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Joe Meets the Head Case

When Joe Torre was growing up, the baseball field was where he went to escape an abusive father. And this year, Alex Rodriguez, too, has found that it’s a great place to hide. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

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Joe Torre in the dining room of the Marine Park house where he grew up.  

Joe Torre looks terrible. It’s nearly midnight on the south side of Chicago, underneath the soulless concrete bowl of a stadium that is home to the White Sox. Torre sits in the eight-by-eight cinderblock cell that serves as an office for visiting-team managers, sounding utterly sincere in response to postgame questions he’s heard at least 10,000 times before. With the last Japanese reporter shooed out the door, Torre removes his Yankees hat, revealing a scalp with a few lonely tufts of black hair sticking straight up. He starts to stand, slowly. His right knee, ruined by seventeen years playing in the majors, needs replacing, soon.

And this is a good day. About a half-hour earlier, Torre climbed from dugout to field to join the handshake/fist-bump line that forms after victories. Two pillars of Torre’s success as Yankees manager awaited with special gifts: Mariano Rivera, the all-time-great closer, handed Torre the game ball. Derek Jeter, normally all business even after the final out, wrapped the man he still refers to deferentially as “Mr. Torre” in a warm hug. The celebration was in honor of Torre’s 2,000th win as a major-league manager, a landmark reached by only nine other men in the history of the game.

Torre nearly didn’t make it to this milestone. One week ago, with the Yankees wallowing in last place, 14½ games behind their eternal enemy, the Boston Red Sox, Torre was being battered daily with rumors that he was about to be fired. Tonight, as the manager shuffles into the shower, the root cause of so much of his angst—and the key to his salvation—emerges from the players’ private dressing room across the hallway, freshly moussed and lotioned and wearing an immaculate suit the color of a newly minted dollar coin. The golden boy is literally glowing.

Alex Rodriguez sealed tonight’s win with a majestic grand slam. Yet even this moment of triumph comes with an underlay of intrigue. This morning, a story with an anecdote intended to sabotage Torre appeared on Sports Illustrated’s Website, describing George Steinbrenner’s fury at Torre for criticizing A-Rod.

It has been a long road trip. Rodriguez nearly incited a brawl in Toronto, was besieged in Boston with questions about his friend the stripper, hit a game-winning homer against the Red Sox, then helped spark a winning streak in Chicago, and now, with microphones in his face, he’s trying to make sense of it all. “Everything about this year has been a little unusual, so I guess then, unusual is not unusual,” he says. “Joe is a Hall of Fame manager for so many reasons. For me personally, he’s done so much—”

He pauses. A-Rod is naturally, needily eager to talk, to make himself liked and understood. “And he’s dealt with so much that, uh—” He seems on the verge of something raw and honest—an apology? A tirade? Rodriguez fights back the impulse and retreats to boilerplate. “He’s just a pleasure to play for.” Then he flees for the safety of the team bus.

Joe Torre detected “something special” brewing at the end of that road trip, and he was right: The Yankees were going on a tear, fourteen wins in seventeen games. Better physical health, particularly among the starting pitchers, and a string of weak opponents certainly helped. Roger Clemens parachuted in at precisely the right moment. But Torre and Rodriguez have been central to the surge.

Torre again displayed his gift for calming the maelstrom: While the Yankees were still reeling, he called a team meeting and let players vent. Realizing that rumors of his firing were distracting the players—“He’s like a father to me,” Jorge Posada says, “I don’t want to play for nobody else”—he reminded them to concentrate on the things they could control: hitting, throwing, catching. He strengthened the defense, inserting Melky Cabrera full-time in center field and journeyman Miguel Cairo, Torre’s fourth choice, at first base. In April and May, as the team sagged with injuries and lousy play, Torre talked repeatedly about how the Yankees had lost their “identity.” In June, through a combination of design and desperation, the Yankees’ new identity suddenly resembles the team’s winning late-nineties profile, a mix of stars and grinders, pulling together in one direction.

Rodriguez’s contribution? He’s merely been a terror at the plate, piling up homers and RBIs with his deceptively effortless, brutally quick swing. In a perverse way, the exposure of Rodriguez’s escapades with a stripper seemed to have been good for him, at least on the field: He’s playing with a newfound focus and anger. “I just keep talking to him and just let him be who he is,” Torre says, “so he can relax enough to be the player he needs to be.”


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