October 16, 1999: the Yankees vs. the Red Sox, Game Three

There’s lots of “Yankees Suck” T-shirts on sale on the streets leading to Fenway Park. Maybe it’s the afternoon sunshine, or the higher number of college-age kids in the crowd, but there’s simply nowhere near the air of menace that permeates games in New York. The feeling is more like a party, but one where the guest of honor is joyfully despised.

Speaking of vibes: What is the state of consciousness beyond Zen? That’s where you’ll find Joe Torre. Perhaps he goes home and kicks his dog, but at the ballpark, the man radiates calm and security. There’s all the rationalexplanations – he’s won two championships, he’s apparently beaten prostate cancer – but they don’t quite explain Torre’s serenity.

For an hour today, in the Yankees dugout at Fenway, Torre conducts a seminar in big-league managing, with Thomas Boswell, the great Washington Post writer; Bob Ryan, the classic Boston Globe columnist; and me as students. Torre recounts his thinking during Thursday’s epic eighth inning, when he and Boston’s Jimmy Williams switched pitchers and hitters eight times in the course of five minutes. “It’s door number one, door numbertwo, or door number three,” Torre says. “You’re on the fence about what to do, but you have to pick one and be committed. I had Nelson in the game and was thinking, ‘If he gives up a ground ball or sacrifice fly, the game is tied. I can live with that. We’re at home. We’ve got two more shots to win it.’”

Maybe the secret is Torre doesn’t admit the existence of other more severe possibilities – an extra base hit, say, that gives up multiple runs. Or maybe it’s the fact that having committed himself to one course of action,Torre is willing to instantly change directions and not second-guess himself. After Nelson threw ball one to Scott Hatteber, Torre sprang fromthe dugout and took Nelson out of the game. “I didn’t want Nellie pitching around this guy now that he’s behind. So I changed pitchers. Now I know that I’m emptying my bullpen, but I’ve made a commitment.’” Torre eventually won the chess match, thanks to brilliant pitching by RamiroMendoza.

Besides knowing his own mind, Torre’s success is predicated on knowing the minds of his players. And knowing how to keep their minds clear. “We don’t allow our hitters to see many stats,” Torre says, referring to the endless breakdowns of who did what against whom that are available on paper, on line, on TV. “We don’t want them thinking too much. I tell them, ‘Just dowhat you do.’”

Torre’s approach to George Steinbrenner isn’t nearly as minimalist. Winning makes everyone happy, of course, and that’s the primary reason Torre’s four-year relationship with Steinbrenner has been so placid. But Torre works hard at achieving calm. “I have fun with him,” Torre says of the jokes he initiates with Steinbrenner. “Winning gets his crust off a bit. But he also knows now, after we’ve been together a few years, that nobody is tougher on me than myself, that I want to win as badly as he does.” Yet Torre is not kidding himself; he knows the bad old George, who is never satisfied, isn’t gone completely. After a loss to Cleveland in last year’splayoffs, Torre got an early morning call from Steinbrenner. “He said, ‘Don’t worry, we’re still in good shape.’ So he can be compassionate. And he never says I should do anything just because he’s the boss. But the thing is, if we’d won that game in Cleveland, he would have called the nextmorning and said, ‘Don’t let me down.’”

Torre still has some distance to go in understanding the mind of Roger Clemens, his starting pitcher today. In spring training, before Torre was diagnose with cancer, he made a point of chatting with Clemens about the Rocket’s failures in other playoff games. What Torre learned, he thinks, is to not shy away from putting Clemens, a tightly wound man, into situations that would seem to have the potential for emotional overload. So Clemens started last week in Texas, in front of his hometown friends and family, and Clemens starts this afternoon in Boston, where he made a bitter exit three years ago after a decade of wondrous pitching with the Red Sox. “Everyone is nervous,” Torre says. “The idea is that if you make nervousness work for you, it becomes excitement. If you let it work against you, it becomes fear and pressure.” Torre, early on, saw the pressure Clemens put on himself as the new guy coming to a world-championship team, and tried to include him in any leadership situations. So even though Clemens had been with the team a matter of weeks when Torre was diagnosed, he called Clemens into his office with David Cone, the reigning team leader, to ask them to help steer the ship while Torre was in the hospital.

But for much of the year, Clemens has stayed remote off the field and mediocre on it. Torre thinks that after seven months of attempting to bring Clemens into the fold, the pitcher is finally at ease. “He’s settled in and allowed himself to be a pitcher now, instead of trying to do everything else, to carry the load by himself for the whole team,” Torre says. Reminded that today’s dream matchup, Clemens versus Pedro Martinez, could be repeated if the series goes to seven games, Torre shrugs. He sounds calm as always, but less enthusiastic than I expected. “That’s the way we set it up. We wanted Clemens in game 7,” Torre says blandly. “And that one would be in our ballpark.” The inference, it seems, is that he’s not entirely confident about what Roger will do in Fenway today.

–3:30 p.m., October 16, 1999

Clemens is beaten up badly by the Bosox. It might be easy to shrug off this lopsided loss if the Yankees didn’t look so thoroughly helpless against Pedro Martinez, who claims, afterward, that he was pitching in severe pain. It reminds me of something Torre said pre-game, about the day in September when Martinez struck out seventeen Yankees in New York. “The hitters didn’t complain in the dugout, didn’t come back saying, ‘That was a bad call,’ or ‘I just missed that pitch.’ They just put the bats back in the rack and sat down. I think it showed the respect they have for Pedro.” When does respect become intimidation?

Torre’s calm doesn’t appear shaken, which is the pose he has to take, whether he’s worried or not. He even goes out of his way to make a jokewhen a phone rings during his press conference. “That for me?” he asks the American League P.R. woman at the side of the room who answers the phone. “You never know,” Torre says, turning his palms up in a shrug, which provokes a huge laugh from the reporters. But it’s funny because of theobvious implication: Steinbrenner will not be happy.

And George isn’t. He appears in the Yankees locker room, one of the few times he’s been visible during the playoffs, and when asked about Clemens’s bad game, says something ominous. “These things happen,” Steinbrenner says. “He just can’t let them happen again.”

More fun – and whether or not he’s beating the Yankees, watching Pedro Martinez pitch is tremendous fun – is seeing the Mets survive for another day. Sitting in the Fenway pressbox watching the game at Shea on TV, with the completely dark field below as a backdrop, the Mets comeback against the Braves seems not just surprising, but as if it’s taking place onanother planet.

–10:45 p.m., October 16, 1999

October 16, 1999: the Yankees vs. the Red Sox, Ga […]