Commentary

Torre should never have left Bombers

As the Yankees visit the White House, their former manager reminisces

Updated: April 28, 2010, 12:01 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Joe Torre was wearing one towel around his waist, another over his right shoulder, as he stood before the TV in his Citi Field office and watched a rerun of "This Is Your Life."

The New York Yankees were at the White House. Torre's Yankees. The images of Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte flashed across the monitor, and Torre was smiling widely as he absorbed these scenes stolen from his East Room past.

But the hosting president wasn't Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, and the World Series winner wasn't holding up a jersey graced with Torre's iconic No. 6. Barack Obama and Joe Girardi were posing with No. 27, and at that very moment the manager of the Dodgers, part-owner of a thoroughbred in the Kentucky Derby field, came face to face with the notion that he'd put his money on the wrong horse.

"It's an off day," Torre had said earlier of his White House visits, "and guys always treasure their off days. But that's a memorable experience."

And one that Torre's successor, Girardi, is favored to repeat this time next year.

Back in 2007, when Torre refused what he called an insulting offer to remain a Yankee, his possible successor, Don Mattingly, likened the task of following Torre to that of following John Wooden.

Only Gene Bartow fled UCLA after two largely successful -- if championship-free -- seasons, unable to cope with the magnitude of the job.

Girardi? He held off Mattingly and survived a disastrous rookie year to win it all in 2009, this after Torre's Los Angeles Dodgers fell to the Philadelphia Phillies in the NLCS in five games.

Jeter's one-for-the-thumb postseason could've been Torre's, too, had the manager accepted the $5 million salary and $3 million in incentives the Steinbrenners offered him. Torre rejected the bid because he believed his final front-office ally, Brian Cashman, had joined the hostile forces conspiring against him, a charge Cashman vehemently denied.

But this much is not in dispute: Torre could've agreed to the Yankees' terms. He could've returned in 2008, emasculated or not, but chose instead to sign a free-agent deal with the Dodgers.

Here's what Torre walked away from: the biggest and best job he'll ever own.

The mythology of American sport dictates the following: If you're the manager of the Yankees, or the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, or the head football coach at Notre Dame, you don't leave the position until someone forces you to leave it.

Torre was nudged to the door, yet wasn't shoved through it. He figured there was newfound happiness to be savored 3,000 miles away.

So there he was Monday evening in the Dodgers' dugout, hoping against hope that the Queens sky would clear and talking about the title Jeter, Pettitte, Mo Rivera and Jorge Posada won without him.

"I watched it," Torre said, "and in past years I've never been one to watch the World Series if we got knocked out. But I was really interested last year and knowing the core guys who were there, plus [Hideki] Matsui and everything Alex [Rodriguez] has gone through, to see and know what they felt like.

"To me the four [core] guys especially, to have it continuously be important for them I think is a tribute to them. A lot of times you think about winning the World Series and you say, 'That's it, nobody can take it away from us,' and you don't need to do it again. But they obviously don't feel that way. … I think it's something a lot of people should pay attention to, that part of it, as opposed to just the bells and whistles."

Let's face it: Torre has done a terriffic job in Los Angeles, claiming two division titles in two attempts and weathering the Manny Ramirez drug suspension. His Dodgers are 8-10 right now, wishing they were the Mets, but nobody's sweating the small stuff.

Torre has made 14 consecutive postseason appearances. On his muscle memory alone, the Dodgers will win the division or the wild card.

Only the same could've been said for the 2008 Yanks. Torre would've succeeded where Girardi failed. With George Steinbrenner no longer in control and with Cashman gaining more power by the hour, Torre could've built a bridge to 2009, when the $423.5 million spent on free agents surely would've earned him Ring No. 5.

"And Joe still has that burning desire to win that fifth championship," said his godson, Mike Borzello, Torre's longtime bullpen catcher. "He's as energetic as ever."

But Torre isn't working with Steinbrenner's budget (or lack thereof) anymore. The Dodgers' payroll is around $95 million, or some $111 million short of the Yanks'.

Torre also has discovered the Steinbrenners own no patent on ownership dysfunction, as the McCourts' divorce from hell does nothing to notarize the claim of a stable long-term plan.

An entire nation removed from the Bronx Zoo, the Dodgers present challenging clubhouse dilemmas, too.

"Joe's had more meetings with some of these guys because their attention span isn't real good," said Larry Bowa, the Dodgers' third-base coach. "With the Yankees, you had guys where you tell them once and they get it. Some of these kids, you've got to tell them once, twice, three times, four times, five times, six times, and I think that's a big adjustment for Joe."

Bowa brought up the infamous 2006 popup that fell between Jeter and A-Rod in a blowout loss to Baltimore, causing the shortstop to stare daggers through his former best friend.

"Joe gathered everybody in the clubhouse," Bowa recalled, "and he says, 'Where's Alex and Jeter?' They raised their handsn, and Joe said, 'I've got one thing to say -- unacceptable. I don't care who catches the ball, but that is unacceptable. That's not how we play here.'

"But Joe said it in a professional manner, and those two guys took it as constructive criticism and realized they were better than that and it wasn't the Yankee way to play. But you say that here to a young kid [with the Dodgers] and it's like, 'Why are you getting on me?'"

Torre hasn't toured the new Yankee Stadium, nor has he seen the ghastly pile of rubble that is the old Yankee Stadium, even though he was most eager to return to the Bronx this past fall.

With his Dodgers down 3-1 to the Phillies in the NLCS, Torre told them that if they won three straight sudden-death games, "I'll put up with all the aggravation [in New York]."

Nobody put up with that aggravation quite like Torre. He has a good job with a good shot at the playoffs, but he left a better job with the best shot at a title.

In the end, the thoroughbred owner put his money on the wrong horse.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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