George Steinbrenner’s Last Gift to Joe Torre

Joe Torre

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George Steinbrenner has done Joe Torre a big favor. No, not the imminent firing (or not rehiring) of Torre after twelve years as manager of the Yankees. (And, for what it’s worth, this assist pales in comparison to Steinbrenner’s original, impulsive gift to Torre — hiring him in 1995, when Torre was a failed ex-manager of the Cardinals, Braves, and Mets.) But when Steinbrenner picked up the phone Saturday night, emerging from either strategic seclusion or creeping senility, to blast Torre in a conversation with a Bergen Record columnist, the Yankees’ owner inadvertently handed his manager one last halo.

Torre very much needed the help. Make no mistake: The better team, or at least the team that played better, won the American League Division Series (how much must it gall Steinbrenner that Cleveland, the town where he grew up and left to make it big in New York, crushed his club?). The Indians simply hit and pitched better than the Yankees. But Torre, around the edges, contributed to the demise, both over the long term (by burning out his bullpen) and short (starting a shot Roger Clemens and a psyched-out Chien-Ming Wang).

Torre’s personnel moves have been his weakness for a long time, ever since he lost Don Zimmer and Mel Stottlemyre as coaches (both driven away by Steinbrenner’s pettiness). What’s amazing is that instead of fixating on Torre’s lineup choices, or whether he should have pulled the Yankees off a gnat-infested field during game two (as the always classy and unselfish Clemens second-guessed the next day), the morning after is dominated by Steinbrenner’s graceless return to the front page.

This has always been the Boss’s way: In moments of great pressure, he can be counted on to panic and point the finger at someone else. Over the years Steinbrenner provided Torre with the practical tools he needed to win games — money and players. But Steinbrenner also gave Torre something just as powerful, both inside and outside the clubhouse: a foil. Torre’s calm deepened in inverse proportion to Steinbrenner’s bluster. Shielding the players from Steinbrenner helped Torre win their trust. It also burnished Torre’s public image as St. Joe, the man who made the Yankees likable in spite of their evil owner.

Three years ago, in the wake of the Yankees’ shocking playoff loss to the Red Sox, I asked Torre if growing up with a volatile, physical abusive father had helped prepare him to deal with Steinbrenner. He laughed darkly. “Well, George likes the fact that he’s the boss, and people called my dad ‘Joe the boss.’ And they both had the iron hand at times,” Torre said. “One of the things I like about George is that he’ll yell, but he doesn’t hold onto it. It’s gone. I try to find a way to defuse that stuff, because I don’t like anger.”

The word Torre repeatedly used that winter’s day to describe his long-gone dad — “bully” — fits Steinbrenner perfectly. The Yankees are heading into a nasty off-season; the leaking of Tony LaRussa’s name as the top candidate to replace Torre is only the first move in what’s sure to be ruthless political infighting. It’s the right time for the manager to move on. But by threatening him when times were tough, George Steinbrenner sent Joe Torre out a winner. —Chris Smith

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