If you’ve been staring at the same damn face for four decades, chances are it’s Flashback Friday at Faith and Fear in Flushing.
Some facts I was exposed to when I was 4 years old:
In 1960, Joe led the Northern League with a .344 avg.
In 1964, Joe led the N.L. with a .994 fielding mark.
The young receiver is the best all-round catcher in the National League.
Last year, Joe set a new personal home run high with 36 circuit blasts.
Joe Torre entered my life when I was 4.
He’s still here.
Who invited him in the first place?
Topps did. Their RSVP was the card numbered 350 in its 1967 set. Joe Torre’s baseball card is the first baseball card I can ever remember holding. I’m sure it was one of dozens in my grasp at the time, but Torre’s is the one that stayed with me — physically for seven more years until my mother made good for the first and only time on her tired threat to throw out all that crap on my floor if I didn’t start picking it up (and even then she left it to sit in the basement for a few weeks because, she swore later, she figured I’d have the good sense to sneak downstairs and rescue the crap that I wanted) and mentally to, well, right now.
Joe Torre never goes away. Joe Torre, when he was on the verge of turning 27, was the first baseball presence in my life, courtesy of my sister‘s small stack of baseball cards that peer pressure compelled her to collect half-heartedly in fifth and sixth grades and that her apathy wound up bequeathing to me by the time she was in junior high. At some point in the late 1960s, before I had a solid idea of what baseball was (besides the bane of Charlie Brown’s existence), before I put together New York, Mets and me, I handled Joe Torre’s 1967 baseball card.
And then I handled somebody else’s.
And then I was hooked.
Hooked on baseball. Hooked on baseball cards. Hooked on…Joe Torre?
Not really. He may have been the first player I could identify by team (Braves) and position (Catcher) and locales like Eau Claire, Louisville, Milwaukee and Atlanta, but in 1967 or whenever I first laid a finger on Joe Torre’s image, I consumed the information with no particular appetite for he who was responsible for generating it. My sister’s retroactive assessment of Torre as having been “cute” — not a universal consensus if you’ve read Ball Four — was probably the most enthusiastic endorsement by either of us as regarded Braves Catcher Joe. That I wound up with this card, all her cards and complete possession of the family’s baseball interest indicates to me that she didn’t think he was all that cute.
Joe Torre of 1967 became one card of many for me. Eventually I’d collect so many that there’d be enough runoff on my bedroom floor that it could be scooped up in an unfortunate raid on my clutter and I didn’t miss it, not that much. I don’t even know when I noticed it in particular was gone. What did I care about some old Braves Catcher?
Except he was the first one. So that annoyed me slightly. Plus, Joe Torre was good. I could tell that not just from his card’s cartoon chockablock with all that data about his .994 fielding percentage but because I grew to follow baseball very closely. I noticed that Joe Torre was no longer a Braves Catcher, but a Cardinals Third Baseman. That he was hitting .363 in 1971. That he was named MVP. That he was from Brooklyn. That he was continually rumored to be coming to the Mets.
That he did.
In his first act as Mets general manager, Joe McDonald traded two pitchers, the awesomely named Ray Sadecki and the perpetual prospect Tommy Joe Moore, to St. Louis for Joe Torre on October 13, 1974.
My god, I thought, we’re actually getting Torre. He’s not even a third baseman lately even though, as the Mets did with Jim Fregosi, they said he’d play third for us next year. Why do they keep playing guys who aren’t third basemen at third base? Why do they hate Wayne Garrett so much? He was at first for the Cards every time I saw them. I didn’t think the grand scheme made sense, but Joe Torre had two of those qualities I envied about non-Mets: he was a star; and he was a star who wasn’t on the Mets. I was excited enough by the announcement to call my sixth grade Mets pal Jeff Mirrer and break the news. That may have been the first time I ever did that.
Torre was newsworthy immediately. Because they won the pennant in ’73, the Mets were asked to play a goodwill tour in Japan after the ’74 season. By then the Mets were a fifth-place club, but diplomacy is diplomacy and off to the Far East the Mets went, new third baseman Torre included. He was all over the ’74 highlight film even though his only Mets action was in meaningless exhibitions thousands of miles away.
The 1975 yearbook was similarly brimming with excitement over Torre having joined the Mets for an extended sneak preview:
Swarthy local product’s initial exposure in New York uniform pure Hollywood script-ure: won MVP honors for Mets before playing an official game for them! Earned distinction for exploits on Japanese tour with .437 contribution in all 18 games (71-for-31) embroidered by 18 RBI and five home runs, in atmosphere significantly reflecting leadership.
Yes, it said “71-for-31,” but we assume that’s an innocent transposition error. Yes, “script-ure” seems intentional (intentional tort-ure, that is). And yes, the first thing they called Joe Torre was “swarthy,” code from another era — an era concluded before 1975 except at M. Donald Grant’s shop — for Italian when that was considered worth noting. In case you’re wondering, the yearbook described both Wayne Garrett and Felix Millan as soft-spoken, Jerry Grote as battle-scarred, Jerry Koosman as king-sized, Bud Harrelson as pocket-sized and Rusty Staub as the “sophisticated gourmet”. But the really bizarre portion of that passage is the part that contends Torre’s nice showing in Japan had something to do with “atmosphere significantly reflecting leadership”. By going 31-for-71 in Japan, Joe Torre apparently provided the template for Mr. Sparkle.
