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Joe Meets the Head Case

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Rodriguez during a recent game against the Mets.  

In twelve tumultuous seasons as manager of the Yankees, Torre has deftly handled drunks, egomaniacs, self-righteous born-againers, blowhards, and a shy guitar-strumming center-fielder. But now the player he understands least is the one he needs the most. The care and feeding of A-Rod’s delicate psyche is the greatest challenge of Torre’s career. Torre, 66 years old and in the final year of his $19.2 million contract, wants one last World Series ring. Rodriguez, 31, desperately wants his first—and validation as a “true Yankee,” who’s about more than the gaudy numbers on his stats sheet and paycheck. What they have most in common, though, is that they’re two damaged men.

Joe Torre stands at the top of a cellar stairway in Marine Park, Brooklyn, looking at where his life nearly ended before it began. “This is where my father pushed my mother down the stairs,” he says quietly, “when he found out she was pregnant with me.”

His father already had four kids and didn’t want any more. Joe Sr. was a night-shift detective with the NYPD and an angry man. This wasn’t the first time he’d struck his wife, Margaret. Torre didn’t find out about the abuse until years later, when he was an adult himself. But like many kids from troubled marriages, Torre didn’t need things spelled out. He picked up the vibe plenty clearly, from his father’s banging on the wall when anyone accidentally woke him prematurely to the way the very air seemed to thicken when his father was in the house. By the time he was 12, if Joe arrived home from school to find his father’s Studebaker parked outside, he veered off, found a friend to hang out with, and stayed away until he was fairly certain Pop had left for the precinct.

Torre hasn’t lived in the house on Avenue T for more than 40 years. But after a recent season, he stopped by to talk about how his mother’s suffering inspired him to launch the Safe at Home Foundation for victims of domestic violence. Torre walks into the kitchen, stops in front of a drawer, and shudders a little bit. “This is where Pop kept his gun,” he says. One night, during a particularly vicious argument, Joe Sr. waved the gun at his wife. Torre’s sister Rae grabbed a knife to defend her mother. Joe, about 10 at the time, snatched it from her hand, slammed it on the kitchen table, and said, “Here!,” apparently defusing the tension.

Rae Torre still lives here and has never been married. His other sister, Marguerite, is a nun. Torre believes there’s a direct line between his mother’s pain and his sisters’ choices. His brother Rocco died of a heart attack in 1996. Frank Torre, who preceded Joe to the big leagues by four years, has long been his closest sibling. But the bravery Frank showed one day in 1952 made him a hero to the entire family. Frank assembled a family meeting and volunteered to kick his father out of the house.

That ended the immediate threat, but the damage to Joe Torre had been done. He says the failure of his first two marriages, and his strained relations with his children, was rooted in his inability to express his emotions, a self-preservation mechanism he’d learned as a kid—a realization he came to only in the mid-eighties, when Torre and his third wife, Ali, entered therapy. “Joe would shut down,” Ali says. “That was a big part of his personality, and the silence was just as bad as someone yelling. It was a big problem in our relationship.”

Another side effect of his unhappy childhood was that baseball became the core of Torre’s self-image. “Baseball was the one area where I could get some self-esteem,” Torre says. “Starting from when I played as a kid, if I didn’t do well, I felt inadequate. Maybe that’s what drove me to do well, because I knew that was one place I could find some common ground, to be able to talk to people. I had no self-esteem growing up. I was very shy, very nervous. Baseball was always my way through that. So I went a long time feeling I let people down if I hit into a double play to end the game or something. No matter how many hits I got or how well I’d been doing. That stood out more than the good times.”

They’ve put together two rare wins in a row, last night’s coming against the hated Red Sox. But the Yankees are still 12½ games out of first place, and the tension is always suffocating when the team is in Boston. But it’s still stunning that Joe Torre, the king of calm, is fuming.


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