When the Yankees were eliminated from the 2007 postseason, my friend Nick was some 8,000 miles away, floating on a boat in Halong Bay, Vietnam. He’d gone off the grid with the Yanks trailing two games to one, with George Steinbrenner’s ultimatum still hanging in the air. As the outs dwindled, I pictured Nick lying awake at night envisioning the end of the Joe Torre dynasty, with the Doors’ “The End” playing over an unsightly montage: one-hoppers to Derek Jeter’s left… a parade of broken down starters and useless middle relievers departing the field dejectedly… lefty sluggers flailing at Rafael Perez’s slider… and midges, an endless horde of midges.
Apocalypse Now, Yankee style.
Following a week and a half of tedious delays and breathless speculation, The End arrived on Thursday, when Torre rejected an incentive-based one-year contract offer from the Yankees. Though the base salary of $5 million would have allowed Torre to remain the highest-paid manager in the game, it nonetheless represented a 33 percent pay cut that he could only recoup if the team made it to the World Series, something they haven’t done since 2003. It was a cynical, non-negotiable offer, designed to be refused but allowing both sides to save face. After 12 years, 1,173 regular-season wins, 10 division titles, six pennants and four World Championships, Torre wasn’t fired, nor was Steinbrenner’s managerial bloodlust — held in check for an unprecedented dozen years — sated.
Instead, the team, amid a changing of the guard from Boss Steinbrenner to his two sons, decided that their incumbent manager was only so valuable to them, and that what was behind door #2 — Don Mattingly, Joe Girardi, Luis Sojo, Tony La Russa or the worm-eaten remains of Billy Martin — might be preferable given the potential changes looming for the team. With Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Bobby Abreu, Roger Clemens and (likely) Alex Rodriguez all free agents or in an option year, the 2008 Yankees could look very different from this year’s flawed model, and the presence of Philip Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and perhaps Ian Kennedy in the rotation may require a different skill set and mindset to manage.
Which isn’t to say that the current slate of candidates has that skill set or mindset. Mattingly, though providing some level of continuity with the currrent team, lacks any managerial experience. Girardi, though experienced at the big-league level, left behind a troubling legacy of damaged young pitchers in Florida. La Russa, though carrying a championship pedigree, likely attempted to drum up interest as a ploy to gain leverage in St. Louis, where he too is a managerial free agent. Sojo, though with experience in the minors and a connection to the heyday of the Torre dynasty, apparently hasn’t drawn serious consideration from the Yankee brass. Coaches Tony Pena and Larry Bowa, both of whom served on Torre’s staff, have managerial experience but hardly the kinds of track records one might want for a championship-caliber club; the latter will probably gain an interview to appease Bud Selig’s requirements of minority consideration for such openings.
But let the next manager and the makeup of the 2008 Yankees wait for another day. Today is about Torre and what he meant to the franchise, and to this fan. Speaking as someone who moved to New York City in 1995 with a genetic predisposition towards rooting against the Yankees, I watched as “Clueless Joe” — 109 games below .500 for his career and with just one division title in 14 seasons of managing — took the reins of a club that hadn’t been to the World Series in 14 years and hadn’t known managerial stability in two decades. Skippering a team featuring an appealing mix of homegrown talent (Pettitte, Rivera, Jeter, Bernie Williams) and shrewd acquisitions (Tino Martinez, Wade Boggs, Paul O’Neill, Jimmy Key, David Cone), Torre was the calm voice of reason, providing a welcome antidote to the bluster of Steinbrenner and the shrill Dallas Green, manager of the crosstown Mets, who ripped his sad-sack players in the press on a daily basis.
To someone raised to hate the Yankee way, watching Torre work was an eye-opening experience, and it didn’t take long before I found my resistance weakening. By the time David Cone made his dramatic comeback from a career-threatening aneurysm in his arm, tossing seven no-hit innings before departing in a cloud of — whoa –perspective, Torre’s Yankees had drawn me in. By 1998 I was part of a ticket package, bonding with friends over trips to the ballpark. We wiled away endless summer hours as the Bronx Bombers devoured the soft underbelly of some hapless bullpen, and huddled together through tense October showdowns where the good guys, Joe’s guys, usually won. Perfect games, milestones, comebacks, endless rallies, towering home runs into the upper deck, clinchers, 55,000 fans singing “New York, New York” in unison while the champagne corks popped… we shared magical moments with Torre’s teams over the past decade-plus. They brought us together as friends. At times, they brought a city together, and in the wake of September 11, even a country together. And somewhere in there, they inspired me to start writing about baseball.
So as the sun sets on this era of the New York Yankees, all I can say is this: Thank you, Joe Torre. Thank you for standing up to George Steinbrenner’s bluster and the media’s harsh glare, and for doing so with class, dignity, and grace while maintaining a firm grip on some of the best ballclubs I’ve had the pleasure to see. Your run with the Yankees has been a thrill to behold, and a life-changing experience for this fan. So again, thank you. Thank you a thousand times from the bottom of my baseball-loving heart.