Wednesday, October 17, 2001
In praise of Joe Torre
By Bill Simmons Page 2 columnist
Every season I watch Joe Torre manage the Yankees and fight off those envious, "Why can't we get guys like that?" feelings. For as long as I can remember, my beloved Red Sox have been managed by a harrowing collection of boozers, incompetents, senior citizens and idiot savants. When Boston management finally brought in a manager this year who seemed relatively intelligent -- Joe Kerrigan -- the team immediately free-fell into one of the most dreadful slumps in franchise history. Go figure.
Joe Torre just wins, baby.
On the heels of Jimy Williams' inexplicably successful "Rain Man" routine, Kerrigan's collossal failure was one of my most dumbfounding experiences as a sports fan. For most of the summer, I had no explanation for what was happening. None. As the time passed and the losses mounted, I began to wonder if managing a baseball team was even all that difficult.
For instance, in football, we know that head coaches matter. We know this. Teams assume the personality of their coaches, for better and worse; as casual observers, we can always determine which teams seem prepared, which teams play the hardest and which teams consistently seem to have three or four wrinkles per game up their sleeves. Between those brutal workdays, dozens of important decisions per game, 53 players to select and manage, suffocating media pressure and a staggering amount of plays and formations to remember, you could almost argue that coaching an NFL team is like racing an automobile -- hands on, all the time, life or death.
Managing a baseball team? That's like serving as the captain of a luxury yacht. You rely on your equipment, manage your crew, defer to their abilities, stroke egos and search for icebergs. That's it. That's your job. Basically, you're Captain Stubing. As long as Doc takes care of the sick passengers, Julie handles the social events, Isaac mixes martinis, Gopher stays out of trouble and the "Love Boat" isn't ramming into anything, you're golden.
So what makes Joe Torre so special? What makes him stand out? From what I can gather, five reasons explain his good fortune:
1. He's a good guy.
2. He knows how to handle the media.
3. He has the requisite "attention to detail" skills.
4. He doesn't get in the way.
5. He plays hunches consistently well.
None of those seem like overwhelmingly special qualities. And yet managers continue to fail, one after the other. Sift through the majors right now and only a handful of managers command sweeping, "If this guy ever leaves Team X, he'll be out of a job for about 30 seconds," respect from people in and around the game: Torre, Bruce Bochy, Dusty Baker, Bobby Valentine, Tony La Russa, Lou Piniella and Jim Leyland (who isn't even managing). That's it. That's the list.
I ask you again ... why does Torre succeed where so many others have failed?
Let's examine those five "reasons" in detail:
1. He's a good guy
Good guy Torre kisses Jose Vizcaino after Game 1 of the 2000 World Series.
Torre's players adore him because he sticks up for them, he believes in
them, he never embarrasses them, he protects them, he always offers them
explanations (if they get bumped from a start, if they get benched and so
on) and he probably squashes a variety of personality crises behind the
scenes that never see the light of day. There's something fatherly about
him; he's like a giant teddy bear. When he gets choked up after a pivotal
Yankees victory, he seems genuine, and that's a rarity in sports today.
Of course -- and this is crucial -- the "Good Guy" routine only thrives on a
team loaded with Good Guys, as well as three to four players who lead by example and
keep potentially disruptive teammates in line. Would Torre have captured
four titles in five years without veteran leadership from his unique group
of "throwback" players? Of course not.
Torre succeeded with the Yankees because of six words: right man, right
place, right time. Stick him with the Melrose Place Red Sox this season, and
he would have bombed almost as spectacularly as Kerrigan did; without any
strong leaders in the clubhouse, Torre would have been overwhelmed like
Michelle Pfeiffer during the first 20 minutes of "Dangerous Minds."
And if you don't believe me, remember this: Joe Torre has been fired as a
major-league manager three different times. Count 'em... three.
2. He knows how to handle the media
They call them "managers" for a reason: The word describes someone who
manages a group of people over an extended period of time. And except for --
possibly even including -- dealing with players, dealing with the media is
the toughest part of the job, by all accounts. Nobody can sidetrack a season
more quickly than pesky reporters, sarcastic print columnists and cranky
talk radio hosts. You need to be able to play the game and avoid every
possible land mine. Easier said than done.
Just remember, once the fans lose faith in you, that seeps into the
clubhouse -- especially when those pesky reporters start throwing gasoline
on the fire -- and then it's only a matter of time. To Torre's credit, he
manipulated the New York media beautifully over the past six seasons, maybe
his most remarkable skill. In a town where everybody rips everybody, Torre
has somehow remained beyond reproach.
(Note: Some managers last longer than they should because of their ability
to endear themselves to the media and their players. We saw it happen here
in Boston with a man named Joe Morgan, who parlayed a quirky sense of humor
and an interim manager's tag into an astounding four-year run, including a
301-262 record and two division titles ... and yet Morgan made so many
inexplicable in-game decisions over that span that he never worked in the
majors again after getting fired in 1992. A little love and a few jokes can
travel a long way in this business.)
