Tales of Torre Tales
This is perhaps the only baseball story you will ever read that starts out with a snake.
Texas left-hander Kameron Loe has a pet boa constrictor named Angel. It's seven feet long and he brings it to Ameriquest Field on occasion and lets it slither around the infield grass.
The Yankees were in town on May 5 and there was this huge snake, sunning itself in foul territory as the Yankee beat writers set up in the press box.
I'm new to the Yankees this season, having spent the previous four seasons in sports journalism purgatory with the Mets. After covering the Machiavellian Bobby Valentine, somnambulant Art Howe and the inexplicably angry Willie Randolph, I had found Joe Torre to be a refreshing change.
I didn't know him well after a few months but he seemed like a reasonable, intelligent person who didn't mind dealing with the media. On some days he even seemed to enjoy it.
Most impressive was his archive of anecdotes. Name a player or ask a question about a certain play in a game and Torre had a story to tell. Most refer back to his days as a player with the Braves and Cardinals. Or when he managed the Mets.
In spring training, he had the group of us in stitches telling a story about Atlanta's traveling secretary, who happened to be a dwarf. When he checked the team into a hotel, Clete Boyer used to give him a boost so he could talk to the clerk at the front desk.
But snakes? Now there seemed a challenge.
"Think Joe has a story about snakes?" I asked Sam Borden from The Daily News as we watched this Angel in the infield.
"Oh, sure," he said. "I'll ask him."
When we finished with our baseball questions before the game, Sam told Torre about Loe's pet and asked him what he thought about snakes.
Twenty-nine other managers would have looked at Sam and said "what the hell are you asking me about snakes for?" Randolph, I'm quite sure, would have rolled his eyes and complained about having been asked such a question.
Joe smiled and launched into a story about the time he went on a USO Tour of Vietnam and somebody draped a snake around his neck and had him pose for a photograph.
"Damned thing nearly choked me to death," he said.
Once having had a snake around your neck doesn't make you a good manager. But being able to tell that story does.
I get e-mails and comments on my blog every day questioning the moves Torre makes. How he handles his bullpen. His love of veteran players over better-suited reserves. His abuse of catcher Jorge Posada. If you ask some Yankee fans, he's an idiot and they can prove it. The four titles were the result of a high payroll, they contend. The Yankees have won in spite of him.
If you ask me, they just don't get it.
Baseball is nine months of work. You report to spring training in February and the best teams finish up in October. Being able to crunch the numbers is great. But being able to take pressure off your players and create an atmosphere where people enjoy coming to the park is more important. In New York, it's paramount.
Torre has an almost singular talent of saying the right thing at the right time. When Randy Johnson was struggling in the spring, the manager lowered expectations, deflecting some of the heat away from Johnson. The Big Unit has since rebounded.
In early May, when Alex Rodriguez was briefly dropped to fifth in the batting order, Torre sold it as a clerical error that ended up working out. It saved Rodriguez from several rounds of questions about a slump he was enduring at the time. He went on to be the American League player of the month.
When Bernie Williams was ejected from a game for the first time in his career, Torre came back with a story about the time he was once ejected while standing on third base.
He and Nick Colosi got into it over a comment Torre had made in the papers about the umpires. "I finally told him to f--- off," Torre said. "Son of a bitch threw me out, too."
Made what Bernie did seem not so bad.
There are 10 reporters who travel with the Yankees: Eight from newspapers, one from MLB.com and another from WFAN radio. All are pretty sharp. If motivated, we could make trouble and plenty of times, we do just that.
Every paper also has a platoon of columnists and sidebar writers. Throw in the local television stations, floaters from suburban papers and national writers and a typical home game can attract a few hundred of us.
But Torre has learned how to make the media madness work for him. He anticipates the questions, defuses the controversies and lessens the pain for his players.
A computer can predict for you how often Player X will get a hit against a certain left-handed pitcher with two runners on base. But it can't tell you how the same player will perform after reading for three days what a stiff he is and should be traded.
How do you put a value on that? I don't know. But there is great value in it, especially in a market like New York.
Torre has his quirks. Unless it is pouring rain, his pre-game meeting with the media is held in the dugout. Be it roasting hot or cold enough to chatter your teeth, Torre does his media duties from the dugout.
A few minutes into the interview, as if on cue, one of the clubhouse attendants brings him a cup of green tea. If it's a warm day, it's iced tea.
The session is an egalitarian affair. No matter who you are, you're allowed to worm your way through the crowd and ask a question. From Mike Lupica to stargazing fan-boys from weekly papers, Torre takes on all comers.
But Torre has no time for ESPN. He believes they hammered too much on Roger Clemens for throwing the piece of bat at Mike Piazza during the 2000 World Series. So he doesn't yuck it up with Chris Berman or pop up on SportsCenter. He growls a few words when one of their reporters asks a question, then invariably makes some kind of remark when they walk away.
He also doesn't much like questions about how he uses his bullpen, unless it's from a beat writer. One of the backup writers from the New York Times questioned his use of Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning of a tied game a few weeks ago and Torre's response was "You been around much?"
Torre glared at the guy as he answered and kept glaring through the next question, which was asked by somebody else about another subject.
Dom Amore of the Hartford Courant has been around Torre a while and warned me in spring training about not acting too familiar with him. Torre likes writers, like players, to pay their dues. Show up and act like you know the deal and he'll freeze you out.
You won't get called by your first name for four or five seasons. He's not going to pretend he knows you until he actually does. There's no phony sentiment, which some managers try. It invariably fails. Reporters are trained to sniff out phonies.
Torre, in many ways, is a 1950s man transported to modern times. He likes the horses, Frank Sinatra, a good cigar and a nice drink with a big dinner. You'll find the Daily Racing Form open on his desk before you will Baseball America.
For a man who has his assistant answer his e-mail because he's not much for computers, Torre understands the media machine better than any consultant you can find. He knows the value of admitting to bad news and moving on, making it a one-day story instead of three or four.
The attraction of the Yankees is their popularity. Denying that would be foolish, so embrace it. Invite everybody to the dugout to ask his or her questions and control the story instead of letting it control you.
Even if two wise guys decide to see what you have to say about snakes.
Peter Abraham covers the Yankees for The Journal News of White Plains, N.Y. He has been with the paper since 1999. Before that, he covered another memorable coach, Jim Calhoun at the University of Connecticut.