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Joe Meets the Head Case

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Torre during a recent game against the Mets.  

Even more surprising is the proximate cause of his fury. This morning, Torre’s wife told him the early edition of the Daily News had a back-page photo of Alex Rodriguez with the banner headline TORRE TELLS A-ROD: SHUT UP! It’s the kind of provocative tabloid shorthand that Torre, in one of the most important aspects of his success, usually lets roll off his back. Not today. He’s threatening a media boycott, claiming he’s been misrepresented.

As always with the Yankees, there are a dozen subplots. Torre has been cranky with the Daily News since last October, when the paper loudly proclaimed him fired. Three days ago, in Toronto, Rodriguez had shouted, “Ha!” while passing a Blue Jays infielder, an amateurish—and successful—attempt to distract the third baseman from catching a pop-up. Immediately after the game, Torre characteristically deflected questions and dampened the controversy. Two days later in Boston, though, Torre reversed himself and criticized Rodriguez. No doubt Torre was speaking honestly when he said Rodriguez’s stunt was “inappropriate.” But the larger context was that Torre seemed to recognize that many of his other, well-behaved players had grown weary of the constant A-Rod sideshow.

“Joe still doesn’t completely understand A-Rod,” says Tim McCarver, the catcher turned broadcaster who has been a close friend of Torre’s since they played together on the 1969 St. Louis Cardinals. “Joe considers A-Rod a very complex personality. He’s meticulous, he’s eccentric. He’s almost got the personality of a pitcher. You expect pitchers to be peculiar people.”

Torre’s anxiety can always be measured indirectly by how quickly he burns out his bullpen, and this year he’s been particularly jumpy, even using Andy Pettitte twice in relief. He’s also continued to shuffle his weak hand at first base, instead of settling for stability and competence with Cairo. But the outburst provoked by the Daily News headline was a rare instance of Torre showing the pressure overtly.

The intensity—and the true source—of that pressure didn’t become clear until five days later, in Chicago. That’s when the SI.com item appeared, describing how Steinbrenner was livid at Torre for spanking A-Rod in public. Torre has plenty of experience with the Boss’s rages; the fact that the phone call was leaked was more interesting, and upsetting. Not only did it poke at Torre’s fragile bond with Rodriguez, but it showed that someone with connections deep inside the Yankees hierarchy was trying to undermine Torre. When an Associated Press reporter who looks about 13 years old raises the item with Torre, the manager glares, watching the kid squirm. “Do you have a comment?” the reporter asks. “No,” Torre snaps.

“Is the report accurate?”

“If I gave you a yes or no on that one,” Torre says with a smirk, “it would be a comment. See, you gave me the option of commenting, and I said no.” Twenty chilly seconds of silence pass before Torre changes the subject to the weather.

Friends like Mel Stottlemyre, Torre’s pitching coach for ten seasons, eventually tired of the pettiness of life with the Yankees and quit. Torre willingly continues to endure the humiliations, and when necessary deploys the kind of cold-blooded political survival skills that belie his image as Saint Joe. “His friends say, ‘I wouldn’t put up with that shit,’ ” McCarver says. “But it took so long for Joe to be looked upon as a success as a manager. He gets to the Yankees and finally he’s got an owner who’s willing to pay the money and get him the players he needs. And once you’ve tasted that success, it’s hard to shuck it aside and say, ‘Oh, well, now I’ve achieved everything.’ And people underestimate how competitive he is.”

Ali Torre began dating Joe when he was managing the Mets. But it wasn’t until he was fired by the Braves, in 1984, that she realized the depth of the hole in his emotions. “There was a confusion in Joe,” she says. “He didn’t really feel loved. He went through a period where he lost his identity. His whole identity was as a baseball player, and now he was no longer in uniform. I sensed that he felt that people didn’t love him unless he was a baseball player.” Ali steered Joe into therapy. Days after he’d been hired to manage the Yankees, he was weeping in a roomful of strangers as he talked about his father.

The autograph gnats are swarming behind restraining ropes on the sidewalk outside the Chicago Westin hotel. Men, women, children, all without enough to do in their lives, linger outside the Yankees’ hotel day and night. The action really heats up when the team buses arrive mid-afternoon to take the players and coaches to the ballpark.


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