NEW YORK – You don’t have to be a baseball fan to know that August 23 is a special day in the world of sports. Neither will it bring smiles – and maybe some tears – only to Yankee fans just before the 1 p.m. start of the game between the Yankees and the Chicago White Sox.
The team America loves to hate is retiring the number 6 that Joe Torre wore on his uniform from 1996 through 2007, signifying two things: the end of an era, and a refutation of the phrase “nice guys finish last,” often mis-attributed to another successful but more volatile baseball manager, the late Leo Durocher.
Indeed, Torre finished last or close to the bottom of the heap numerous times during his tenure as manager of the Mets, Braves and Cardinals, but as Tyler Kepner of the New York Times notes, “the intersection of personal and professional factors,” made him the right man at the right time to earn glory in the Bronx, signified by four world championships and 12 consecutive post-season appearances.
TNH will be at Yankees Stadium, reporting on the tribute to a man whose qualities might have inspired Homer to sing his praises had he led men on a Trojan battlefield rather than a baseball diamond. In the meantime, enjoy the fruits of Kepner’s interview with Torre which follows:
We measure greatness by championships, so the four that Joe Torre won as the manager of the Yankees are the cornerstones of his career, which the team celebrates on Aug. 23 by retiring his No. 6 and unveiling a plaque in Monument Park.
But there is so much more to Torre, on the field and off. He reached the postseason in all 12 of his seasons with the Yankees, who now face the possibility of another dark October in the Bronx. If the standings hold, Joe Girardi’s Yankees will miss the playoffs for the third time in seven seasons.
This is less a reflection on Girardi than a commentary on the realities of the modern game. With more money to go around, fewer stars reach free agency in their primes. Fewer teams need to trade productive players to the Yankees for salary relief. Without a steady flow of dynamic homegrown talent, the Yankees have struggled to stand out from the pack.
Their consistent ability to do so under Torre was a happy coincidence of so many factors unlikely to be repeated: the suspension of a meddling owner in 1990; the development of four Hall of Fame candidates from the farm system who arrived in 1995; an economic system more favorable to the Yankees; and so on.
But it also had a lot to do with Torre, and the intersection of personal and professional factors that made him the right man at the right time — with the right players, of course.
The story arc of Torre’s life has been well told, by Torre himself and many others. Yet it is still staggering to remember where Torre was in the fall of 1995, when he replaced Buck Showalter after the Yankees’ playoff knockout by the Seattle Mariners.
Torre played for and managed three teams — the Atlanta Braves, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Mets — and all of them had fired him. He was 55 years old, between homes and jobs, living in Cincinnati because his wife, Ali, had family there. He was the new manager of the Yankees, the latest team to look to him for guidance.
It had been this way since Torre’s days on the sandlots of Brooklyn. People gravitated to him then, Torre said, simply because his brother Frank was a major leaguer, and that gave him credibility. But deep down he never really understood his appeal as a leader, not even when the Cardinals made it official when he was a player.
“They named me Captain, along with Lou Brock, which really shocked me, because I didn’t have a great deal of confidence in myself,” Torre said recently in an interview at the offices of Major League Baseball, where he works as Executive Vice President for baseball operations.
He added: “And so when they named me captain it really got my attention, saying, somebody must see something in me that I didn’t really see in myself.”
People kept seeing it, so strongly that Torre was given his first managing job, with the Mets, before he was even done playing. But it was not until that off-season in 1995 that Torre could see himself for what he was, and allow his best version to be the one the Yankees got.
Torre grew up in fear of his abusive father. He is famous for baseball, but his transformation as a man triggered his greatest contribution. Torre is a master storyteller, so here is how it came about, in his words, edited just a bit for clarity:
“I felt in my early career as a player that I had to perform to feel validated,” Torre said. “If I didn’t get a hit, or if I made an error, my mind-set was, ‘I lost this game,’ or, ‘I didn’t do enough to help us win this game.’ And, trust me, I had a lot of guys slap me on the back of the head and say, ‘Come on, let’s go,’ ’cause if I had a bad day and we were going over to one of the player’s houses for dinner or something, I didn’t want to go, and they’d drag me by the arm. And when I did do well I felt good about myself. It was like hills and valleys.
“And it wasn’t until ’95 — you know, for me, there’s a God up there — because my wife was pregnant with our daughter. And we were living in Cincinnati, temporarily, because I was looking for a job. And by the time December rolled around, I had one with the Yankees for the following year. And Ali said to me, ‘How about going to this seminar?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ I had no clue what it was about. The only thing I know is your wife’s eight months pregnant and she said, ‘Do you want to do something? And I said, ‘Yeah.’
“So we go, and it’s a self-help thing. I was very uncomfortable walking in, because they’re a bunch of strangers. I’m a little self-conscious to begin with. And all of a sudden they split you up in groups, and I’m not with my wife’s group. And there were like four days, it was Thursday to Sunday, and I guess it was Day 3, I’m standing in front of perfect strangers crying my eyes out.
“I don’t even remember what caused it, but obviously, one of the speakers was speaking on the subject. And it wasn’t only about domestic violence or whatever. I mean, if people wanted to go there to quit smoking, it was whatever you wanted to improve your life with. And this came out of left field for me.
“And I started crying, because at this point in time I realized a lot of my insecurities — low self-esteem, a lot of nervousness when I was a kid growing up — seemed to be caused by what was going on in my home with my dad abusing my mom. And I was witness when I was like 9 years old or something, him going for his gun. He was a cop, going for his gun and threatening my mom and my sister.
“So I started talking about it, which people don’t do, even to this day. Once I realized I wasn’t born with these feelings of being inferior, which is the way I categorized them, I was excited. Because now I found out that, ‘O.K., I’m normal like everybody else.’ I just had something that — and not that I’m blaming my father — but at least I knew that this was created as I was a kid growing up. So it was a freedom to talk about it because I could just say, ‘Hey, yeah, this went on in my life.’ ”
Torre added, later: “I had friends growing up who had no clue what was going on in my house. And I didn’t want to share it. I was embarrassed by it, and I thought I caused it because there was a lot of whispering in my house. So finding out all these things weren’t true, it was sort of like you wanted to shout it from the rooftops.”
Torre would go on to do that, figuratively, by using his platform as the Yankees’ manager to start a foundation, Safe at Home, in 2002, to help victims of domestic violence. There are 10 safe rooms, named for Torre’s mother, at schools in New York, New Jersey, Westchester County and Los Angeles.
He said 50,000 children have come through the Safe at Home programs. The calming presence in the corner of the dugout, the master clubhouse communicator, the charming public figure, all of those roles were hard-earned for Torre.
The steward of baseball’s last true dynasty has a permanent place in Yankees lore and a deeper, more important legacy than he ever could have imagined in 1995.