Torre returns to LA with memories new and old
Fondly recalls Kemp, Kershaw ... but facing Koufax, Drysdale?
LOS ANGELES -- Joe Torre returned on a bright Tuesday afternoon to Dodger Stadium, where he spent the final three seasons of his illustrious managerial career, to join in the 50-year celebration of the ballpark's opening in 1962.
Torre, who appeared in the second series played in the ballpark as a 21-year-old catcher for the Milwaukee Braves, is Major League Baseball's executive vice president of baseball operations.
He touched on a wide range of subjects, from his unsuccessful effort as part of an ownership group to buy the club, to emerging superstars Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw, to those early days in his career facing the great Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.
Torre expressed gratification that Kemp is fulfilling his immense promise under his managerial successor, Don Mattingly, after enduring some difficult times in the 2010 season preceding his breakout performance last year.
"I'm very happy for him and happy for Donnie as his manager," Torre said. "The start he's gotten off to, building off last year ... considering his age and everything else, he might be the best player in the game. I'd put him in that category. It's tough to say one guy."
Kemp recommitted himself following his disappointing 2010 season to become the dominant performer his five tools always have held for him.
"Matty is so talented and he cared so much," Torre said. "I think he felt, as far as application, that his ability would carry him through. He had a good year in '09 and came on in '10 and did not make allowances for the adjustments teams made against him.
"He got over that in a hurry. He was always a kid that wanted to play every day, and that shows you something. I'm very proud, and [I] told him that. I was hoping it would happen, because he was a good kid.
"Like any manager, there are things we didn't agree on. He was challenging. At the time, I didn't like what was happening. He is so talented. He just felt his ability would speak for itself. My first year, he was a bad baserunner. With Davey Lopes here, he's become a good baserunner. One of the last things I said is that you're going to love being with Donnie."
Kemp and Mattingly -- Torre's hitting coach during his three years at the helm -- have formed a mutually respectful and profitable relationship.
As for Kershaw -- the National League's 2011 Cy Young Award winner making his second start of the young season on Tuesday against the Pirates -- Torre expressed regret in comparing the gifted young lefty early on to the incomparable Koufax.
"They will be sneaky good," Torre said of these 2012 Dodgers, who took three of four games in San Diego to open the season. "They have a lot of young pitchers people don't really know about. Kershaw is another year older, and he's certainly not satisfied with last year. He's special.
"I'm sorry I did what I did. But Sandy was a dominant left-hander and Kershaw is a dominant left-hander."
Torre, saying he didn't miss managing, applauded the work of Mattingly, who absorbed many of Torre's philosophies and attitudes.
"I give Donnie a great deal of credit," Torre said. "The first half last year was not good, but he kept them focused. That's a feather in his camp."
The Dodgers are awaiting formal approval of the $2.15 billion sale to Guggenheim Baseball Management, a group headlined by Mark Walter, Magic Johnson and Stan Kasten.
"It was an exciting prospect," Torre said when asked about his group's bid. "No, I don't believe we were shortchanged. We had good intentions, but it didn't pan out. I thought it was a long shot to begin with, because there were so many interested. More than that, I can't say, because I signed a confidentiality agreement."
Torre acknowledged Dodger Stadium was not his favorite place to visit as a player. In that April series in '62, he was 1-for-4 against Drysdale and 2-for-3 with two RBIs against Koufax.
"The worst thing about coming in here was knowing you had to face Koufax and Drysdale," Torre said. "With a four-man rotation, you never missed those guys. I remember being in the visitors' dugout and looking at those palm trees and thinking, 'There's no place like it in baseball.'
"It was a pitcher's park, and they had pitching. Maury would get a hit, steal second, take third on a grounder and score on a sacrifice fly. Quite a difference from the Brooklyn days, where they would swamp over everybody, to this park with pitching and defense and a certain elegance."
Those Dodgers had a magical leadoff man named Maury Wills, who on Tuesday led a collection of players from the formidable '62 team in pregame ceremonies. Wills won the NL Most Valuable Player Award that season, breaking the single-season stolen-base record with 104. Tommy Davis led the league in batting (.346), hits (230) and RBIs (153).
Koufax was perfection, while Drysdale, with his side-winding delivery and fiercely competitive nature, was especially troubling to a right-handed hitter such as Torre.
"Drysdale was scary," Tore said. "At least Sandy threw from the other side. Koufax never hit me. I never hit a home run against him, but I did against Drysdale. He hung a changeup right after he knocked me down. True story."
Growing up in Brooklyn, Torre was not a fan of the Boys of Summer. On the contrary, his team played north of the borough, in the Polo Grounds.
"I grew up in Brooklyn and hated them," Torre said. "I was a Giant fan."