An Evening with Joe Torre
The 1,500 fans crammed into George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium Wednesday night came to hear one of the most well-respected names in the game today, Joe Torre. It was Phil Hochberg’s honor to emcee the evening sponsored by the Smithsonian Museum. As the former Senator’s PA announcer Hochberg looked out over the crowd noting it was far too similar in size to the average attendance for many Senators games.
Most of those gathered to hear Torre might well have been at those old Senator’s games as the balding pates and silver manes bespoke a crowd of knowing veterans. By the end of the evening–almost a full two hours later–it was as if one had never left the den, as if a favorite uncle had dropped by to share the tales of his long and storied career. Hochberg recognized Torre’s career as one that will likely carry him to Cooperstown in the next few years.
Torre is a living, breathing encyclopedia of baseball history, a witness who played as an All-Star alongside Hank Aaron and Warren Spahn and went on to become one of the most successful managers in the game, ranking historically among managers near the top in years of service and in total wins.
Phil Wood,Washington baseball savant and Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) commentator was a panelist along with fellow MASN broadcaster, Johnny Holiday and Washington Post sports writer, Mike Wise. Wood asked Torre who his biggest influence was as a manager to start the questioning.
There was no equivocation. Citing the moment when he became the captain of the St. Louis Cardinals after his 1969 trade as a game changer, Torre said he grew remarkably as a person under the tutelage of Red Schoendienst. He quit being “so involved with himself,” and realized he could impact the players around him when he became captain of a team that had been to two World Series in a row. It was the first time Joe Torre thought that managing might be something he wanted to do.
Torre said of Schoendienst, “He let the players play.” And that approach is what he carried forward from Red. Comparing himself with other famous managers of his era, he described himself as being more like Jim Leyland, who he said is one of the last to manage largely from his gut instincts. Tony LaRussa he characterized as being more of a “by the book kind of guy. He controlled the game more,” said Torre of LaRussa. But Torre acknowledged he was always more of a Schoendist kind of manager. “I was in charge,” but he said that he felt he got the best from his players by giving them more control of the game.
Torre drew a round of applause when he said of the Moneyball trend in baseball, “Some of us don’t care for it.” He acknowledged that for a small market team, the stats were a legitimate place for Billy Beane to look for an edge, and he offered that Brad Pitt in the movie nailed Beane as a character. But Joe Torre as a manager used statistical information only in limited situations.
With many Yankee fans in the audience, Torre’s great success in NYC was a prominent focus of the evening. He said he had not really considered managing the Yankees even when the job came open several times earlier in his career. But in 1995 he was interviewed for the job of GM for the Yankees and was offered the job. Joe asked if there was any vacation that came with the job. The answer: “working for George Steinbrenner there is no vacation.” He turned that offer down because his wife was pregnant and wanted an assurance of time to be with her.
But shortly thereafter Torre was offered the job as Yankee manager. He accepted that one, and the rest, as they say, “is history.”
Torre said that a remote consideration in evaluating the Yankee offer was knowing that after managing the Mets, Braves, and Cardinals for 15 years, he was 100 games below .500. He knew how committed to winning Steinbrenner was, “but no one worked for George that long,” so he never actually thought his time with the Yankees would endure for him to become 5th longest tenured among managers with a .538 winning percentage.
“It was a bonus for me,” Torre said as he described that unsuspected longevity.
Torre’s relationship with Steinbrenner was a touchstone several times during the evening. Asked about his input into personnel decisions, Torre said he was consulted often but not always. He said of Steinbrenner that when players were placed on irrevocable waivers, George often could not pass them up, taking them just so that, “no one else could have them.”
He described Steinbrenner as a generous man—“when people did not expect that he had to be.” While “the Boss” did much to help kids of police and firefighters after 9-11 and much good work in Tampa, Torre said resolutely of Steinbrenner, “He was a bully.”
Torre said there was never any doubt who was in charge with the Yankees and there was no place worse to watch a game than in the owner’s box with the boss. For all of that, Torre said, ”We had a mutual respect for each other.” Torre told a few humorous stories about his departed employer.
