at the expense of higher-paid veterans while quelling clubhouse dissent, and adhering to the organizational mandates regarding Philip Hughes and Joba Chamberlain may be the key here. If, that is, the Dodger organization isn’t in the total disarray it appears to be and simply looking for the quick PR fix that a man of Torre’s stature can provide.
What has set apart the Torre era is not just winning but a sense of attachment and identification that he effortlessly inspired among the fans and the players and the millions of sports bystanders. Already known by the fans as a strong-swinging Brooklyn-born catcher (and, later, a third baseman) with an eighteen-year career with the Braves, the Cardinals, and the Mets, and then for his long tenure as a semi-distinguished manager of the same three teams, he became a sudden celebrity, a Page Six sweetheart, in his first season with the Yankees, when his brother Frank Torre, another former major leaguer, underwent successful heart-replacement surgery the day before the last game of the World Series. The fourth game, in which the Yankees, trailing the Braves by 2–1 in the Series and 6–0 on the scoreboard, came back to win in extra innings, beginning their rush to the championship, changed New York to a Yankee town overnight. Torre’s composure and steadiness in hard times became as familiar as his odd, tilting trudge from the dugout to the mound to call in a fresh pitcher. A habitual modesty interwoven with an awareness of the difficult daily grind powerfully secured him to his players. Whenever someone brought up the batting title and National League M.V.P. award he had captured in 1971 with a .363 average, he threw in a reminder about his .289 mark the following year. Mid-July often brought on a retelling of a game of his as a Mets third baseman in 1975, when he batted into four double plays and also committed an error. This ease with himself and his profession set the tone in his pre-game and post-game press conferences, delivered every day to thirty or forty writers, plus TV and radio and Japan.
…The shock of Torre’s departure will not soon go away, but of course we should have known how it would play out. Only the owners, down in Tampa, seemed startled (at times, anyway) by his decision, but if they knew anything about him how could they not have known what would follow? Is it possible that they have no sense of the calamity to the franchise and to the fans and to baseball itself that the departure of Joe Torre from New York represents? He, at last, supplied the touch of class, the Augustan presence, that the Yankees had so insistently proclaimed for themselves and have now thrown away. For Torre, it was still about the players.
If all this does indeed unfold as reported, it won’t be quite an equal trade for this bicoastal fan with Torre managing the Dodgers instead of the Yankees, since he won’t be on YES to do what he does best, deal with the media crush. But after missing him more than I ever thought I would in the three weeks since he last managed, I’m damn glad to have Torre back in my life.
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Speaking of the New Yorker, now’s a good time to go back and read Ben McGrath’s fine profile of Manny Ramirez which I discussed here. On the eve of the World Series, I joked that Ramirez would hit a seven-run homer in Coors Field, upon which he would bronze himself at home plate. Will Leitch, the Deadspin domo who did a great job blogging the postseason for the New York Times (read his eloquent description of the Yankees’ last stand here), trumped my vision with this:
When they say “Manny Being Manny,” what they mean is “Manny is An Alien Life Form Unfamiliar With the Mores and Vagaries of Earth.” Someday he’s going hit a game-winning grand slam and, when he flips his helmet off to run the bases, it will be revealed that he has antennae, and these antennae are draped in a feather boa.
With his flamboyant home run celebrations and his helmet flipping, Ramirez frustrates the hell out of a lot of purists, but once you read McGrath’s piece, you’ll gain a bit more insight into his world.
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Alos, I’ve got a pair of aging Baseball Prospectus Unfiltered posts of mine to report, one on Curt Schilling’s Hall of Fame chances, and the other an accompaniment to a video appearance I made at the Bleacher Bloggers website. The latter focuses on the most dubious achievements of teams in 2007, sort of a Hit List of ignominy. I’m about three minutes in on the video, if you want to skip the soccer-styled comedy. Enjoy!