This month it will officially be five years – that’s half a decade – since Joe Torre was manager of the New York Yankees.
In his twilight years, George Steinbrenner was still The Boss, and he professed it more than ever that postseason. Following a heart-breaking Game 2 loss to the Indians in the 2007 ALDS, George said that if the Yankees couldn’t rebound and win the series, then Joe Torre would be gone.
That was an unimaginable thought – the Yankees without Joe Torre. 12 years since he was hired and tagged with the nickname “Clueless Joe”, Yankee fans everywhere had come to respect and love their skipper. After all, making the playoffs every season was not always as easy as the Yankees had made it seem all those years.
But clearly, times were different in 2007. These weren’t the same Bombers who had gone out a number of seasons prior and ran off a streak of four World Series championships in five years. Where Tino Martinez make slick-fielding plays at first base, there was Doug Mientkiewicz. Where Paul O’Neill gave it all in right field, there was Bobby Abreu. Yes, Andy Pettitte was back, and Jeter, Mo, and Jorge Posada had never left. But the dynasty ended a long time ago, and with it went the clutch factor of postseason Yankees teams.
But not lost in that thought, was just how amazing the ’07 Yankees were [in the regular season]. After pulling through a treacherous 22-29 start, being 13 1/2 games behind the eventual Fall Classic champion Red Sox, the Yankees fought back with Joe Torre leading the way. A 72-39 finish from the end of May resulted in a 94-win campaign, and a Wild Card berth. Oh, and they ended just 2 games back of Boston for the division.
To say the 67-year old native New Yorker had lost touch with his team, was simply false. Joe was leading the Yankees the best he ever had. “Energy”, was the word he kept re-iterating to his team. Bring your A-game night in and night out, and you’ll win.
As much as it held true from the end of May to late September, in early October, the message had run its course. The Yankees dropped the first two games of the series, and were in a must-win situation heading back to the Bronx and the House That Ruth Built. It just so happened Game 3 and Game 4 would be the final postseason games held at the old Yankee Stadium.
The Yankees lifted the hearts of their fans and even Joe Torre off the bench with a thrilling 8-4 Game 3 victory. The momentum was back. The swagger was back. And for that one night, Torre’s Yankees proved they wouldn’t quit on their manager and that maybe, with all the comebacks they had made under his helm, one more was in the works.
The next night, chants of “Joe Torre” could be heard by all 56,315 in attendance at Yankee Stadium. But they were not for the right reasons. He made a bunch of pitching changes in the Yankees’ 6-4 loss, and each time he came out, the chants got larger and larger. People weren’t oblivious; they knew what was going to happen. As Cleveland celebrated on the field and later in the clubhouse, the Yankees’ players, and even the media, could not control their emotions. Torre’s post-game press conference was short and to the point – like it had been for all those years. He was bluntly honest, and gave credit to where it was due.
The days after the elimination, everyone was a bit surprised why Torre hadn’t gotten the boot yet. His contract was up, but the Yankees hadn’t officially dismissed him or announced they were parting ways. People had an idea – they were the classy Yankees. They’d give Joe time to move on, and then when he was ready, they would have a big glorious press conference, as well as announcing they’d retire #6 the following year in a ceremony at the old house.
At least, that was my opinion. And was I ever wrong.
The Yankees flew Joe Torre out to Tampa to discuss a potential new contract. With George Steinbrenner and sons present, along with general manager Brian Cashman and team president Randy Levine, they got down to business. Some say the Yankees never intended to bring him back, that it was more of a “courtesy” meet up – that they knew Torre would leave without a new deal.
In my opinion, The Boss bit his lip and knew Joe was far more valuable to the Yankees than he had ever realized. He was the only manager suited to lead this team in the coming years, and George wanted him back. But, being himself, he didn’t want to admit he was wrong about letting him go and sell out to Torre by giving him the praise and dollars he truly deserved. So he offered him what a lot of people like to call, an embarrassment.
Opinions aside, he offered Torre a one-year, $5 million contract, with incentives of $1 million added on for each postseason round the Yankees made. Also included was a guaranteed option for 2009 – if the Yankees reached the World Series.
One thing Torre stressed in his autobiography, The Yankee Years, was that he wanted job security. He hated managing on one-year contracts, and for a skipper of his caliber, understandably so. But with the roster the Yankees put together for 2008, there was no way they’d make the World Series, essentially being just another one year deal for Joe. But with him at the helm, maybe they’d get at least another playoff berth, which would have been a very important one for Yankee Stadium’s final season.
Torre was smart enough to realize that and decided that enough was enough. He didn’t want to continue playing games with The Boss, and did not want to stay longer than he was welcomed. George wanted him back I believe, but Hank, Hal, Cash, and Levine didn’t. Even though he’s The Boss, he wasn’t The Boss at those meetings. It truly seemed majority ruled in this decision.
So with that, Joe was gone. Discreetly, ironically, and in a sick, twisted way, the Yankees turned it on Torre, saying he rejected their offer. No, he rejected an opportunity for embarrassment and further scrutiny he didn’t deserve nor want at this stage of his life. Torre walked out with a heavy heart, but with pride, and the Yankees were left looking like fools.
They did find as good a successor as was possible in Joe Girardi, and he’s done a great job, leading the Yankees to the playoffs in every season but his first. Each year, Girardi battled injuries, controversies, and flat out inconsistent play to still lead the team to three division titles and a wild card berth, including a 2009 World Series win.
But even still, each time I look over to the dugout while at a game, or see a shot of him leaning over the dugout’s padded fence on TV, something looks off. Girardi definitely looks like the skipper, but to me, there was only one Yankees manager, at least for my generation. And that was #6, Joe Torre.
I will be a Yankee fan until I die and then afterwards, but I’ll never forget their idiocy in letting go one of baseball’s most iconic and successful managers [even at age 67] far too quickly. And now as we saw Joe Girardi incredibly over-manage and under-manage in the Yankees’ all but failed attempt for #28, we can only ask what would Mr. T, as Derek Jeter called him, would do.