Mar 11, 2014
Mark A. Fischer on Joe Torre
Posted on Jul 3, 2009
Does it matter who manages a baseball team? Leaders are important in life. So it should be true that baseball managers make a crucial difference in determining which teams win—and which lose. But how do we know for sure? Statistics aren’t of much use in distinguishing a manager’s success apart from the performance of his players. Does a great manager cause his team to win, say, four more games a year than it would without him? Ten more games? You really can’t look it up.
Casey Stengel was famously fabulous with the Yankees when he had Mickey Mantle in the outfield; not at all so much in the hopeless days when the Amazin’ Mets’ Marvelous Marv Throneberry prowled first base. In other words, absent gross incompetence on the part of the manager, will a team stocked with great players—whether idiots or savants—win the pennant regardless of who is the manager?
James Click, in his insightful piece “Is Joe Torre a Hall of Fame Manager?” (from the book “Baseball Between the Numbers,” Basic Books, 2006), wrote that Joe Torre is likely to enter the Hall of Fame. But he concluded that objective performance statistics aren’t the reason why.
From 1996 to 2007, Yankees skipper Joe Torre was the outward manifestation of calm leadership, protective of his players, gregarious and charming with the media (many guessed that after his managing career with the Yankees he would become a sportscaster—an occupation that he held for the five years between his managing the Atlanta Braves and the St. Louis Cardinals. Torre’s Yankees won four World Series (1996, 1998-2000). Inside Torre was a sensitive and judgmental mind, an insecure man in an insecure profession.
From the manager’s perspective there’s much to worry about—and not just his players. Looking outside at the baseball world from inside the manager’s office, it seems that diva players, owners, general managers, agents, reporters, fans and others can be devoted to making a manager’s life unhappy. It may be that this phenomenon is most acute when working for George Steinbrenner and his sons.
Managers, judging from “The Yankee Years,” attributed to Joe Torre and Tom Verducci (more about authorship later), usually are happy when their players play in the field and much less so at other times. Torre’s more recent experiences dominate the book, and these seem bittersweet, and, on occasion, just plain bitter.
Torre’s observations are expressed in the third person, or attributed to Torre in quotation marks. Is Torre being ironic, postmodernist or just distancing himself from his own book? I’m pretty sure it’s the third. Baseball guys seem to lack irony.
Many sports books are credited “as told to … ” Babe Ruth’s book was “as told to Bob Considine.” Torre has, it would appear, told this book to both himself and Tom Verducci. As a result, this otherwise informative and readable book lacks the intensity and authenticity that Torre’s own voice would have provided. The book opens with a sentence so detached it seems as if George Steinbrenner’s decision-making that made Torre the Yankees manager for the 1996 season is being analyzed from outer space rather than by the book’s author: “Joe Torre was the fourth choice.”
Because Torre had been critical of pitcher David Wells tattling about locker room baseball tales in Wells’ own book, Torre’s disclosure of inside stories inside baseball comes as a bit of a surprise. But Torre’s book is in the long line of books telling it all, pretty much beginning with Jim Brosnan’s “Long Season” in 1960 and, of course, Jim Bouton’s revelatory “Ball Four” a decade later.
Torre felt in his later Yankee years, with good reason, very insecure about keeping his job. All baseball managers should know that they are hired to be fired. Boston’s Terry Francona recently said that had not Dave Roberts stolen second base in game four of the 2004 playoffs, he, Francona, would have been out of a job (and he’s probably right about it). Torre seems to have believed that as a result of his team’s great success in the mid-1990s he was owed the special protection of long-term tenure. If he had been the manager of the Royals or the Diamondbacks he might have sensed the constant shadow of termination with more equanimity. It’s an old baseball observation that it’s easier for a general manager to fire the team’s manager for a losing season than to fire the team. Torre’s awareness of his job mortality hovered over the last few of his Yankee years.
Baseball is different from many other sports. The defense controls the ball. Methodically detailed playbooks (the ones that football and basketball coaches devise) describing set plays aren’t quite so useful in this game. The baseball season is a long one. Baseball managers tend not to be as fiery as their football counterparts (Billy Martin and Lou Pinella are the exceptions and not the rule). Screaming, inspirational clubhouse speeches lose their impact in the course of the 162-game season.
Instead, baseball mandates attention to subtleties. Ted Williams’ top batting tip was “get a good pitch to hit.” His Zen lesson is true in baseball and in life. The Splendid Splinter’s lesson suggests the limits every player faces in controlling the outcome of a game in which the pitcher sets the ball in play. It’s a hard game. A star player who hits .333 is failing to get a hit two-thirds of his times in the batter’s box.
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