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A whole new ballgame

Torre won big in N.Y.; don't expect him to do it in L.A.

Posted: Wednesday October 31, 2007 1:08PM; Updated: Wednesday October 31, 2007 4:32PM
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Joe Torre may find his reception by fans and media isn't quite so warm once he takes off his suit for a Dodgers uniform.
Joe Torre may find his reception by fans and media isn't quite so warm once he takes off his suit for a Dodgers uniform.
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Never has a man been so fortunate to lose his job. Joe Torre is everybody's hero now, laughing it up with David Letterman, getting pats on the back from the public and press for turning down the New York Yankees' so-called insulting one-year offer of $5 million plus incentives and now, apparently, on his way to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who dumped a good man and a perfectly good manager, Grady Little, in order give him the job. (Little may have officially resigned, but there's no doubt he could read the handwriting on the wall.) George Steinbrenner's son Hank says Torre ought to thank The Boss for hiring him 12 years ago. He ought to be even more grateful that the Steinbrenners essentially fired him now.

This isn't to say that Torre is a bad guy or bad manager -- far from it -- but he has no particular magic, either. The "genius" coach or manager is one of the great myths of modern sports. There is no such thing, not today, when every team in every sport puts so much time and effort into scouting and preparation and high-tech study of opponents' strengths and weaknesses. It is virtually impossible for any head man to consistently outsmart or outwork his competitors. Torre is an experienced, intelligent manager who certainly brought a steady hand to a volatile franchise, but it didn't take an Einstein to run Mariano Rivera out there in the ninth inning all those years, or to write Derek Jeter's name on the lineup card every every day, or to hand the ball to Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina and Andy Pettite when they were at the top of their games.

When Torre didn't have all that high-priced talent, when he managed the Mets and the Cardinals and the Braves, where his cumulative record was 894-1,003, he was just another hard-working manager. Same with Bill Belichick before Tom Brady turned into the perfect quarterback, and Pat Riley when he didn't have Shaq and Dwyane Wade, and Phil Jackson now that he has only Kobe and a cast of no-names. They are all, to a large extent, at the mercy of the talent they have at their disposal, and the Dodgers, if they hire Torre, wouldn't be the first franchise to lose sight of that. The only way Torre will duplicate the success he had with the Yankees is if he brings the Yanks' roster with him.

But L.A. will discover that soon enough. For now, Torre is golden, in a spot so perfect that not even one of those savvy New York PR firms could have positioned him any better. And it's all thanks to the Yankees, who handled his departure so awkwardly that he could only look good by comparison. Instead of firing him swiftly and humanely, as they would have been justified in doing considering the postseason failures the Yankees have suffered in the last eight years of his tenure, the Yanks let him twist in the wind before giving him an offer that they surely knew he would refuse. It wasn't so much the $5 million that insulted him, Torre said, as much as it was the $3 million in incentives for postseason success.

In other words, Torre found it unreasonable that the Yankees wanted to pay him on the basis of his recent results, not for the four World Series he won in the last millenium. Think about that for a moment. After eight seasons of having the highest payroll and watching managers with smaller paychecks keep dumping the Yanks in the playoffs, ownership felt it was time to adjust Torre's pay accordingly. Get back to winning World Series, they were saying, and we'll get back to paying you twice as much as any other manager in the game. Torre turned that arrangement down, as was his prerogative, but the idea that the offer was beneath him was a little bit much. He was a man turning down a fortune and acting like he was offended. It's strange how athletes who do that are usually labeled greedy SOBs, yet Torre was praised as a proud man.

Torre didn't orchestrate any of this, of course. He just managed the Yankees as best he could and played the scenario out to its logical conclusion, and here he is, Mr. Popularity. But that can only last as long as he's wearing a suit and tie and letting people talk about how the Yankees did him wrong. Once he puts on a manager's uniform again, people are going to expect him to win big, without the benefit of the Yankees' talent or bank account. Maybe Torre will somehow fulfill those expectations, and more power to him if he does. More likely though, we'll all be reminded that he was as lucky to have the Yankees all those years as they were to have him.