The larger point seemed to be that Joe Torre, eight years removed from that Braves Catcher card, was destined for greater things off the field and in the dugout. Joe didn’t play a very swift third base. The ’76 yearbook would have been well off to describe him as range-free, to say nothing of lead-footed. If Mets fans remember anything about Torre’s playing career once it wound down in Flushing, it would be that one night against Houston he followed four Millan singles with four double play grounders. It’s Felix’s fault, he said afterwards. He got on base so much.
His leadership significantly reflected, Swarthy Joe was on his way to the manager’s chair at Shea. When the 15-30 Mets dismissed the forlorn Joe Frazier in 1977, Torre was elevated, first as a player-manager, then just as skipper. He wasn’t quite 37, still the youngest manager in Mets history.
Joe Torre lasted a long-ass time as Mets manager, particularly considering his low-ass success rate. Joe managed more Mets games than Casey Stengel, than Yogi Berra, than (though this one comes with a sad asterisk) Gil Hodges. Joe had a higher winning percentage than Casey Stengel but a lower mark than Art Howe, than Dallas Green, than Jeff Torborg, than Joe Frazier, none of whom lasted nearly as long as Torre.
The extenuating circumstances of Torre’s failure-to-longevity ratio were that the Mets had few players of undisputed Major League caliber for the balance of Torre’s tenure. So my tendency, at least, was to give Joe a break. I rooted for him more than I had for Frazier or would the other blanks the Mets would fire in later seasons. Maybe it was his local roots. Maybe it was his “it’s Felix’s fault” charm. Maybe it was his familiarity. Maybe it was his 1967 card. Joe made a lot of moves as Mets manager. He was criticized because they didn’t work out. Probably had something to do with the pieces on his chess board all being Dwight Bernards and such.
Joe Torre, like Jimmy Carter, served in office from 1977 to 1981.
Joe Torre, like Jimmy Carter, was more popular when he came in than when he went out.
Joe Torre, like Jimmy Carter, remained one of my favorites while I was in high school despite some grim results on his watch.
Joe Torre, like Jimmy Carter, went back to Georgia.
Joe accepted the Atlanta managerial job in 1982, which made me far happier than you’d expect. Marooned in college in Tampa, my only connection to Major League Baseball that counted was Braves Radio as it was called. They became my adopted second team, what with them in the West and us in the East (glad I wasn’t studying geography). Now they would be helmed by my field general, my Joe Torre of Brooklyn, N.Y.
The Braves reeled off 13 straight to start ’82. Joe was a genius in Atlanta. The Braves went reeling after losing 19 of 21. Joe was as big an idiot in Atlanta as he was in New York. But Joe and the Braves hung in and outlasted the Dodgers to win their division. The Mets under George Bamberger lost 97 games.
Torre had another pennant race in ’83, which the Braves lost. Then they began to crumble and Ted Turner fired him. For the first time in my living memory, Joe Torre disappeared from uniform, from public view. It was rumored he was announcing California Angels games, but out of sight, out of mind.
Then he reappeared with the Cardinals in 1990. I have to say I wasn’t really thinking about Joe Torre anymore. My residual goodwill, for the card, for the Met stewardship, for along with Al Lang getting me through my first year or two of college, had dried up. I was actually pretty annoyed that Torre was credited in some circles for being exactly the manager Gregg Jefferies needed. Jefferies, like Torre, wore out his welcome in Flushing. In St. Louis, under Joe’s tutelage and tender loving care (he moved him to first base), Jefferies blossomed into one of the best hitters in the National League. He hit .342 in 1993. His batting average was almost as high as our winning percentage.
More irksome was something Torre said sometime in the 1990s, in the first half of the decade, I think. He said it was really special managing in St. Louis. It was a great baseball town and he enjoyed such success playing there, winning the MVP, the fans were wonderful. It had been really special managing in Atlanta, too. The Braves were his first club and it meant something to him to put that uniform back on. What about the Mets, Joe, he was asked. You grew up in New York and you finished your playing career in New York. Getting your first managing job with the Mets, that must have been special, too, right, Joe?
No, Torre said. The Mets never really meant anything to him.
Well eff you, too, pal. I defended you for the better part of five seasons. I was genuinely melancholy when you were finally fired for losing almost 60 percent of your games. I insisted that the sports jacket my mother was determined to buy me at Roosevelt Field before I went off to college be bought at Bonds because my favorite commercial when I was in twelfth grade began with “Hi, I’m Joe Torre for Bonds.” But we didn’t mean anything to you?
Joe. You coulda made me proud. You chose not to.
