October 2, 2009 • Baseball

The Joe Torre Story

The Yankees skipper has earned his pinstripes through 10 seasons in The Bronx

COACH: We know that you were born and bred in New York City, graduating in 1958 from St. Francis Prep School in Brooklyn. What was your childhood like?

TORRE: My childhood was all about sports. Unfortunately, I had an abusive dad. He wasn’t abusive to me, but he frightened me a great deal just knowing what was going on in the house. Basically, my father figures were my brothers, Rocco and Frank. Rocco got married when I was about 10 years old and moved out of the house. Frank, who was the ballplayer in our family at the time, was someone that I sort of got my guidance from, aside from my mom. I was spoiled. We weren’t well to do but we were comfortable. I lived a good life as a child. I never lacked for anything. We had a diversely ethnic neighborhood. I played every game in the world – football, basketball, punchball, stickball, and of course baseball was my favorite.

COACH: When did you start getting serious about baseball? Did you always have aspirations of being a big leaguer? Was it your brother, Frank, a former first baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies and the Milwaukee Braves, who took a special interest in you and helped spawn your interest in baseball?

TORRE: When I was about 11 years old, Frank began his minor league career. He started in Hartford that year and then he went to Denver, which was Class A ball at the time, in the Milwaukee Braves organization. So I went to visit him, along with one of my sisters, my aunt, and my cousin. The first chance I had to work out in a professional ballpark was in Denver. Frank played first base for the Denver Bears. I had a ball. I used to go to the ballpark with him every day, they had me put on a uniform, and just go shag balls in the outfield. I think once I was there doing those things I sort of liked the life that professional baseball seemed to be all about at that time.

COACH: In 1971 you had a year to remember, capturing the National League MVP award as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals. It was also a season in which you played primarily at one position, appearing in 161 games at third base. You led the senior circuit with a .363 batting average, 230 hits, 137 RBI, and 352 total bases, becoming the first player to lead the NL in four offensive categories since Stan Musial captured eight categories in 1948. What do you remember about that year and how do you explain all of those things coming together at one time?

TORRE: I don’t think I ever fouled the ball back. I would get up there against certain pitchers and look for a certain pitch and hit it on the button. The previous two years I had lost a great deal of weight and probably was in the best shape of my career. Then it’s just the confidence that builds in you. It was one of those things where you get locked in and you’re able to maintain it. I wasn’t a home run hitter. I hit home runs but I was basically a line drive type hitter. I played in a good ballpark and played on a good team where you’re going to get good pitches to hit. I had a great deal of confidence and it built throughout the season. The year before I hit .325 so it was something I sort of grew into.

COACH: You played during an era that featured some of the most storied managers the game has ever seen: Leo Durocher, Earl Weaver, Billy Martin, Sparky Anderson, and Walter Alston, just to name a few. From whom did you draw your inspiration and managerial style?

TORRE: I’m not really sure. I always admired Gil Hodges. He always seemed to be a very quiet leader and maintained a certain discipline on a ballclub. I think that consistency is important. Rules have to apply to everybody. Rules can’t apply to some guys who are making under a million dollars and not the guys making over a million dollars. Certain privileges go with experience. But that’s the limit. Red Schoendienst was someone else I admired a great deal. I spent my maturing years with the Cardinals under Red. And Red always felt that the game belonged to the players. That’s my feeling, too.

COACH: In 1977, you became a player-manager for the Mets, one of the last men to hold dual roles, in fact. What are the pros and cons of doing both, and can it be accomplished in today’s game?

TORRE: I think it would be very difficult because of the media requirements. Mine was never really a plan to do that. I wanted to when I took over the Mets at the end of May in 1977. We were going to make a trade by June 15th, which at that time was the trading deadline. That’s when they were talking about trading Tom Seaver, and we did trade Tom Seaver. But I was just going to be a player-coach until that June 15th came and went. In all likelihood we were going to replace my spot on the roster with a player we got in the deal. And that’s exactly what happened. I was smart enough as a manager to pinch hit myself twice -once when I knew they were going to walk me intentionally and another time when I knew it was going to be my last at bat and I hit the first pitch to right field for a fly ball.

COACH: When did you come to the realization that you wanted to be a manager? Was it always something you thought about or did your experience with the Mets whet your appetite?

