Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Long Kiss Goodnight

Joe Torre is in the final year of his contract with the New York Yankees. He has guided the Yankees to eleven straight post season appearances, ten AL east titles, six AL championships and four world series crowns during his tenure. It is without a doubt, the best run that any manager has had since Casey Stengal put together the greatest managerial stint ever in which he won ten league championships and seven world series rings over a twelve year stretch from 1949-1960. But alas, all good things must come to an end.

When Joe was first hired, the new york papers dubbed him "Clueless Joe". By winning the World Series in his first season, he changed that perception almost immediately. He went from being a mild mannered, minimally successful manager, who was in over his head to the most untouchable and most revered figure in New York sports. During the Yankees magical late nineties stretch when they won four championships in five years, it seemed almost inconceivable that Torre would ever leave the Yankees on anything but his own terms. However the inability of the Yankees to win the World Series over the last seven seasons, including being eliminated in the first round the past two years, almost pushed George Steinbrenner to do what most thought would never happen. He almost fired Joe Torre. It took a impassioned plea from Brian Cashman in order to change George's mind.

George has spent over a billion dollars on the Yankees payroll since 2000 and in his mind, he has nothing to show for it. Not only have the Yankees not won the World Series, but they lost a seven game series to the hated Boston Red Sox in the most embarrassing fashion possible. The historic collapse in 2004 was surely the impetus for George's recent unhappiness with his manager. George has made his unhappiness known by pushing out Torre's bench coach (Don Zimmer) and then his pitching coach (Mel Stottlemyre), but he knew that Joe was untouchable. He knew that the press, players and fans would be unforgiving if he made a move against Torre. The Yankees most recent playoff series changed all of that.

There were many in the press who called for Joe Torre's ouster after the Yankees latest post season failure. Derek Jeter is probably the only player left on the team with enough leverage to perhaps block George from dismissing Torre, but despite Jeter having the utmost respect for Joe, he certainly has never shown any willingness to speak out publicly against the Boss. New York Yankees fans are a fickle group. They love Torre, but the lack of a championship has begun to grate on them as well. The radio shows seemed to be populated with people who were of the opinion that it was time for Joe to go after the Yankees lost to Detroit. There were probably two things that saved Joe Torre from the chopping block. One was the afore-mentioned plea by Cashman and the other was the fact that he's owed $8 million dollars. Even though George spends about a quarter of a billion dollars a year on the team, he just couldn't justify playing out what would essentially be about $13 million dollars to the managers position. Joe was apparently saved by fiscal restraint.

George would like nothing more than to win another championship and his recent health issues have probably only intensified that desire. That is what has always made him a great owner. Sometimes he has gone overboard and has pulled the trigger on more than a few horrible trades and signings, but it was always in an effort to make the team better. George's legacy will be complete when the Yankees open their new stadium in 2009. It will be "the house that George built" and he would like nothing better than for the new stadium to be adorned with a championship banner. At this point I'm not sure that he envisions Joe Torre as the person who will be leading the Yankees into that stadium.

Joe is 67 and there is a question as to whether he would want to come back and manage the Yankees again. After the trying 2005 season, he took a couple of weeks with his family to decide whether he wanted to come back and manage again. He ultimately decided that he did want to return, but every year seems to take a little more out of him. I read a quote from Willie Randolph, the Mets manager and former Torre coach, in which he says that he doesn't think that Joe wants to retire. Joe has never stated publicly that he wants to retire at the end of his contract. However, I really can't see him leaving the Yankees for another team. It's probably the Yankees or nothing. If the Yankees fail to get to the world series or if they fail to make the playoffs next year, then it's a forgone conclusion that he would not be offered a contract extension. I don't think that George would be willing to accept another year without a championship.

I'm a Yankees fan, so I'm certainly hoping that they can win the world series next year, as much for Joe as for my own personal happiness. It would be a shame if his tenure ended with a whimper instead of a bang. I'm of the mindset that if the Yankees do manage to win the World Series this year, Joe will happily ride off into the sunset and straight into Cooperstown. He would be able to leave on his own terms then. I think at this point, he probably couldn't ask for anything more than that.



Blogger Jay said...

Good piece. Slight correction. The historic collapse against the Red Sox was in 2004, not 2005.

3:25 PM  

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