The Cardinals no longer felt it was special to have Joe Torre as their manager by 1995. Despite reviving Jefferies’ career, he had led St. Louis to no division titles in five years. In fact, among the three jobs he held over parts of 14 different seasons as a manager, Joe Torre made only one playoff appearance, in ’82. And those Braves were swept. There was no reason to think this 55-year-old washout would be hired to run anybody else’s team.
We know what transpired next and transpires still.
With Joe Torre back in New York in 1996, a few old feelings came crawling back. It was unfathomable that he was fished out of mothballs to take over a fourth team, but it was also unfair, I thought, for the Daily News to refer to him as CLUELESS JOE right off the bat. (Obviously the paper has been making it up to him ever since.) When Torre did make his first World Series — with his entire family’s well-being concurrently hanging in the balance — there was a very, very, very, very small part of me that, in the most theoretical abstract, was just an eensy bit happy for him, if not for anybody else attached to his sudden success. Seeing Joe Torre overcome expectations in 1996 reminded me of all those days and nights circa 1980 when I thought he would do it for us.
But of course he didn’t do it for us. And of course he kept doing it for them.
Joe Torre and I remain estranged.
His 1967 card, though…I wanted it back. My mother threw it out when I was eleven. It had historical significance for me. It was my first card. I had lived without it for 25 years when I decided to seek it out. In late 1999, for the first time in more than two decades, I attended a baseball card show, at Hofstra. I found a dealer. I asked — after prefacing my question with my obligatory assertion that I had no interest in his current affiliation, knowing perfectly well that this merchant did not care — do you have a 1967 Joe Torre?
The guy did. It was maybe four bucks. I handled it. I examined it. I saw Joe Torre. I saw the face that first welcomed me to baseball before I really knew what baseball was.
I handed the dealer back his card.
In late 1999, I couldn’t stand the idea of even tangentially endorsing anything Joe Torre was up to at the moment in his professional life. If I still had the Bonds sports jacket, I would have burned it. A year later, after Torre defended Roger Clemens for throwing a shard of a bat at Mike Piazza, I would have resewn the jacket just to burn it again.
Forty years since Joe Torre became the first baseball player and baseball card I could identify, he’s still around — around like crazy. Gary Sheffield accused Joe Torre of unsportsmanlike behavior and all it does is tighten the halo over Joe Torre’s head. It’s a St. Joe Zone…cross at your own risk. Torre recently told his relentlessly worshipful biographers at the Daily News that this has been by far his toughest season in the job he’s held since ’96 (that a manager confirming that a bad record is worse than a good record rated the back page last Sunday tells you everything you need to know about the state of the Daily News). New York magazine recently took Torre’s pulse to see how he’s holding up under the strain of not winning regularly; they called him the city’s father figure. That was almost as funny as that line about Felix Millan getting on base four times. When Joe Torre was not winning regularly as Mets manager, he wasn’t called the father of anything. It was more like “when are they gonna fire that Torre son of a bitch?” And nobody cared how he was holding up.
Beyond the fawning coverage is the amazing reality that Joe Torre continues to be such a presence on the baseball scene. In New York yet. Joe Torre was part of my life four decades ago as a picture and a name. Three decades ago as a player turned manager. A quarter-century ago as a Met icon turned Brave pilot. For the last decade and some as an enabler of some of my worst baseball nightmares come true.
Joe Torre will not go away. I cannot escape his swarthy pervasiveness. So I have given up trying. A few weeks ago I decided to let bygones be bygones and square the Torre circle. I went on eBay and, for a few bucks, I purchased No. 350 from 1967. He and I are face to face again at last.
It’s just as I remember it:
JOE TORRE • CATCHER on top.
BRAVES on bottom.
In between, the heavy eyebrows and the distracted glance that my sister inexplicably found cute. Joe Torre in the prime of his career reminds you why Jim Bouton quoted Seattle Pilot teammate Jim Pagliaroni so approvingly in 1969:
He was describing a girl that one of the ballplayers had been out with and said, “It’s hard to say exactly what she looked like. She was kind of a Joe Torre with tits.” This joke can only be explained with a picture of Joe Torre. But I’m not sure any exist. He dissolves camera lenses.
Topps would beg to differ.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out one more fact from Joe Torre’s 1967 Topps baseball card. Yes, you know he was a Northern League hot shot. Yes, you know he was quite the defensive backstop in 1964. And it shouldn’t surprise you to know he was a .300 hitter for his six-year career through 1966. You’ve probably heard, even if you don’t remember first-hand, that Torre was a borderline Hall of Fame player…and you’ve gotten the message since 1996 that he will eventually be a Hall of Fame manager.
But there’s also this — the card says Joe Torre was Born: July 18, 1940. Hence, he turned 67 on Wednesday. I didn’t need to recover the card to know Joe Torre’s birthday is July 18. I’ve known that about him since he came to the Mets. That date’s been instantly recognizable to me since before I really knew what baseball was.
July 18 was also my mother’s birthday.
Next Friday: The No. 4 Song of All-Time and how it didn’t sound sad upon the radio.