One anecdote was about a meeting following a very sloppy Yankee loss that particularly outraged “the Boss.” The angry Steinbrenner called all the coaching and front office personnel to his office after the game and started the meeting by asking, “If anyone here feels they are doing the best they can, you can leave right now.” Bench coach Don Zimmer immediately exited the room. There was considerable fear that Zimmer would be fired on the spot, but Torre worked hard to explain to the outraged Steinbrenner that the way he had phrased the question had been less than artful.
Torre told many great stories from his playing days as well. He said it was one of his great honors to catch Warren Spahn’s 300th win as a 21-year old, but one of the best tales was about Bob Gibson. Gibson was widely known never to talk to opposing players in any circumstance. “The only hitters he would talk to were those wearing that Cardinal uniform,” Torre said.
Joe first encountered Gibson on supposedly equal terms when the two men were both National League All-Stars in 1965. Joe was an All Star catcher with the Braves and he caught all nine innings of that 1965 game. Manager Gene Mauch brought Gibson into the game in the eighth inning to close out the win.
Not only did Gibson not speak to Torre in the clubhouse, but would not even acknowledge Torre when he came to the mound in the ninth inning of the game to talk about Tony Oliva, the American League All-Star who was coming to the plate to lead off the final inning with a precarious one-run lead hanging in the balance.
“Oliva would wear the ball out down-and-in,” Torre recounted. Gibson got two strikes on Oliva and Torre felt he had to go out to discuss what would be an important pitch to a great hitter. Torre recounted that when he told Gibbie not to throw the next pitch down-and-in to Oliva, Gibson just stared through him as if he were not even there.
“When I got back behind the plate, I put down the sign for the fastball and Gibson threw one, but it was down-and-in and Oliva hit it to the wall for a leadoff double.” Gibson struck out the next three batters to win the game, but even in the shower after the game, Gibson never said a word to Torre.
When Torre was traded to the Cardinals in 1969, Gibson was one of the first players he ran into. Said Torre of that first encounter with Gibson , “I reamed his ass out good,” knowing Gibson would finally talk to him with Torre wearing the St. Louis uniform.
Torre talked several times about scurrilous writers and fans, but saved his greatest skepticism for the mental workings of Boston Red Sox fans. He told a tale of one such fan he encountered in an elevator during the 2004 Championship Series, a series that got considerable attention during the evening.
The fan asked, “You’re Joe Torre, right?” Torre nodded and the fan immediately told Joe, “We’re gonna beat you tonight.” Torre smiled and was polite and they rode numerous floors with the fan staring intently at Torre. When they were approaching the lobby floor, the fan had worked up his best line for the Yankee skipper and fired it off, “If I had the choice of beating the New York Yankees, or capturing Saddam Hussein, I would pick beating the Yankees.”
Torre was in NYC during 9-11 and recounted the tragedy and how he realized how much reach baseball had when those who had lost loved ones were cheered by Bernie Williams and other Yankee players who went down to visit near the site in the days after the tragedy. Torre said that the Yankees got emotional welcomes that September in every ballpark, and even in Boston there were signs that said, “We love NYC.”
Torre talked fondly of Nationals manager Davey Johnson, and expressed confidence that Johnson will know how best to bring along Bryce Harper, who is not the first cocky young ball player who will be tested by failure at the big league level.
There was so much baseball, so much history, and the two hours were gone before you knew it. But for someone who loves the game, it all comes down to passing that love along to a new generation. Torre acknowledged that baseball had work to do to win back the trust of fans, but “it is so important to teach kids the love of the game.”
Torre was asked how baseball can reach today’s youth. “We have to find that nerve in the next generation of fans,” Torre said. “We need to appeal to both genders…to put a face on the game,” Torre said as he spoke of the multiple fronts baseball needs to attack to help baseball better connect with a new generation of fans. “We have to strike a nerve with them,” he repeated.
If only the kids could see the game through the eyes of Joe Torre. If only he really could be a favorite uncle gesturing with those long fingers and huge hands to the kids of today as they seek to understand the game,. If only they could sit listening to 72-year old Joe Torre as he shares the tales of his playing days when baseball was king.
He certainly “struck a nerve” with the fans at Lisner Auditorium Wednesday night and whatever their ages, we can only hope he will continue to do so for many years to come.