TORRE: I think it was before that. During my six years in St. Louis, going from Atlanta, where I guess I was a malcontent – I wasn’t happy, they weren’t happy with me. I got into a shouting match with Paul Richards, who was the general manager of the Braves at the time. I was the player representative and he didn’t like anything to do with the Players Association at that time, so it never really was a comfortable situation. I got traded to St. Louis and I realized what a first class organization was all about. My time there was with a very stable ballclub, managed by Red Schoendienst and surrounded by pros like Lou Brock, Curt Flood, Bob Gibson, Tim McCarver, Dal Maxvill, and Mike Shannon. And I realized, “Wow, this is the big leagues.” I think I started, at that point, maturing, which I think I had to do first. Then I began to realize that managing would be something I would like to do.

COACH: In 1982, your second stint as a manager, you led the Atlanta Braves to their first division title since 1969 and were named Associated Press Manager-of-the-Year, becoming the first person to be named NL MVP and AP Manager-of-the-Year. How satisfying was it for you personally to guide the franchise that drafted you to such lofty heights? How did that experience bolster your confidence that you belonged in the dugout?

TORRE: Someone told me at one time that your second managing job is probably the toughest one to get. The first one you’re going to get an opportunity. But the second one means somebody saw something in you that maybe could help them. It was something that certainly was a surprise. The ballclub hadn’t finished well the year before. We won the first 13 games of the season in 1982, which was a then-Major League record to start the season. It really did a lot for my confidence. We finished second the next two years, but I was fired because, initially when I went to Atlanta, my general manager was John Mullen and he told me, “I didn’t want you here, but let’s do the best we can.” They basically brought me there because I had managed in New York, I was recognizable, and since Ted Turner, who was the owner at the time, owned the Superstation (WTBS), he wanted someone who people knew.

COACH: You just completed your 10th season as manager of the New York Yankees, the longest uninterrupted tenure of any manager in the club’s history since the legendary Casey Stengel (1949-1960). Obviously, you have had tremendous success by having outstanding talent at your disposal, but how have you been able to endure working under the scrutiny of the New York media and the pressure that goes with managing the most storied franchise in sports?

TORRE: Basically, I bury myself in my work. I was hired to manage this team. Coming in – and I have this meeting with the players every spring – I try not to get caught up in all the distractions that go along with being in New York. I stick to my managing, make decisions, and don’t get concerned about the questions that are being asked about threatening my future or one thing or another. So I came in with a plan and I’ve been able to implement the plan and gain the trust of the players.

The players have been a lot of fun to be with. When you look back over 10 years, I never would have dreamed, in my wildest dreams, that I’d be doing this for this long. But it certainly has been fun because the players who have come through this organization the last 10 years have been very serious about what we try to accomplish.

COACH: This season has to be your most challenging. Despite being baseball’s first $200 million team, you have had to constantly search for the right player combinations due to a season-long rash of injuries: The Yankees have used 28 pitchers and 51 players, both team records. Plus, you’ve had to overcome the Yanks’ worst start since 1966 and deal with the Jason Giambi steroid situation. That said, what have you learned about yourself through all of the turmoil, and how has it made you a better manager?

TORRE: To me, managing is all about people. First of all, when you make a move and it doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean you made the wrong move. It just means the move you made didn’t work. So you never question that part of it. But the key to being a manger is to get your players to play for you. I think you try to be as fair as you can be. And try to be as consistent, because I have found out after a couple of years here that the players look to you more for guidance and calmness than anything else. And I’ve tried to be that to just about everybody that has come down the pike here.

This year’s been a lot busier. We have had a lot more players, and especially players who have come from different organizations, to sort of get them used to the craziness that goes on in this city, in this uniform. It takes a lot of time and you try not to leave any stone unturned. That’s why I really rely on my coaching staff a great deal.

COACH: What do you look for when assembling a coaching staff, particularly your penchant for reliable bench coaches, i.e., Don Zimmer and Joe Girardi?

TORRE: You look for guys who aren’t lazy. It used to be that you hired coaches because they were your friends. I was very fortunate my first year with the Yankees. I brought no coaches with me. Eventually I brought in Chris Chambliss, but he was a former Yankee. And Jose Cardenal. I then hired Mel Stottlemyre and Don Zimmer to coach. And they became friends, which is really a bonus. But I think you need to have people that all contribute. I’m not the kind of manager who says, “Here I am, I make the final decision.” Yes, I do make the final decision but I insist on input from all of my coaches. And then if I choose to take their opinion or use part of it, I will. I’m not stubborn enough to think that I am here to make the decisions and right, wrong, or indifferent I’m going to make them. I utilize my coaches. I really delegate a lot of authority.

Mel Stottlemyre’s been here for 10 years with me. Girardi was a player for me, which certainly has been a benefit now that he’s a coach. I can’t tell you enough about Don Mattingly. I think down the road he can be a manager, if he decides to do that. As could Joe Girardi. I think they are both very capable and not afraid of the limelight.

