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Wednesday, December 5, 2001
Torre makes a good Boss

By David Halberstam
Page 2 columnist

This is in praise of Joe Torre. What a pleasure it has been to watch the Yankees during the years he has managed in New York. May I also suggest that this year he had what was probably his best of year of managing, this being a Yankee team that was aging and somewhat vulnerable, and seemed, especially in the beginning of the season, better on paper than it was on the field.

Joe Torre
Joe Torre and his staff have changed the atmosphere in the Yankees clubhouse.
It is in praise of him not merely as a baseball man, but in the more complete sense as a man, for the two are not always the same. To understand the difference, all you have to do is think back to the appalling turmoil that surrounded the cartoon-like Billy Martin era in the Bronx years before Torre arrived.

Torre is as complete a person as high-level professional sports can produce, especially in this hyped-up era with its higher visibility, where the rewards are greater than ever, and where therefore the shelf life of a coach or manager tends to be briefer -- you go up higher and faster than in the past, and you can descend even more quickly. The role of the media, after all, is greater than ever, which imposes an immense temptation to take care of yourself at the expense of your players, to indulge in me-first leadership.

Torre has been successful in New York for any number of reasons: He has had very good players, by dint of George Steinbrenner's passion to win, and his players are by and large, mature, unusually self-reliant men (especially when calibrated on the Richter Scale of contemporary athletic maturity, where sheer ability and the willingness to accept responsibility for your actions are not necessarily on the same team).

But I think it is important not to underestimate how well Torre's own exceptional human qualities have served him, his honesty and sense of humor, and his instinct, despite all the media pressures on him, to be exceptionally straight in his dealings. This has helped shape the clubhouse and made these Yankees a team that sportswriters coming from venues that are nominally violently anti-Yankee have come to respect, if not actually like.

Joe Torre
Torre is the type of manager that most major-league players want to play for.
So, in one of the three or four most heavily scrutinized institutions in the country (perhaps less scrutinized than the Pentagon, but more scrutinized than the Department of the Interior) and with an exceptionally demanding and highly volatile owner, he has managed to be true to himself, and his players know it. If they are straight with him, he will play it straight and protect them -- if need be, even from the owner.

Somehow, when I think of Torre, I conjure up the opposite vision of Steve Spurrier, the immensely successful coach of Florida who (a) always seems to be running up the score, but more importantly (b) seems to give out the impression by body language and facial expression that when things go wrong, it is not that he coached poorly, but because his players did not execute his game plan as well as they should.

I do not know Torre very well personally, but even my limited dealings with him gave me added respect for him. We met about eight years ago, when I was working on a book about the 1964 World Series between the Yankees and Cardinals. Torre had not played in that Series -- he joined the Cardinals a few years later -- but he was a great friend and admirer of Bob Gibson, who was the star of the Series and a central figure in my book. He was obviously intrigued that someone who is not nominally a sportswriter was going to write about one of the great athletes and fiercest competitors he knew.

Therefore, he went out of his way to be helpful. There was nothing in it for him, which for most readers probably does not mean much. But for anyone writing about sports it means a great deal -- by and large, when you deal with an athlete or an ex-athlete, one of the things that which hangs quite heavily in the air is one of the oldest questions of all-time -- what's in it for me?

It struck me that Torre went out of his way to be generous, not because he cared that much who I was, or wanted to ingratiate himself with me, for there was no way I could help his career or get him back into baseball at that time, but because he thought I was serious, and -- most of all -- because he loved Bob Gibson and he wanted to be sure I got him right. Torre's generosity was about something very old-fashioned, loyalty to a magnificent teammate, years after they had played their last game together.

I remember leaving the interview that day, impressed not merely by the wonderful quality of Torre's stories about Gibson, but about the nature of the man I had just finished interviewing. He had an old-fashioned sense of honor and loyalty to a teammate. It told me a good deal about two men, Gibson, the man who inspired that loyalty, and Torre, the man who, in such an egocentric line of work, still possessed it.

