Relaxed Torre ready for new challenge in L.A.
VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Soon after Joe Torre had finished his first news conference of spring training at famed Dodgertown, the clouds broke, the ferocious rain ended and the sun came out. It was symbolic. Looking and sounding as relaxed as he has in several years, Torre spoke freely for an hour about everything from steroids, to the pressure to win, to knee replacement, to George Steinbrenner and the Yankees, and to his new favorite subject, being the manager of the Dodgers.
"It's strange,'' Torre said about not being in Tampa in mid-February for the first time in 13 years. And yet, or so it seemed, strange is good for Torre.
"In 2001, we [the Yankees] lost the World Series in the ninth inning of Game 7,'' Torre said. "In spring training 2002, a fan came up to me and said, 'We'll do better this year.' Losing in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series wasn't good enough. But things deteriorated in New York when we had a 3-0 lead against Boston and lost [in 2004]. Then it went progressively down. That's when the questions started to come for me, and they had little to do with baseball.''
It took 15 minutes Wednesday to get to the baseball questions. First, Torre was asked about steroids, specifically about Roger Clemens' hearing before Congress.
"It's sad,'' Torre said. "I don't know what is and what isn't. But I'd like to see baseball move on from this. The game is far stronger than this; it's not going to leave a lasting scar. It's a scar that eventually will go away.''
Has Torre's legacy of greatness in New York been tarnished now that some of his players, including Clemens and Andy Pettitte, have been linked to steroids and HGH?
"That is for someone else to decide,'' Torre said. He said that he chose to "honor the privacy'' of his players, adding "I never saw anything that raised a red flag. I'm na´ve, I guess, but I want to be. I trust people first, then I can be wrong. And I've been wrong before.''
But Torre was clear Wednesday that he felt he was right for turning down the offer (one year with an option for a second) to stay with the Yankees. He said he briefly considered retiring from managing. He said he looked into broadcasting possibilities and public speaking, "but when the Dodgers inquired, they're one of a handful of teams you pay attention to.''
There were questions about moving the family, including his 11-year-old daughter, from New York to Los Angeles, but after the initial news conference in L.A., Torre said he knew he made the right decision.
"When Vin Scully introduces you, that's all it took, pal,'' Torre said.
He is 67, but his health is good other than the lingering pain from left knee replacement surgery on Dec. 5. His challenge with the Dodgers is a large one. He doesn't know many of the players. The team was only 82-80 last year. They didn't have anyone with at least 90 RBIs (the Yankees had five). They didn't have one player who even got at least a 10th-place vote for MVP (the Cubs' Carlos Marmol got one). They've won one playoff game since last winning the World Series in 1988.
Torre knows he has inherited a young team, but he also knows that last season 13 Yankees made their major league debuts, the largest number of any big league team.
"They're expecting a lot here,'' Torre said. "That's what happens being a Dodger. At the [first] press conference in L.A., people came up to me and said, 'This is great, great, great.' I said, 'Not now. I want you to say that at this time next year.'''
Torre said he "doesn't have anything to prove,'' but he talked like a man who has everything to prove, especially to the Yankees' management, which questioned whether he was "motivated'' enough to win in recent years. That angered him. And yet he had nothing bad to say about the Yankees, especially owner George Steinbrenner. He spoke highly of new Yankees manager Joe Girardi, and said he has spoken to Girardi a few times before and after he got the job. One thing Torre won't miss is the constant tabloid war that exists in New York.
It was time to leave [New York]. I'm going to do what I do. This was a chance to start a new chapter.
"I had throw-away lines that ended up on the front page of the paper,'' Torre said without bitterness. "I came home from a trip from the West Coast, or Texas; I forget. I picked up the paper in my driveway at 4 a.m., and the back-page headline read 'Torre Fired.' It was about my sister, who is a nun. She was not going to be the principal of the school the next year.''
Torre laughed. "It was time to leave,'' he said. "I'm going to do what I do. This was a chance to start a new chapter.''
And yet, playfully, the New York media wouldn't leave him alone. This was a day to talk about the Yankees, not the Dodgers. That will come later. He was asked again about Clemens and Pettitte. He was asked about the Yankees not getting Johan Santana.
"What would you do?'' one New York writer asked, "make Joba Chamberlain a starter or a reliever?''
Torre smiled that classic smile.
"Don't ask me that,'' he said. "Are you crazy?''
And then he got up and limped away from the table on one bad knee, flashing the smile of a man whose next chapter of his managerial career has yet to be written, but, in a way, has to be easier than the last chapter.Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.