Monday, June 28, 2010

Yanks Don't Give Torre a Break, But We Should

Colin Curtis? Chad Huffman? Unless you read blogs about the Yankee farm system, or live near one of their farm teams, chances are you never heard of them before last night.

But they were a big part of the Yanks' 4-run rally in the top of the 9th at Walter O'Malley's Temple of Greed last night. Trailing the Dodgers 6-2, the Yanks got 4 runs on 4 hits and 2 walks, tied the game, and then won it in the 10th on a home run by Robinson Cannon. Excuse me, Cano.

Alex Rodriguez provided the first 2 Yankee runs with his 594th career home run, and the Yankees beat the Joe Torre-managed Bums.

The Yanks scored those 4 runs off Jonathan Broxton, who might have been the best closer in the National League up to that point. But Torre, who never had to find out before this series, found out the difference between having Mariano Rivera as your closer... and having Mariano Rivera as the opposing closer while you try to close a game with another pitcher.

There are people who are now questioning why anyone ever thought Joe Torre was a good manager. After all, what has he won away from the Yankees?

Well, let's see: The 1982 NL West title with a Braves team that was not as good as the Dodgers of that period; and the 2008 and 2009 NL West titles with a Dodger team that was the best team in a weak division, and all 3 of those teams advanced to the NLCS (although the '82 Braves did not have to face a Division Series).

That's a better record away from the Yankees than the great Casey Stengel had. Or, as Warren Spahn of the 1942 Boston Braves and the 1965 New York Mets said, "I'm the only guy who played for Casey both before and after he was a genius."

Like Stengel, Joe Torre was made into a great manager by having the Yankees to manage. But where would those teams have been without them? Does anybody seriously think that keeping Buck Showalter would have begun the Yankees' 1996-2003 era of greatness? Does anyone think Davey Johnson or Bobby Valentine would have done any better?

It's been said that Joe Torre doesn't know how to manage a bullpen. I don't recall anybody making that argument when his pen was David Weathers, Graeme Lloyd, Jeff Nelson and Mariano Rivera leading to John Wetteland. I don't recall anybody making that argument when his pen was Nelson and Mike Stanton leading to Rivera.

The most important person in the Yankees' 1996-2003 era of greatness was Joe Torre. Without him:

* Derek Jeter probably doesn't become the regular shortstop in 1996. He might still have become a star, but instead of becoming DEREK JETER, he might have become what Nomar Garciaparra became: A talented underachiever.

* Andy Pettitte becomes another in a long line of post-1978 Yankee starters who don't make it. Where have you gone, Dennis Rasmussen? Clay Parker? Chuck Cary? Sam Militello?

* Bernie Williams becomes the batting equivalent of the same. Steve "Bye-Bye" Balboni. Dan Pasqua. Hensley "Bam-Bam" Meulens. Kevin "No" Maas. Roberto Kelly. And the recently deceased Oscar Azocar.

* Paul O'Neill is remembered as a hothead who somehow managed to ride the coattails of Barry Larkin and Jose Rijo to a ring in Cincinnati... and who "punted" a bobbled ball back to the infield.

* Wade Boggs, Tim Raines and Cecil Fielder all retire without having won a World Series. (I almost included Chili Davis, but I forgot he was with the 1991 Minnesota Twins, as was Chuck Knoblauch.)

* And Mariano Rivera becomes a pitcher the Yankees don't know what to do with, and is inevitably traded to a team that does figure him out. Maybe he doesn't become the greatest relief pitcher ever -- or, at least, the greatest 9th-inning man ever -- but he still becomes one of those guys you always regret trading, unless, of course, you don't trade him.

Instead, the Yankees did not trade Rivera, and he became the 2nd-most important person in the dynasty. Jeter, a distant 3rd. With Jeter, but without Rivera, the Yankees do not win the Division in 1996, lose the ALCS in '98, lose the ALCS in '99, don't make the Playoffs in 2000, lose the Division Series in '01, and lose the ALCS in '03.

Mariano Rivera is the difference between the 1996-2003 Yankees being the 1996-2003 Yankees... and being the 2006-present Mets. He's also the difference between Joe Torre being a manager who is going to the Hall of Fame after he retires, and being a pretty good ballplayer and slightly less than that as a manager, who will only be getting into the Hall of Fame by buying a ticket.

And Joe Torre is the difference between Mariano being The Closer, and being just another pitcher who didn't make it in Pinstripes.

It is true that Joe Torre used mediocre relievers such as Paul Quantrill, Scott Proctor and Kyle Farnsworth too many times. It is also true that he didn't have better options, and blame for that must be laid at the feet of the House of Steinbrenner: George, Hank, Hal and "surrogate son" Brian Cashman.

There are people who complain that Torre falls asleep in the dugout. Funny, they said the same thing about Stengel.

