It Ain’t So, Joe

Photo: G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images

Insider’s view of What Went Wrong in the Bronx,” read the headline of last week’s Michiko Kakutani Times review of The Yankee Years, the book written by Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci with Joe Torre’s cooperation and input. In her piece, the paper’s chief book critic refers to “the team’s depressing slide” since their 2000 title and asks why “the Yankees’ fortunes began to spiral downward.”

Depressing slide? Downward spiral? Since 2000, the Yankees have won six division championships and made seven playoff appearances while building themselves a gaudy new stadium. They are the fifth most highly valued sports franchise in the world. The Knicks should have such a downward spiral.

What the Yankees have failed to do since the 2000 season, of course, is win a world championship. Torre spreads the blame for this around liberally in his book, putting the onus on everyone from Brian Cashman to Alex Rodriguez to Don Zimmer. In fact, the Yankees’ failure to take another World Series was due mostly to a handful of excruciating playoff losses where the difference was usually … well, their manager. Nearly every one of these losses turned on a dubious Joe Torre decision. In the critical Game 4 of the 2003 World Series, he brought in Jeff Weaver (Jeff Weaver!) to give up the winning run with Mariano Rivera in the bullpen; in the second game of the 2007 ALDS, he left a struggling Joba Chamberlain in to be devoured by gnats. During the 2004 American League Championship Series against the Red Sox, as New York blew a three-games-to-none lead, Joe sat so passively in the dugout that many of us feared he had suffered a stroke. In Game 4, Torre failed to call a pitchout on speedy Sox pinch-runner Dave Roberts when Roberts appeared on first base in the ninth inning all but wearing a sign reading i’m going to steal now; he insisted on pitching to the terrifying Sox slugger David Ortiz with Game 5 on the line and the less-than-immortal Doug “Eye Chart” Mientkiewicz on deck; he declined to bunt on the immobile Curt Schilling, who was pitching Game 6 with a tendon stapled to his ankle bone. In the final game of the series, with the Yankees reeling, the bases full of Red Sox, and Johnny Damon at the plate, Joe rose at last from the bench and brought in … the slumping Javier Vazquez, against whom Damon had hit a pair of mammoth home runs earlier in the season. Damon promptly hit a grand slam.

Joe seems abashed now by the furor his buck-passing has caused, but that’s characteristic of the man, too, with his Obama-like aversion to drama; his preference, at all times, for remaining low-key and letting things just happen. The irony is that the same calm, the same passivity that makes Torre such a terrific clubhouse manager—that made him able to withstand the relentless media onslaught and Steinbrennerian second-guessing that come with life in the Bronx—also makes him a bad field manager. Joe Torre is the main reason why the Yankees were able to win so many world championships in the late nineties—and Joe Torre is the main reason they haven’t won one since.

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It Ain’t So, Joe