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No ordinary Joe

Torre deserves credit for the Yankees' success

Posted: Monday September 26, 2005 2:02AM; Updated: Monday September 26, 2005 12:08PM
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Joe Torre
Joe Torre has the Yankees in position to win their eighth consecutive AL East title.
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I could manage the Yankees.

You're lying if you say you've never uttered the phrase. For most of the past decade, while the Yankees were beating up on folks like schoolyard punks, baseball fans everywhere scoffed at the notion that Joe Torre had skills. Who couldn't win with that lineup?

Who couldn't win when your biggest pitching decision was whether to hand the ball to Roger Clemens, Mike MussinaAndy Pettitte, David Wells or El Duque, each in the midst of career seasons? Relief? Uh, Mel, would you pick up the phone and ask Mariano Rivera -- the best closer ever! -- if he's busy?

No surprises in these feats: Torre is the first manager in major league history to guide his team to the playoffs in each of his first nine seasons at the helm. On six occasions, he sat in his familiar place in the Yankees dugout (next to either living bobblehead Don Zimmer or pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre) in a World Series. Four times, he bounded out and onto the field a champion.

With a lifetime managerial record of 978-631 (.607), it's hard to accept that Torre's mark once stood a Bad News Bears-like 135 games below .500, before the skipper finally lifted his head above water during the Yankees' 1998 season. (Only the lovable Casey Stengel has emerged from a further depth -- 166 games -- before becoming a winner.) But again, with the talent he's had at his fingertips, who couldn't win?

This is the season Torre wasn't supposed to win.

His team was coming off that stunning pratfall against the Red Sox in last year's American League Championship Series. Jason Giambi was in post-steroid testimony funk. The pitching was in tatters. And everyone knew that Bernie Williams couldn't throw out your grandmother anymore. Sure, there was early promise, buoyed by the signings of free-agent pitchers Randy Johnson, Jaret Wright and Carl Pavano. But it seemed only about a week before the trio, stymied by injuries and stifled by expectations, began to embody the Yankees' new mantra: Mediocrity in Pinstripes.

The team faltered and flopped, stumbled and staggered -- so much so that it looked as if Torre just might be fired. For real -- or as my daughter says, Frreeel -- this time.

Meanwhile, the suddenly purged-of-curses Red Sox were flitting about with nary a care. They bounded out to a solid division lead by the All-Star break and never seemed in danger of losing it, not the least of all to these Yankees.

Not to a team with a patchwork rotation that relied on -- no, desperately needed -- guys named Aaron Small and Chien-Ming Wang to step up and pitch big, and on another pitcher (Shawn Chacon) Torre had not seen before he welcomed him to the Bronx in late July.

Not to a team that seemed to have erased "comeback win" from its hard drive, a team that played like it had (with apologies to Andy Roddick) lost its mojo.

But there was Torre, though it all, in his familiar place, stoic and unbowed, behind darkened glasses. I'm sure his stomach was often twisted as Dontrelle Willis' arms-knees-elbows-and-legs-everywhere windup, but we never knew it. He never let on and now, well, who doesn't know that Joe's got skills?

This just may be his finest season. No, this is his finest season.

There is no logical reason why these Yankees should be in first place. No explanation for the quiet way they plugged through the second half of the season on unknown wings and prayers to find themselves not only in the thick of the wild-card race, but also tied with the Red Sox for a division title absolutely no one not on the Yankees' payroll thought they could win.

No logic nor explanation other than Torre.

Seven games this week in Baltimore and Boston will determine whether the Bombers accomplish the improbable (division title), achieve the acceptable (wild-card playoff berth) or endure abject failure (no postseason for the first time on Torre's watch).

But those seven games should not determine whether Torre is named Manager of the Year for the third time. He's already earned it.