3. He has the requisite "attention to detail" skills
Torre has the unbeatable combination of being lucky and good.
Baseball managers make a staggering amount of decisions during the average
game, but 95 percent of them are no-brainers: Don't start your catcher in
both ends of a doubleheader, don't warm up your relievers in every game (but
warm them up at the right times), play the lefty-righty matchups to your
advantage, rest your everyday stars every so often, use everyone on your
bench as much as possible to keep them fresh, monitor the pitch counts of
your starters, and so on. Could the Average Joe make those decisions? Absolutely.
With that said, specific circumstances require at least a modicum of savvy,
which seems to be largely predicated on the manager not falling asleep at
the wheel. And that's where Torre really excels -- his team always have a
chance to win close games because he consistently puts them in a position to
win close games. For instance, he possesses an uncanny knack for the
A. Pulling a starter at the right time
Monday's game was a perfect example -- Clemens was fading and Torre pulled
the trigger right before the wheels came off. Easier said than done. He's a
master at this.
B. Managing his bullpen
This seems to be a place in which managers can stumble, but it's much easier
than you would think... even if some managers don't make it seem that way.
But Torre definitely has a knack for moving relievers in and out, keeping
everyone fresh and instinctively knowing when he can rely on Mariano Rivera
for more than one inning.
(Of course, it helps to have Rivera on your team in the first place, but the
fact remains that Torre has cajoled six straight healthy seasons from Rivera
without a serious injury. Warrants mentioning.)
C. Playing the odds (the lefty/righty thing)
Again, it's not impossible to figure out, but you still need to remember 100
different trivial stats -- who hits well against lefties, who can't hit a
certain pitcher, who hits better from the right side, etc. -- and
incorporate them into your decision-making process during the game. We could
pull this off from the sofa, but what if we were sitting in the dugout with
230 other things going on at the same time? Probably not.
D. Avoiding bonehead moves
Maybe Torre's most underrated trait. For instance, during Kerrigan's second
week on the job, the Sox went into extra innings in Texas, all the way to
the 18th, and Derek B. Lowe loaded the bases with one out and (the
lead-footed) Bill Haselman at the plate. With Texas only needing one run to
win the game, Kerrigan kept the infield back; even as it was happening, Sox
announcer Jerry Remy was deeming it a mistake and pointing out the
possibility of a slow roller (because Lowe was a ground ball pitcher).
Sure enough, Haselman dribbled a grounder to short for a game-winning
force-out. Had Boston's infield played in, the Sox could have thrown out the
lead runner at home -- just a brutal turn of events that inadvertently
jump-started a 6-23 stretch over the next month, knocked the Sox out of the
playoff race and caused me to walk to my local convenience store at 2:45 in
the morning to buy some Sour Patch Kids and bitch about the game to Joe the
Alcoholic Counter Guy (he was the only person I knew who was up at the time).
Here's my point: those kinds of things never seem to happen to Torre's
teams. After awhile, you stop calling it a "coincidence."
4. He doesn't get in the way
As Joe Theismann once said, "Great players make great plays." And great
managers, for the most part, stay the hell out of the way. Remember when
Arizona's Bob Brenly ordered a suicide squeeze during Game 5 of the
Diamondbacks-Cardinals series? Ninth inning, tie game, guy on third base, one out,
Tony Womack at the plate... and Brenly thought to himself, "Hey, I can be
the hero!" And he almost killed his team.
For some reason, some baseball managers mistakenly believe that they're
playing chess, when they're really playing checkers most of the time. That's
the Tony La Russa Syndrome, when a manager tries too many things in an
effort to remind everyone that, "Hey, I'm a very important man performing a
very important job here!" Will you ever forget La Russa agonizing in the
dugout during last year's playoffs, wondering when he should finally grace
us with this "Now pinch-hitting, Mark McGwire" decision every game? You
would have thought he was JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The ongoing
saga distracted the Cards and helped squash their season.
(Note: I always believed that the "you have to think four moves ahead"
routine was overrated -- like when a lefty and a righty are warming up in the
bullpen and you have to decide, "If I bring in Pinch-Hitter A, then Pitcher
B comes in, but Pinch-Hitter B would cause Pitcher A to come in, so that
would mean Scenario C over Scenario D" and so on. Just carry a notepad,
write out all the possible matchups and sub-scenarios and act accordingly.
