Tales of Torre Tales
By Peter Abraham
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.
Great article! Torre seems perfect for handling the New York media machine. Could he make better tactical decisions? Surely. But tactics are only part of managing, and Torre seems to do everything else well.
Posted by: Trev at July 26, 2006 11:09 PM
Most of Torre's critics, of which I am one, have always acknowledged that he is good at handling the clubhouse and dealing with the atmospherics that come with managing in NYC, but I think it's possible for a manager to possess those qualities, in additon to being a skilled tactician who uses every available tool at his disposal, including statistical analysis.
Consequently, to dismiss those who prefer a manager who is able to multi-task by saying that they "just don't get it" is to overlook what should be approximately 50% of the essential qualities that any manager in the modern era should have.
It's irrefutable that the payroll and the talent have been critical to Torre's success, otherwise he would not have had a sub .500 managerial record before he was hired by the Yankees.
Peter's post, however, does an excellent job of humanizing Torre, and it has definitely raised my esteem for him as human being, if not as a manager.
Posted by: Rich at July 27, 2006 12:58 AM
I "agree" with Rich's first paragraph, just as it is possible that at any point througout the day the laws of physics can be reversed and what goes up doesn't come back down but keeps going up.
Yes, it is possible that a manager can have all those attributes and be a great tactician, but tell me how many of those "perfect" men exist. Throughout baseball history, few, if any, have existed. Torre, like any human being, has his flaws but his flaws are overshadowed greatly by all the things he does well. I am a huge Torre supporter because I think so much more goes into managing a baseball team than simply looking at SABR numbers and managing stricly on that information. Torre has a great ability to lead and he has lost some great battles, but in the years his teams aren't the last one's standing then he has still finished as one of the top teams in the majors. This type of consistency cannot be broken down simply by payroll.
You can go back and look at usatoday's salary database and you can see a slew of teams that have been in the top 5, as far as total salary is concerned, and they haven't shown the consistency or success rate that Torre's squads have shown.
People can diminish Torre's success all they want, but I won't ever do that. Teams usually take on the attitude of their manager/coach. Torre is like a silent assain, only vocal when he needs to be but good natured and respectful to everyone most of the time. His players know where they stand with him, and he always tries to do the right thing. I don't know about anyone else, but there is not a better set of rules to operate under. Is Torre perfect? No. Is Torrre's bullpen usage perfect? Oh hell no. But you look around any blogs on the net and you'll see that mostly no one is happy with their manager either and their bullpen usage. Is Torre the right man for the job? Unequivocally YES!
Peter, great, great job.....you have put yourself in great company in the Yankee blog world. Thanks for your great work and honest and objective writing. Don't ever let ESPN ruin you by working for them - except if they offer you ARod money.
Posted by: JGarcia at July 27, 2006 4:35 AM
I think the main reason, if there is one, that you won't find too many managers that are pretty good at every aspect of management is because those people go into other fields which make better use of those skills. Considering that baseball has a limited pool of candidates for managing and the game probably has a tendency to preselect for certain attributes further narrowing the pool of available personalities.
Posted by: The Dude at July 27, 2006 5:50 AM
Just picked up this piece off of the Baseball Think Factory website, and I have to say: Peter, you get it. I've been following baseball since 1952, and I can't think of another manager who for eleven years could have handled Steinbrenner, the New York media, and his clubhouse with the degree of skill that Torre has.
I do wish that Torre could determine whether a player knows HOW to bunt before he tells him to bunt, though---lucky for us all that Melky's a good two strike hitter!
Posted by: Andy at July 27, 2006 6:01 AM
Now wait a minute. Willie Randolph is "inexplicably angry", but Joe Torre is a great guy, and consequently a great manager, even though a writer doing his job gets glared at "...as he answered and kept glaring through the next question..."? And he holds a grudge against ESPN for 6+ years when they properly criticized Clemens?
Abraham says that sportswriters are trained to spot phonies. My guess is he hasn't been trained very well. He says that Torre, "...growls a few words when one of ESPN's reporters asks a question, then invariably makes some kind of remark when they walk away". That's not a phony?
Hey Abraham, I wonder what Torre says about you behind your back?
Posted by: Kevin Mc at July 27, 2006 9:22 AM
A well written article, and of course Torre is one of the few people who can thrive in New York in this situation.
But none of Torre's mastery of the media can possibly ameliorate Miguel Cairo hitting second with an OBP 50 bps below league average.
Posted by: Jason O'Connell at July 27, 2006 10:38 AM
Just a few comments:
I should have mentioned that Torre gets a huge three-ring binder of stats and matchups before every series. I do not want to give the impression that Torre does not pay attention to the data because that is not whatsoever.
Kevin Mc: I didn't say Willie Randolph was a bad guy. I fact I have written quite the opposite. He is just weirdly angry, which is strange because the NYC papers supported his candidacy and have written nothing but good things since. Yet he treats the writers like the enemy.
Torre treats us as people.
And Torre is not phony with how he treats ESPN. They know full well what he thinks. He says it in front of them, too.
Just wanted to clear that up.
Posted by: Peter Abraham at July 27, 2006 1:16 PM
A lot is made of Torre's "sub-.500" managerial record before joining New York. I'll make you a deal:
You get Doug Flynn and Claudell Washington. And I'll throw in Lee Mazzilli. The catch is that Lee is your best player. He'll be your leading HR hitter (is sixteen good enough for you)? Two of your starters won't manage a 600 OPS, and two won't homer?
How about you come to Atlanta and manage a team with a regular with a .225 SLG to the NL West crown. Oh, yeah, Neikro will be your stud pitcher.
Posted by: shag at July 27, 2006 1:18 PM
That's the point. Talent wins in baseball, not managers.
Posted by: Rich at July 27, 2006 2:12 PM
My man Torre sure looked like a genius bringing me into a tight game last night. The guy sure knows how to handle a bullpen.
Posted by: TJ at July 27, 2006 6:39 PM