In Gator, Torre trusts
Not only is Yankees manager Joe Torre surrounding himself with four former managers, he's trusting his pitchers to Ron Guidry, writes Bob Klapisch.
While the Yankees are busy sifting through several offseason dilemmas -- who gets the ball in the eighth inning, whom to trust/pay in center field -- the composition of Joe Torre's coaching staff may pose some of the biggest risks of all.
Not only is Torre surrounding himself with four former managers, he's trusting his pitchers to Ron Guidry, who has no coaching or instruction experience -- unless you count spring training.
In an era when pitching coaches have become techno-geeks, able to break down video at 500 frames per second, Guidry is a museum piece, an old-school, former tobacco chewer. His very presence in Torre's dugout tells you how much the manager values personality and charisma, in this case over a slicker, new-age résumé.
"It's a legitimate question, because I know [GM Brian Cashman] leans towards experience, but when I hire, I hire the person," Torre said. "To me it's about ability and accountability and knowing Gator can handle the situation emotionally. I think he can."
This is no small experiment, considering the Yankees will need at least one, if not two new starters in 2006. And Guidry will inherit from predecessor Mel Stottlemyre the eternal struggle to keep Randy Johnson's mechanics in tune, as well as the reality of Mike Mussina's decline phase.
And then there's Carl Pavano, who never seemed comfortable in pinstripes last year, and that was before his season ended in late June with an injury vaguely diagnosed as shoulder tendinitis.
The Yankees were so concerned about these trouble spots, they were ready to pay Leo Mazzone whatever he wanted -- at least until they realized the legendary coach had eyes only for the Orioles. Now it'll be up to Guidry to motivate Pavano, and that's precisely what Torre is counting on: the sheer strength of that throwback Yankee personality, exemplified by, among others, Thurman Munson, Goose Gossage and Graig Nettles.
Guidry, though, is no stranger to these new-millennium Yankees, since he's served as a spring training instructor for several years. And as Torre is quick to point out, "Gator didn't just treat it as a celebrity appearance, he really worked at it. I saw how our pitches responded to him."
But getting inside a pitcher's head is only part of a modern-day coach's job. As beloved as Stottlemyre was, he was behind the technological curve, which now allows a trained eye to calibrate hip rotation and the front leg's landing angle.
The Guidry-Stottlemyre approach is in stark contrast to, say, Rick Peterson, the Mets' coach who uses a laboratory in the offseason to dissect his pitcher's strengths and weaknesses.
Among the tenets of Peterson's philosophy: hip rotation, not arm speed or arm strength, dictate velocity. And since 60 percent of that rotation comes from the core, from the rib cage to the knee, Peterson teaches exercises that strengthen that part of the body instead of focusing solely on the arm.
Furthermore, Peterson believes the front leg needs to bend at a 125- to 140-degree angle to allow for proper follow through. At least that's the goal, although he admitted one day last summer, "There are some deliveries you just can't fix."
Whether Guidry can actually help, say, Randy Johnson keep his sliders from flattening out, and keep Mussina's fastball over 90 mph remains to be seen. Either way, Guidry will be under intense scrutiny, if not from Torre, then George Steinbrenner, who all but ran Stottlemyre out of the organization.
But Guidry was never particularly afraid of the Boss in his playing days, which played a key role in Torre picking him. The manager is also sure that bullpen coach Joe Kerrigan will help smooth over the rough edges of Guidry's inexperience.
But Kerrigan is also an ex-manager, just like Larry Bowa, Lee Mazzilli and Tony Pena. Together, they form an unusual, if not overqualified coaching staff that in any other circumstance would pose a threat to Torre's authority.
Logic (and human nature) presumes that every former manager wants to someday return to the promised land. Mazzilli believes he was sabotaged by his lieutenants in Baltimore. But Torre is supremely confident in his choices, not to mention in his influence in the clubhouse.
Torre is so well-respected in the industry, it's never occurred to him that an ex-manager might covet his job -- or at least seek it until after Torre's contract expires after 2007.
Instead, he's convinced Bowa will be happy coaching third, that Mazzilli will be grateful being back in the dugout in any capacity and that Pena will be cherished for his ability to bond with the Yankees' Spanish-speaking players.
To believe otherwise means, in Torre's words, "I hired the wrong people." And such conclusions don't last long in Torre's thinking. Quite the contrary: Torre thinks the Yankees will respond to Bowa's energy, and Pena will be an instant upgrade over Roy White at first base.
If there was one criticism of the Torre administration in 2005, it's that he and his staff were isolated from the players. And that's almost certain to change in 2006.
Whether that means an improvement on October's fast exit from the Division Series well, no one's making any promises. It's been five years since the Yankees' last world championship and there finally seems to be an acceptance -- or at least an absence of hysteria -- over the drought.
"All you can do is put your best team on the field," Torre says of this winter's reconstruction efforts. There are still weeks and weeks (and plenty of dollars) before the Bombers decide on a center fielder, but there's certain to be a new face in the lineup by Opening Day.
Same goes for the coaching staff, too. New faces -- one of which will be distinctly old school. Should be an interesting chemistry lesson.
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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