Commentary

Time for a 'younger voice'

Joe Torre admits his way didn't work this year as he hands the reins to Don Mattingly

Updated: September 18, 2010, 10:26 AM ET
By Tony Jackson | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- To steal a phrase Joe Torre likes to use when talking about young, inexperienced major league players, the game was moving a little fast for me. After almost a quarter of a century in the sportswriting biz, I still find days like Friday to be a challenge to the senses, a mad scramble to make sure nothing is missed while a million different things seem to be going on in a million different places.

But amid all the madness at Dodger Stadium on Friday, there was a single utterance that instantly caught my attention, that added a touch of clarity to everything that was going on all around me.

It came from Torre, who was attempting to explain his rationale for why he decided not to return to manage the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2011:

"I felt this ballclub needed a different voice," Torre said. "A younger voice."

Don Mattingly and Joe Torre
AP Photo/Alex GallardoJoe Torre, who will pass the torch to Don Mattingly, says a younger voice is needed to lead the Dodgers.

It isn't that Don Mattingly is some brash, young hipster. He will turn 50 on April 20, less than three weeks after the start of his first regular season as the Dodgers' new manager. He does have a cool soul patch growing beneath his lower lip, but it's solid gray, and besides, it's never more than a sudden impulse away from being gone. If the players on this team identify with him more than they did with Torre, then it's worth asking why the Dodgers were so bad offensively down the stretch this year considering Mattingly was their hitting coach.

Only time will tell whether Mattingly can reach these players in his new capacity. But this decision was more about Torre's inability to reach them this year, a fact that clearly frustrated him in a season in which he turned 70 and saw many of them regress dramatically after making significant progress over the previous two years.

"The game hasn't changed," Torre said. "The way you go about winning hasn't changed. But the players have changed, no question."

Torre is a Hall of Fame manager, or will be in a few short years. You don't get to the postseason 14 consecutive years and win four World Series in a span of five seasons without securing a place in Cooperstown. But when we look back on his entire career as a big league manager, a career that began when he was so young he actually was a player-manager of the New York Mets for 18 days in 1977, the results actually have been a mixed bag.

There was a reason why a headline in a New York paper referred to him as "Clueless Joe," when he was hired by the Yankees after the 1995 season. At that point in his career, Torre had managed three National League teams, compiling a record of 894-1,003 and exactly one playoff appearance, his 1982 Atlanta Braves having been swept out of the NL Championship Series.

A dozen years later, when Torre turned up his nose at what he called an "insult" of an offer to return for a 13th year with the Yankees, his reputation as one of the great managers of all-time was cemented. In the interim, Torre had proved two things:

  • That he could win with a team that annually had the game's highest player payroll and enough financial flexibility that anytime it lost a key player, all it had to do was go out and get another key player from somewhere else;

  • And that he could win with a team whose clubhouse policed itself, one that had a strong, unquestioned leader in shortstop Derek Jeter, and a in which any new player knew he had to quickly adapt to the businesslike culture or he wouldn't stay around long.

    That allowed Torre to take what appeared to be a hands-off approach that fit his reserved personality, a personality that helped him develop a reputation for being a calming influence on a team. In the circus-like atmosphere that has always surrounded the Yankees, it worked to near perfection.

    It also made Torre the perfect guy to take over the Dodgers following a 2007 season that will always be remembered for clubhouse disharmony, jealousy and, at the end, public sniping at each other. The level of dysfunction was enough to drive then-manager Grady Little out of the game of his own accord, apparently forever.

    Enter Torre, and his calming influence.

    The 2008 season, Torre's first with the Dodgers, wasn't always smooth. The team sort of sputtered along for most of the summer, was still hovering around the .500 mark when Manny Ramirez arrived and survived a late-season, eight-game losing streak even after Ramirez came. But in a true testament to what Torre brought to the job, there was never any hint of panic, and the Dodgers wound up not only making the playoffs but winning a series when they got there for the first time in a generation.

    In hindsight, Torre was the perfect guy to manage the Dodgers in 2008 and 2009, when they continued to build upon their success and players like Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp and James Loney took major steps forward. Also in hindsight, and somewhat sadly, it appears Torre might have been the wrong guy for the Dodgers in 2010.

    There were times when the 2010 Dodgers could have used the proverbial kick to their collective derriere. Maybe a fire-and-brimstone speech. Maybe a trash can picked up and thrown across the room just to get people's attention. Maybe a little old-fashioned tough love, seasoned with a few loud obscenities.

    One of the first mistakes a manager can make is to try to be something he isn't, and Torre doesn't really do fire and brimstone.

    "Joe has a lot of fire," said Dodgers third-base coach Larry Bowa, another longtime Torre associate. "You guys haven't been in the coaches' room when Joe is annoyed. He gets very annoyed when things aren't happening the right way, and if you keep making the same mistakes, that really annoys him."

    In the same breath, though, Bowa described Torre as a father figure.

    "I think Joe is the kind of guy who, when you talk to him, it feels like you're talking to your dad," Bowa said. "If Joe calls you into his office, it's like your dad calls you in. He commands that respect. Nobody talks back to their dad. At least the people I know don't."

    It could be that the Dodgers are less in need of a father figure than of a drill sergeant, and it is difficult to tell at this point whether Mattingly can be that guy. As far as anyone on the outside can tell, he hasn't displayed any such traits so far, but that isn't the role of a hitting coach. It was at least somewhat telling that when asked about his managerial influences on Friday, Mattingly cited, among others, Billy Martin and Lou Piniella, two of the most bombastic managers the game has never known; and Dallas Green, a large, imposing man known for being a strict disciplinarian.

    "I know one thing, I have to be myself," Mattingly said. "There will be parts of Joe in me, parts of Billy Martin in me, parts of Lou Piniella in me and parts of Dallas Green in me. All the guys I played for and played against, they all kind of affected the way I think the game should be played. If I'm going to do something, I'm going to go for it. I have to go with my beliefs. It may be a different generation, but there is only one way to play the game, and that is the right way."

    Philosophically, that certainly isn't a dramatic departure from Torre. It would be completely unfair, and also inaccurate, to say Torre wasn't an enforcer, and it would be just as unfair and inaccurate to say that his non-confrontational approach didn't work. He treated players like men, expecting them to approach the game in a professional manner, and when they didn't, he didn't hesitate to address it.

    But for whatever reason, Torre's way didn't work in his final season with the Dodgers, at least not in terms of results, and that says far more about the team than it does about Torre. In the weeks since it became obvious that the Dodgers weren't returning to the playoffs, there has been a discernible lack of energy to the team, especially on offense.

    Even if the Dodgers couldn't salvage a postseason spot, they could have salvaged a winning record, and maybe played spoiler to some contending clubs along the way. But now, even those small consolation prizes may be out of reach, and Torre's career may end with a losing season.

    "From [the All-Star break] on out, we really have struggled," Torre said. "And I have struggled to find something to help."

    To his credit, Torre never went outside himself, never tried to be anything other than who he is. Unfortunately, that might not have been enough for the 2010 Dodgers. Torre wouldn't completely rule out managing somewhere else, even though he said he isn't anticipating that. If he never manages again, this star-crossed final season with the Dodgers won't have a dramatic effect on his legacy, and it certainly won't keep him out of the Hall of Fame.

    Still, somehow, it seems like a sad anti-climax to one of the greatest managerial careers of all-time.

    Tony Jackson

    ESPNLosAngeles.com
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