This was June in Chicago, at the end of a long, weird Yankees road trip that had started with A-Rod cavorting with a woman not his wife and ended with the team winning three in a row and finally showing some signs of life. Right in the middle of the turnaround had been Joe Torre — though, characteristically, we didn’t find out until much later just how much credit Torre deserved. We knew he’d called a team meeting in Toronto, but neither Torre nor any of the players would even hint at the tone or content; only when the season ended, after another disappointing first-round playoff exit, did word get out that Torre had ripped the team behind closed doors. It was rare for him to raise his voice; far more of his best work was done with pats on the back. But Torre always had a gift for what the moment required, and he never deployed it better than this season, when he kept the team battling and focused after a horrendous April and May.
Torre hungered to win — as much, usually more, than anyone on the Yankees payroll; that’s only the biggest reason that team president Randy Levine’s ridiculous corporate-speak rationalizations about the team’s contract offer hewing to a “performance-based model” and the need to “motivate” Torre are an embarrassment. Back in June, no one, of course, knew where this season would end. Though they were playing better, at that point the Yankees were still 10.5 games out of first place. One of the few certainties was that this was the final year of Torre’s contract as manager.
I’d enjoyed interviewing him over the years; in the winter of 2004, Torre and his wife, Ali, were extraordinarily generous with their time, inviting me to Torre’s boyhood home in Brooklyn to talk about their foundation, which is dedicated to reducing family violence. But as it got near midnight under the White Sox stadium, I was mad at Torre. He’d been promising to sit and talk all week, then avoiding me. My guess is that his standing with the Steinbrenners and Levine was more tenuous than publicly known at that point, and he wanted to avoid any chance of saying something that might inflame tensions.
But after a Yankees’ win that night, when the beat reporters had headed back upstairs to file their stories, an exhausted Torre lingered in the visiting manager’s office. He was eager to shower and fly back home, but he had too much class to dodge me completely. I said that if the 2007 season ended with the Yankees in the World Series, he would have piloted one of the all-time-great comebacks. But what if the team finished out of the money, and his years with the Yankees ended badly? Would that damage his legacy? Torre shrugged. “I don’t worry about that,” he said. “My time here is based on what I do. Past places I’ve been, when I’ve left, even though the results, the bottom line, weren’t what you wanted them to be, I felt pretty good about what I did, and how I did it. But to be associated with this organization, and the players that have come through this clubhouse — that’s what I’ll remember more than anything else. As far as my record and stuff, that’s for other people to judge, not for me. Just going to work every day is what I do, and I’ve been pretty damn lucky to have the wherewithal to be in a pretty good position.” He wasn’t the only lucky one. —Chris Smith