Nobody ever accused Davey Johnson of falling asleep in the dugout. Yet, if not for John McNamara using Calvin Schiraldi and Bill Buckner too long, Davey would be the man who managed all that talent on the Mets, Reds, Orioles and Dodgers, and never won a World Series -- and remove that one fat pitch Dave Smith gave to Lenny Dykstra, and Johnson never even wins a Pennant.

It is interesting to note (as Vin Scully, the 60-year voice of Torre's current team, would say) that some people now harp on the Pennants Torre failed to win as Yankee manager: 2002, '04, '05, '06 and '07. That's 5. What about the 6 he did win: 1996, '98, '99, 2000, '01 and '03?

Does it all mean nothing now? Should we claim that, because he (or perhaps, putting words in Torre's mouth, Tom Verducci) wrote some inflammatory things in a book, Torre deserves no credit for what he did in New York? Should we just pretend that someone else was managing the no-hitters of Dwight Gooden, David Wells and David Cone? That someone else was managing the big postseason homers of Bernie, Jim Leyritz, Tino Martinez, Scott Brosius, Jeter, and Aaron Boone?

Should we forever condemn Torre for not being able to get along with Alex Rodriguez -- who, for all his talent, is not an easy guy to get along with?

No, he's not. And Torre didn't get along with Gary Sheffield, or Randy Johnson, and had trouble getting along with Wells. He's not alone in any of those regards, is he?

But Torre was able to get along with O'Neill, and Fielder, and Roger Clemens, and Jason Giambi. They weren't exactly picnics.

The current Yankees, managed by Joe Girardi (a Torre disciple, in case you've forgotten), were required to play 3 games against Torre's current team, and were under no obligation to let him win any of the games. The Yankees won 2, the Dodgers 1, and the Yankees are quite fine with taking 2 of 3 at Dodger Stadium, 4 of 6 on a Western roadtrip.

But they could have torched him to the New York media, or the Los Angeles media, neither exactly known for holding back when a verbal catfight is available for the reporting. They didn't. Even A-Rod, who has more reason to be angry at Torre than any current Yankee, took the high road. And so did Torre himself.

If the "past combatants" can, why can't the A-Rod fanboys? And fangirls?

What "fangirls" am I talking about? People like this:

Back in 2005, in the wake of the 2004 collapse, of which A-Rod was a notorious part, I was in the upper deck of the old Stadium, and sitting in front of me were two chicks -- I won't call them "ladies" -- wearing those dark blue Yankee T-shirts with the white lettering and numbering, and both were RODRIGUEZ 13s. And when A-Rod came to the plate, one of them said, "Oh my God, he's so hot."

That pissed me off. I said to her, "He's a loser. He chokes in the clutch."

Without missing a beat, she turned around, and said, "So what, he's hot."

I felt like placing a call to the cemetery in Canton, Ohio, to see if Thurman Munson was turning over in his grave.

There are some people who think A-Rod can do no wrong. As if the postseason failures of 2004, '05, '06 and '07 were not his fault at all. That, if he'd been treated right (whatever that means), what he was able to do in the fall of 2009 would have been done several times before.

Surely, there were others to blame. Surely, players like Sheffield, Giambi, Hideki Matsui, and even Jeter himself occasionally disappeared at the October plate.

Surely, Torre made his mistakes:

* Yes, Torre shouldn't have pitched Mariano for so many 2-inning stints in 2001.

* Yes, he should have kept Jeff Weaver (I still can't see that name without adding, at least in my mind, the word "Fucking") off the postseason roster in 2003.

* Yes, he should have let Jose Contreras know that he might have to pitch Game 5 of the '03 Series because of questions about Wells' back.

* Yes, he should have had that steroid-ridden blob David Ortiz plunked, to let him know we weren't going to put up with his shit anymore.

* Yes, he should have had the Yanks bunt on Curt Schilling's jury-rigged ankle.

* Yes, he should have changed his postseason rotation a couple of times.

* Yes, he should have pulled the team off the field and told the umpires we're not coming back on until the bugs are gone, and if the umpires decided to forfeit the game to the Indians, lodged a protest with the Commissioner.

But Torre won, unlike Buck Showalter. And he did it without getting drunk and embarrassing himself and others off the field, unlike Billy Martin.

It's time to admit that, without Joe Torre, the Yankees would still be looking for their first World Championship since the Disco Period. And that the Mets would still be New York's Number 1 team. Instead of what the Mets are, which is (in more ways than one) Number 2.

Joe Torre may never manage, or even set foot, in the new Yankee Stadium. But he deserves our gratitude.

UPDATE: Joe made his 1st visit in 2010, as part of the George Steinbrenner Monument dedication. In 2014, he was elected to the Hall of Fame, and got his Number 6 retired and his own Plaque in Monument Park.

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