Thursday, December 12, 2013

More Than Just an Ordinary Joe

Be sure to put your feet in the right place,
Then stand firm.
-Abraham Lincoln

The Fall of 1995 was a lifetime ago in the history of the New York Yankees.  The Yankees closed fast in September and "won" the first-ever American League Wild Card.  Their reward was a best-of-five Division Series matchup with the AL West Champions, the Seattle Mariners.  Although the Yankees jumped out to a 2-0 lead - winning the two games played in the Bronx - they lost three straight in Seattle, including a dagger- through- the-heart job in Game Five.


In 1995, the Steinbrenner who ruled the Yankees Empire was not either of the Silver Spoon Twins.  It was Boss George, Hal and Hank's father and a man whose sole apparent pleasure in life was doing everything he possibly could to try to win the World Series.  Often times it appeared as if there was far more madness than method (Steve Trout?  Ken Phelps?  The Reincarnations of Billy Martin? Howie Spira?).  As a Yankees fan though his willingness to keep pouring the money that he made back into the team was admirable.  Boss George had many faults.  Competitive desire was not among them. 

Urban legend has it that somewhere over the "Flyover States" jetting East after Pacific Northwest Massacre, George Steinbrenner made the decision to fire Manager Buck Showalter.   If you are under a certain age, then you likely did not endure the last, darkest period of Yankees history, which was the period from 1981 through the mid-1990's, during which time they never once made the playoffs, and included a period (1988 through 1992) within that decade and a half in which they finished no higher than 4th in their division and never won more than eighty-five games. In 1990, they finished 67-95.  Showalter arrived on the scene in time for the '92 season and while they finished in 4th place, they looked more like a baseball team than they had in several years.  In 1993, they finished in 2nd place and won 88 games.  When the strike arrived in mid-season 1994, the Yankees were in first place, having won 70 of their first 113 games.  It appeared as if Showalter was the long-term cure for what ailed them.  

He of course proved not to be.  Although he guided them to the playoffs in 1995, which marked the only post-season appearance Don Mattingly ever made as a player, as the Yankees self-destructed in Seattle in the ALDS their Winnebago on the road to perdition was driven by their skipper.  Showalter lost faith in his closer, John Wetteland (not without cause to be sure), which is why in the bottom of the 11th inning in Game Five the pitcher who surrendered the series-losing hit was Jack McDowell, his Game 3 starter who he brought into the game in the 9th inning and whom he never took out in favor of Wetteland - even after the Yankees plated the go-ahead run in the top of the 11th.     

Into the maelstrom sailed a baseball lifer - a player whose career had been so successful that he had won the National League MVP in 1971 with a .363 average, 24 home runs and 137 runs batted in for the St. Louis Cardinals.  A player who retired after an eighteen-year career with 252 home runs, 1185 runs batted in and a career batting average of .297.  Had the Yankees hired Joe Torre to play one of their corner infield positions then perhaps news of his joining the team would have been met with more enthusiasm.  However, with a career managerial mark that was somewhere between terrible and simply underwhelming, a track record of having been fired from each of three jobs he had held (Mets, Braves and Cardinals)  and one post-season appearance (in which his 1982 Atlanta Braves were swept) in eleven seasons, the reaction in Gotham to his arrival was decidedly unenthusiastic.

It took Joe Torre exactly one season to prove the headline writers at the Daily News - not to mention the rest of his critics - wrong.  His first season on the bench for the Yankees ended with the Bombers winning their first World Series title since 1978.  For good measure, he followed it up with World Series titles in 1998, 1999 and 2000.  His 1998 team won a total of 125 games between Opening Day and the final out of the World Series in San Diego.  Between Game Three of the 1996 World Series and Game Two of the 2000 World Series the Yankees played thirteen World Series games.  They won every one. 

Torre's Yankees never won another World Series after vanquishing the Mets in the 2000 Subway Series.  But for the great Mariano Rivera throwing the ball over Jeter's head and into center field in the bottom of the 9th inning of Game Seven in the 2001 Series against the Diamondbacks they might have won a fourth consecutive title.  They did not of course.  But what they gave to the City of New York and the whole area in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks will long resonate with those of us who bore witness to it. 

After 2001, Boss George and time conspired to break up Torre's Yankees.  Paul O'Neill retired.  Scott Brosius did likewise.  Tino Martinez was exiled via free agency to Saint Louis.  Andy Pettitte was likewise exiled to Houston.  In their stead came "names":  Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, Kevin Brown, Jeff Weaver, Javy Vasquez, Carl F*cking Pavano and the Pinstriped Anti-Christ Alex Rodriguez.  Torre's Yankees continued to rack up first-place finishes and high regular season win totals.  In his twelve years as Yankees manager, they won the American League East ten times.  They won less than ninety-four games in the regular season once....and that year, 2000, they made up for an eighty-seven win regular season by taking out the Oakland A's in the ALDS, the Seattle Mariners in the ALCS and the New York Mets in the World Series.  

The relationship between Torre and the Yankees ended on a bit of a sour note after the 2007 season.  The Yankees lost in the first round of the playoffs and both Torre and the Yankees knew that they had reached the journey's end.  He was not fired.  Rather, when his contract expired and the Yankees consciously offered him one that they suspected (if not knew for certain) he would reject, which he did, the man and the franchise parted company.  The Brooklyn-born Torre ended up managing the Los Angeles Dodgers for three seasons and in two of them, 2008 and 2009, the Dodgers made it to the National League Championship Series.  They did not win either of their clashes against the Phillies.  But then again, the Dodgers of Torre's youth had a penchant for coming up just a little short more often than not too.  

On Monday, Joe Torre was unanimously voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.  This July, the man who once upon a long ago autumn afternoon was affixed with the unfortunate and ultimately inaccurate sobriquet, "Clueless Joe", will take his place among the immortals of baseball in Cooperstown.  It is a thought that makes this Yankees fan smile.  

And I suspect that in spite of the way their professional marriage ended, wherever George Steinbrenner is spending eternity, he shall too.  A well-deserved honor for one hell of a good baseball man.  


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