It's like the easiest calculus test of all-time. I will not argue
Torre would rather play checkers than chess. He rarely strays from a
set-in-stone, 1-through-9 lineup, avoids dramatic personnel moves and shies
away from the La Russa Syndrome whenever possible, cultivating a "Here's my
best, see if you can top this" mentality, an unwavering confidence that
seems to invigorate his players. For instance, during Game 5 of the Oakland
series, Ramiro Mendoza could have started the eighth, followed by Andy
Pettitte coming in for a lefty/lefty matchup ... and then Torre could have
deferred to Mariano Rivera for three to four outs. Nope. Rivera started the eighth. If
the Yankee dynasty was getting toppled, Torre believed, it would have to
happen with his best pitcher on the mound.
With that said, a good manager shouldn't be afraid to jump-start his team
when they absolutely, positively need it -- it's like Judge Smails
pulling out the old Billy Baroo for a crucial putt. Torre pulled a number of
those moves in Game 5: benching Paul O'Neill for Randy Velarde, moving
Velarde into the No. 2 spot, pulling Roger Clemens in the fifth and
pinch-hitting Dave Justice in the sixth inning. Every one of the moves
worked. Velarde's insertion moved Alfonso Soriano down to the No. 9 spot,
where he delivered a clutch two-run single. Mike Stanton and Mendoza kept
the Yankees alive in the middle innings. And Justice delivered a pivotal
And sure, Soriano could have gone 0-for-4, and Stanton could have
self-destructed, and Justice could have struck out. Sometimes, you need a
little luck, too.
Which reminds me...
5. He plays hunches consistently well
And that's just about everything here. Managing a baseball team almost seems
like playing blackjack. Most times you know when to double down, or when to
stay on "16," or when to take another hit and everything else... but then
you have those "Gray Area" hands, like when you have a "12" and the dealer
has a "2" showing. Should you take a hit? It's impossible to say. With a
"12," you have about a 50 percent chance of staying alive in the hand with your
next card and a "20 percent chance of pulling a card that might actually help you.
But the odds are less than 50 percent that the dealer will bust with a "2" showing.
It's a judgment call ... and it's enough to drive you insane.
That's what happens in baseball. You have to pay attention constantly, stick
to your guns and follow the book 95 percent of the time... except for those
occasional moments when you're sitting on "12" and the other team has a "2"
showing. And sometimes this happens with a big wager sitting on the table,
which is when things get really interesting. There are no "right moves" and
no "wrong moves"; you just have to hope you're lucky more times than you're
unlucky. It's that simple.
Quick example: During Game 5 of the Indians-Mariners series, Charlie Manuel
left righty ace Bartolo Colon on the mound during a 2-1 game, in the seventh
inning, with Colon hovering around the 90-pitch mark and lefty Ichiro Suzuki
(batting roughly .960 lifetime against Colon) and switchhitter Mark McLemore
(like Elton John, much more effective from the left side) on deck. Suzuki
singled. So did McLemore. And Cleveland's season was finished within 45
Two potential explanations for Colon remaining in the game: A) Charlie had
fallen asleep and didn't wake up in time, and B) Charlie was playing a
hunch. What's the answer? Frankly, it's impossible to say. But if Charlie
had woken up in time to bring in Ricardo Rincon, and Rincon had promptly
yielded singles to Suzuki and McLemore, everyone in Cleveland would have
been saying, "How could you yank your ace after 90 pitches?" on Tuesday,
instead of what they were actually saying ("How could you not bring in a
So what would Torre have done? I'm guessing he would have chosen Option B
(bringing in Rincon).
Because Option A (keeping in Colon) didn't work, and Torre has a proven
knack for making correct decisions at the most crucial times. Intentional or
unintentional, intuitive or fortunate... that's just the way it's been and
it continues to be. Joe Torre has the Midas Touch. If baseball were
blackjack, Torre would be sitting in the third base seat with a stack of
chips in front of him, a smile on his face and the pit boss staring a hole
through his forehead.
Sure, you could argue that Torre knows his team that well, or that he
surrounds himself with coaches who provide him with sage advice (like the
ageless Don Zimmer, the real-life Yoda), or even that he's somewhat
clairvoyant (you never know). You could argue that he's a good man who led a
good life and just happens to have good karma because of it. You could even
argue that it's all of the above.
But some people are just lucky. Whether it's blackjack, craps, lottery
tickets, Monopoly, love, money, you name it... there comes a point when the
"sheer coincidences" just start adding up. I think that can happen with
baseball managers, and I definitely think that's what has happened here with
Joe Torre over the last few years. And maybe that doesn't account for
everything, but it certainly explains at least some of his success. He's
lucky and he's good. Quite a combination.
When you add everything up, managing a baseball team isn't all that
difficult, but managing a baseball team successfully.... well, that's
another story. Even if baseball managers resemble yacht captains most of the
time, those proverbial icebergs can still sink their ships. And even if
managing during games seems like a much more exciting version of blackjack,
and there's more luck than skill for much of the time, certain people still
have a knack for walking away from the table with rows of chips. You need to
know your place, you need to be smooth, you need to pay attention to detail,
and most of all, you need to be lucky.
Lucky and good.
Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.