Future uncertain for lame-duck Torre

With Joe Torre entering the final year of his contract in 2007, is it reason to believe it'll be his last season as the Yankees' manager?

Originally Published: December 11, 2006
By Bob Klapisch | Special to ESPN.com

Soon enough, Joe Torre will find himself in the middle of the clubhouse at Legends Field in Tampa, Fla., opening spring training with the kind of speech that's characterized his 12-year run as the Yankees' manager.

The words will be professional and reassuring, without gimmicks or phony emotion. The players will listen intently; they always do. The Yankees know Torre has completed a modern miracle, delivering the franchise from the Bronx Zoo era to its current profile as baseball's version of Microsoft.

The transition has been so smooth, it's a stretch trying to remember how Torre's predecessors created their own brand of controversy -- from Billy Martin's drinking bouts, to Lou Piniella's temper tantrums, to Dallas Green's bluster.

Since then, an entire generation of Yankee fans has grown up with Torre; it seems like he's been in the Bronx forever. Question is, how much longer does Torre want to manage? His current three-year contract expires after the 2007 season, and no one in the organization is talking about an extension.

Incredibly, Torre will go to spring training without job security, which would've been a nonissue when the Yankees were overpowering the American League in the late '90s. But he's coming off a turbulent October, when the Bombers exited the playoffs in the first round and nearly got their manager fired.

Joe Torre
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIJoe Torre will enter his 12th season as the Yankees' manager in 2007.
It took GM Brian Cashman's intervention to keep owner George Steinbrenner from dismissing Torre. Cashman ultimately convinced the Boss that despite a four-game loss to the Tigers -- and a stinging indictment from Gary Sheffield, who said the Yankees were psychologically unprepared for the Division Series -- Torre still has the people skills necessary to handle the superstars in the clubhouse.

Nothing has changed for Torre in the last two months; Cashman still supports him, and Steinbrenner, who's been largely silent this offseason, has given no indication that Torre will be starting the season with an anvil over his head.

But the club has nevertheless made several subtle changes. Don Mattingly was promoted from hitting instructor to bench coach, while Joe Girardi, voted the National League's Manager of the Year after being fired by the Marlins, is now in the Yankees' broadcast booth.

Additionally, even though the Yankees dismissed Lee Mazzilli, their bench coach last season, they still retained three former managers, Joe Kerrigan (bullpen coach), Larry Bowa (third base coach) and Tony Pena (first base coach), in their coaching ranks. This unusual roster spawns all kinds of scenarios as Torre begins another and perhaps final season in pinstripes:

Will Torre mentor Mattingly, a near cult hero in New York, to replace him in 2007?

Will Girardi's ability to teach and motivate young players, proven last summer in Florida, make him a possible candidate for the post-Torre era?

Or will the 66-year-old Torre look for another contract after his current one expires?

No one in the organization seems to have a clue; everyone was too busy signing free agent Andy Pettitte, or else looking for a defensively gifted first baseman so Jason Giambi can become a full-time DH.

Even Cashman, Torre's strongest advocate, says, "I have no idea what Joe wants to do [after this contract]. All I know is, he wants to manage this year."

Others, however, sense Torre wants to keep his job.

"It's kind of hard for me to believe Joe is going to walk away," said Mets manager Willie Randolph, who served as one of Torre's coaches for seven years. "Every time I've talked to him lately, I got the sense he still enjoys it. If the Yankees have a good year, I'm sure he'll want to come back."

Torre with Yankees (1996-2006)
Year W-L Pct. Finish*
1996 92-70 .568 1st
1997 96-66 .593 2nd
1998 114-48 .704 1st
1999 98-64 .605 1st
2000 87-74 .540 1st
2001 95-65 .594 1st
2002 103-58 .640 1st
2003 101-61 .623 1st
2004 101-61 .623 1st
2005 95-67 .586 1st
2006 97-65 .599 1st
Totals 1079-699 .607 --
* American League East
There are obvious financial incentives for Torre to return; he's earning close to $7 million annually. But Torre also knows his celebrity status helps generate interest and donations to his Safe At Home Foundation, which combats domestic violence.

"Joe knows he can impact and help a lot of people off the field by being manager of the Yankees," Randolph said. "That means a lot to him."

Ultimately, though, Torre's fate will depend on how the Yankees fare on the field. Although the Bombers have been to the postseason every year since Torre replaced Buck Showalter, it's been six years since their last championship.

The drought may have less to do with the Yankees' failure than the way opposing teams are assembled now. GMs are more statistics-conscious, acquiring players with the higher on-base percentage. And young pitching, in particular, is more highly valued than ever. As evidenced by the Cardinals in 2006, underdogs are more dangerous than they were during the height of the Yankees' most recent golden era.

Still, Torre manages his players the same way he did in 1996, trusting his veterans, creating a controversy-free atmosphere in the clubhouse, acting as the buffer between Steinbrenner and his players. But since the Yankees bowed out in the first round of the playoffs in two of the last three years, they now find themselves repeating the Billy Beane mantra: The postseason is a crapshoot.

Some things never change, though: Steinbrenner, even in declining health, is impatient at the core, and probably wouldn't tolerate another year without a World Series, trend or no trend.

That is, unless Torre launches a pre-emptive strike and moves on. This was the second straight October that he was forced to squirm, and one person close to him said, "Maybe Joe has had enough of that [expletive]."

Until Torre (or Steinbrenner) decides, the manager's job security will be a simmering issue. Whether Torre will be saying hello or goodbye next October is anyone's guess.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.