Managing in LA a delight for Torre
Gone is the stress of skipper's final years in New York
CHICAGO -- This is not about redemption, revenge or any kind of continuing conflict. This is about a baseball man still doing what he should be doing -- in this case, managing -- and finding both enjoyment and success.
It's Joe Torre, managing the Los Angeles Dodgers and making a very nice job of it. The Dodgers under Torre won a division title last season, and encored with a sweep of the Chicago Cubs in a Division Series. Now the Dodgers have baseball's best record through the first two months of the 2009 season.
All signs are pointing upward for this operation, a blend of superb young talent and veteran stability. And for Torre, this is a long way from his final season in New York, where a long and immensely successful run with the Yankees ended in acrimony.
Sitting in the Wrigley Field visitors' dugout on Saturday, an ideal spring day on the shores of Lake Michigan, Torre was a man fully in his element.
"It's fun," the manager said. "That was the curiosity I had when I left New York. I was wondering if the managing had just gotten to the point where the stress was outweighing the enjoyment.
"The Dodgers were the first reason I decided to come here, because of what I knew about them growing up in Brooklyn and playing against them, managing against them. And another big part was the fact that I was curious if this managing stuff could still be fun or if I was too old for it. And it's been fun.
"I'm enjoying it. Not to say that I'm thinking about doing this for another 10 years, no. I have a family, too. Another part of the decision was my wife assuring me that my daughter -- at the time she was 11 years old -- would adjust. I didn't think she was telling me the truth for a while, but she's doing all right out there. The big part is the family. We're enjoying California."
The way the Torre era in New York ended did not place the Yankees' organization in a particularly flattering light. Torre had managed the Bombers to four World Series championships. In all 12 of Torre's seasons there, the Yankees had reached the postseason. It was a remarkable record by any measurement, and if there weren't enough World Series championships in the mix to suit the Yankees' loftiest aspirations, Torre was one man whose patience and empathy and inherent dignity could make managing in the Yankee pressure cooker workable.
At the end, the Yankees' one-year contract offer to Torre represented to him only 12 more months of incessant public speculation about his job status. It was an offer he could justifiably refuse.
"I was talking to my wife a couple of contracts ago, coming to the end of a contract in New York, and we were talking about going somewhere else, and I was saying, 'I really don't care about starting over again,'" Torre said.
"Then it was sort of, you knew you couldn't stay there any longer, so you had the choice of retiring or starting over again. I decided to try it, and I'm glad that I did."
That was a struggle with the Yankees' hierarchy, but when Torre considers his former players and his former coaches who are still with the Yankees, his response he says is: "I have to pull for them."
How could he not pull, for instance, for his successor, Joe Girardi, a man who both played and coached for him? There is still a core of players who were there for the duration with Torre, and the connection remains strong. This is not simply a matter of looking at the Yankees box score on a daily basis.
"I look at it and I care about the people," Torre says. "And when you're in California, you get to the ballpark, you turn on the game. It's four o'clock out there, it's 7 o'clock somewhere where they're playing. I see a lot of their games."
Other than that, and one successful literary venture describing his tenure with the Yankees, that page has been turned. Torre did bring two coaches with him from New York -- Don Mattingly and Larry Bowa. Torre lavishes praise on his entire coaching staff and he is not blowing smoke. A large part of his success has consisted of surrounding himself with an extremely able staff and allowing his coaches to do some actual coaching.
The other quality that has been a constant for Torre is his ability to empathize with players. He is 68 years old now, but with his ability to relate to his players, his age is merely a number, not a barrier. He came to this job the only way he knew how, without conceit.
"I try, I try," Torre says. "I try to get in their skin. Whether you like things that they do, or don't like things that they do, you understand why they do them. Or what stirs it up. For the most part I've been lucky to be able to relate to them. And the fact is, I've lived a number of different lives myself and I think that sort of helps me.
"The fact that I was part of the success in New York didn't buy me anything, other than maybe they'll listen to you, they're curious about what you say. I never felt that I was entitled to anything."
There are going to be days in baseball that are neither memorable nor enjoyable. Saturday turned out to be one of those days for the Dodgers, a 7-0 loss to the Cubs, no offense in sight against Ryan Dempster. But with the Dodgers at 34-17, this sort of day is in a distinct minority.
"I'm enjoying it and I have another year [under contract] after this, but there are still some days you don't want to pack and go on a road trip," Torre says. "I mean, the ballpark is the best part of it for me. I still enjoy the baseball aspect of it. The energy is terrific for me. I feel good about it.
"It's all about the players and how they respond to you. The players here have been great. With this group of guys, it's really been good."
To the surprise of no one who had been paying attention the previous 13 seasons, the manager has been really good, too. With the Dodgers, enjoyment in managing has taken over from the stress of managing for Torre. He has started over, but he is once again doing what he should be doing and doing it extraordinarily well.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.