COACH: You served as a TV analyst for the California Angels prior to taking over the Yankees. Bob Brenly served in a similar capacity with the Arizona Diamondbacks and went on to guide the team to a World Championship. What can you glean from the broadcast booth that translates onto the field as a manager?

TORRE: You can experience what other managers do. A lot of times when you’re managing against another manager you’re so busy with your team that you don’t really pay a lot of attention to what he does. But when you’re in the broadcast booth, you’re watching two managers manage that day and you have your own thoughts, because you’ve managed this game. Then you go down to the field and ask questions. I’ve always tried to pick the brains of Tony LaRussa, Sparky Anderson, Gene Mauch, and guys like that. I just respect those guys’ opinions so much. They felt free and trusted me to the point to answer simple questions like, “Do you let your players play golf on the road?” Things like that that weren’t asked on the air, but I was just curious as to how other managers conducted their clubhouse. Because I think that’s the most important thing.

COACH: We know you are not one to hold a lot of team meetings, but when is the right time and what kind of approach do you take?

TORRE: I’ve held a lot this year, probably because of what we’ve gone through. Any time the manager has something to say, he may want to aim it or point it toward one player. But my feeling is if there’s something I want to say, I want everybody to be aware of it. Because we try to make sure that we keep everything out in the open. It may not be popular to say certain things or to tell guys things that they don’t want to hear, but the one thing I want players to at least say about me when we split is the fact that I never misled or lied to them. I do the best I can to inform players on my thinking and that’s probably the reason I have most of my meetings. Of course, there are other meetings when you are not very happy and you want to let them know about it because you want to get it off your mind, your chest. But mainly you have meetings for information and just to let the players know that I’m watching them.

COACH: How do you handle the enormous egos of today’s ballplayers? How do you know when to coddle someone in a slump and light a fire under someone who is not giving his best effort?

TORRE: You see them every day and you’re honest with them. And money never enters into it. You call somebody in when you don’t like what you see. And you confront them with it. If there’s a difference of opinion then you may call in one of his teammates and try to get a perspective from there. As I said, I try to be as fair as I possibly can be. The loyalty I have to players is very important to me. But the first loyalty has to be to all 25. When I make decisions, it’s based on what I think is best for the team, and I think overall the players appreciate that.

COACH: Tony LaRussa has said that every successful manager is a stickler for detail. Explain your attention to detail and why it’s proven so effective.

TORRE: Well, I don’t think I’m in the same class with Tony, because he’s an information guy. He’s very intelligent. I deal more with feel. There’s so much more information now with the use of computers and scouts and everything else. To me, detail is very important because in our case we have so many players who have been high profile players for a number of different ballclubs. The only thing we try to express to them, starting in spring training, is that we deal with small things here. You want to think small and big things will happen. It’s mainly, don’t go up there and try to hit home runs. That thinking may work rarely but never on a regular basis. When you face those real good teams, being in the habit of having quality at bats probably helps you win more games than anything else.

COACH: A lot has been made of the old school style of managing vs. the new style featured in the book Moneyball. You are a man who manages on instinct and feel. What is your take on this argument?

TORRE: I think when you don’t have the dollars that the Yankees have, you’ve got to be able to put a team together on a regular basis. That means getting these players who play roles on your team and utilizing them. I think you have to go according to what payroll you have. However, I can’t assume, even though George Steinbrenner spends a lot of money, that these guys are going go out there and play up to their ability. So you have to treat them like players and not guys who get paid enough to know better.

Coach: What types of players have served you well as a manager?

TORRE: The grinders, the blue-collar guys. I think what’s probably been my toughest job over the years is to have players come in to our clubhouse – having had a great deal of success at other places – to have them think along the team line and not necessarily worry about individual numbers.

COACH: What kind of relationship would Joe Torre the player have had with Joe Torre the manager?

TORRE: With Joe Torre the player, in my later years, I would have had a good relationship. But early on I was very immature and I think I would have been slapped around a little bit. Not literally. I’d have been pushed to the point of, “You’re not getting the most out of your ability.” I found out as a manager that each individual has a different ceiling here and they have to live up to their expectations and not yours. That’s the only thing I try to do.

To me, I judge players on their effort and not necessarily on the bottom line. I think they appreciate that because I hit .363 one year and I also hit .240 another year and my feeling is that I tried the same both years. I can understand guys who don’t get the job done but I can also tell when they’re preparing the same way.

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