Los Angeles is going to like Joe Torre — he’s hard not to like. And if the Dodgers give him the best pitching staff and mightiest lineup in the National League, he’ll take them to World Series. If they don’t, he’ll do about the same as Grady Little.
The message here, L.A., is: don’t get your hopes up too high. Torre has a lot of admirable qualities. He’s beloved with few exceptions by his players and respected by everyone in baseball. He’ll get along with the media better than they get along with their families, and he’ll do a lot of work for charity. He’ll never dishonor the franchise with his words or his actions.
But he’s not a miracle-worker, and he’s not a savior. He’ll give back on the field whatever the front office provides in the clubhouse. His calm leadership and total unfamiliarity with panic will help a great team live up to its potential, but it won’t elevate a mediocre team above its level.
He’s not known as a strategic genius, either. Despite playing his career in the National League as a catcher, third baseman and first baseman, he’s never been noted for his ability to manufacture runs. If he ever called a squeeze — suicide or safety — during his 12 years with the Yankees, I don’t remember it.
He tends to rely on veterans, sometimes to a fault. And he has no patience with relief pitchers who fall into slumps. The result is that he’ll ride two or three hot relievers until their arms wear out.
So if you think Torre will steal an extra four or five games a year, making the difference between missing the playoffs and winning the division, with his brilliant in-game calls, forget it. That’s not the source of his success.
And if you want to believe differently, ask the Braves, Cardinals and Mets about the miracles he worked when he was building a losing managerial record with those teams. He went into the season with mediocre teams, and that’s how he came out.
“Clueless Joe” was the reputation he built back then, which was the headline that greeted him in one New York tabloid when he was the shock choice to replace Buck Showalter at the helm of the Yankees in 1996.
That headline was cruel but not a stretch. Most of that was his fault.
Unlike such managers as Tony LaRussa and Bobby Valentine, he never felt the need to tell everyone how brilliant he is. The child of an abusive father, he grew up holding his emotions tight to his chest and making his way through the potentially explosive situations that are part of managing the Yankees through negotiation and conciliation. Confrontation has never been his style.
In that, he’s the total opposite of Tommy Lasorda, the last manager of the Dodgers who fit the description “larger-than-life” — literally as well as figuratively. Lasorda is the last man to manage a Dodger team to win a ring, the 1988 crew best remembered for Orel Hershiser’s brilliant pitching and Kirk Gibson’s gimpy and fist-pumping heroics.
Lasorda collected celebrity pals, his office walls paved with autographed photos of the manager standing with the glitterati of the day. A generously proportioned pastafarian, Lasorda was more extroverted than an Irish setter, ending every victory by dashing onto the field and hugging anything that moved. In those days, the line about the Dodgers was, “It’s not over ’til the fat man clings.”
Don’t expect that out of Torre, who does rah-rah as well as Britney Spears does sobriety. He’s stoic in defeat and misty-eyed after big victories, but has to be pried out of the dugout and practically dragged onto the field to join a World Series-winning celebration.
There’s a lot to admire about that. His strength is his belief in his players as athletes and as people. He tells his players he’ll do anything he can to help them, on or off the field, and he means it. He doesn’t demand that they do things their incapable of doing, nor does he call a player out in public or in front of his teammates.
All of that matters. Players perform better for leaders they like. They relax when their manager is relaxed. They believe in themselves when a figure like Torre says he believes in them.
If there’s a secret to his success and stature with the Yankees, that’s it — his presence and not his strategy.
So give him a great team, and he’ll give you great results. But give him a second-place team, and that’s what he’ll give you.
He’s a good guy; not a savior.