I was impressed at the time, and had made it a point in the years after to pay attention to Torre, and he has not disappointed me. He always seems to be in character, very much the man I dealt with then, albeit in ever-more explosive and pressurized circumstances.

I am always a little wary of journalistic psychological assumptions, but I have come to believe that Torre behaves this way because it is who he is, and the way he was raised, his home, his religion, the nurturing of an admired older brother, and that he was taught to deal with people in a certain way, the way he would like to be treated by them. He seems to be a man secure in his knowledge of who he is, and secure in his faith. Equally important, though he would obviously prefer to win rather than to lose, how he behaves as a man and how he sees himself is not based on his career winning percentage.

It is a rare quality these days, and it extends far beyond sports. My wife, who is not a devoted baseball fan, has watched him over the years, in all kinds of difficult situations, especially in this year when the Yankees made their great postseason run, with the shadow of the New York tragedy hanging over them, and she was stunned by Torre's constant grace under pressure, the test Hemingway set up for men years ago -- he is, she says, the most elegant of men; he always seems to get the situation he is in right and to say the right thing.

George Steinbrenner
George Steinbrenner might respect Torre's results, but he still showed who was boss when it came time to talk about a contract extension.
She is right. The key to Torre is that he is a good baseball man, but he also knows there is much more to life than baseball, and that, finally, it is how you behave, most obviously when things are not going on well, that defines you.

If Torre is a man who has come to peace with himself, George Steinbrenner has seemed, at many times in his career (less so now than in the past), a man far from comfortable with himself, often given to bullying those around him and denigrating his players during losing streaks. Some of his pettier qualities have been reined in recently, and I suspect part of the change is simply a factor of age. He was 71 this year, and most of us become less volatile as we get older.

But one of Torre's great successes has been to serve as an insulator to protect his players from the owner and, whenever possible, to take the heat himself. Another has been to be able to change the ambiance at the Stadium from the time, just a decade ago, when the Yankees could not get the free agents they wanted, and were being used by shrewd agents to bid the price up for other teams. Does anyone think Mike Mussina would have come to the Yankees in the Billy Martin era?

The Steinbrenner-Torre relationship is a fascinating, constantly shifting one of balances and counterbalances. Torre serves, as all managers do, at the owner's whim, and Steinbrenner has more whims than most people, and they come to him more quickly. If he knows he needs this manager, there is also no doubt that he has no small amount of envy for Torre's larger public and media popularity and, as such, we get the occasional reminders of his irritation, the long delay in re-signing Torre, and the occasional throwaway lines that Torre never won until he came to the Yankees, and thus managed the players Steinbrenner signed. There is a good deal of truth to that, but it is also true that the clubhouse ambiance has changed dramatically in the Torre years, making the Yankees more attractive to the free agents Steinbrenner wants to sign.

Joe Torre
Torre's popularity with the fans and the media certainly isn't lost on Steinbrenner.
One of the things that has always fascinated me when looking at men who are engaged in fierce pursuits, in the military or sports, for example, is the difference between being strong and being tough. Steinbrenner, for whatever insecurities, has always struck me as someone who wants to be tough (there was an unusually stupid Howard Cosell piece about him years ago which called him the George Patton of the Yankees -- though, of course, Steinbrenner had never heard a shot fired in anger), but does not know the difference between being tough and strong. From his own background, and from his own self-doubt, I suspect, come a certain amount of swaggering, bullying and tough guy talk, as if that is the way real tough guys talk.

Torre is, very quietly, something quite different. He is quietly strong -- a strength that comes from a healthy sense of accurately appraised self-value, and a willingness, if need be, to walk away from any situation which might be unacceptably difficult or abusive. As such, there has been an invisible line drawn in the sand at the Stadium without him ever having to draw it. Because of that, he has not only done an exceptional job managing the Yankees, but has also helped do something that a number of us thought once could not have been done -- he has helped turn George Steinbrenner, though still a work in progress, into a good owner.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam, who has written 12 bestsellers, including "Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made," "The Best and the Brightest," "The Powers That Be," "The Reckoning" and "Summer of '49," writes a bi-weekly column for Page 2.