One night short of the World Series, I was so desperate for baseball programming that I zeroed in on Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel on HBO for Bob Costas' interview with ex-Mets manager Joe Torre.
They didn't discuss why Torre wanted to give the third base job to Joel Youngblood in 1981 when a) Youngblood obviously couldn't play third; b) Youngblood didn't want to play third; c) Hubie Brooks, who batted .309 the previous September, was standing by with the same third baseman's glove that he used more than adequately in his 1980 callup. Now that was a story I would have liked to have heard explored.
But no. Costas and Torre talked about Torre's last, not first managerial assignment for some reason. Though it's a topic that hasn't lacked for coverage in recent days, I derived a few interesting nuggets from their chat.
1) Everybody is eventually nobody. Torre described his experience in Tampa last week as thus: He walked into a room full of Steinbrenners and other such life forms; he made his case that he'd been very successful over a dozen years, meriting a better deal than that which he was offered; he was stared at silently. At that moment, Joe Torre wasn't a revered leader of men, packing four World Series titles in his back pocket. He was a disgruntled employee going up against human resources. And human resources stares at you silently if that's what human resources intended to do in the first place. Torre could have slipped his Torreography into the nearest laptop and it wouldn't have done him any good. Management — whether represented by apparatchiks in windowless offices adhering to guidelines carefully designed to avoid lawsuits, or megalomaniac shipping heirs in the blithering, blathering flesh — is very good at staring silently.
2) Only win if they make it worth your while. Torre's strongest point to Costas as regards the infamous “insult” he took at the deal he was offered was, in so many words, why would you think I need an “incentive” clause to try and win a World Series? He was a professional baseball player for nearly two decades. He's been a manager for four different teams in 26 different seasons. Virtually all of Joe Torre's life has been devoted to trying to win something. That's what athletes and coaches do. It's what dedicated people do in whatever context their careers provide. Of course it's nice to be offered a performance bonus, but in baseball, it's all about performance. Joe Torre didn't know that? As he told Costas, it wasn't like telling him a million bucks awaited him for making the playoffs again was going to change this or that in-game decision. It's another example of whoever's running Torre's former team demonstrating a slippery grip on the reality of their business.
3) The best team is the team that plays best. Torre lost me by repeating the conventional wisdom canard that a best-of-five playoff series is by definition a crapshoot. It was a way to take himself off the hook for his team losing its last three division series. Hey, whaddaya want from me? Anything can happen in five games! Nowhere in the discussion between him and Costas did he say his team was lucky in the years when it won its LDS. It was implied that his team was always better but sometimes unlucky, never simply losers like half the teams in a League Division Series are going to be. How about acknowledging that everybody who makes it through 162 games to reach the playoffs is probably on a par with each other and there are no legitimately unfathomable upsets by October? The LDS round pits a division winner against a division winner, or a division winner against a team that probably came pretty close, a team that, if geography had been reinterpreted, might have won a division itself. If it's wrong of Steinbrenner to demand All Or Nothing results, then it's off base for Torre to act as if piloting a few division series losers was somehow a freak of nature. P.S. Between 1969 and 1984, pennants were decided in best-of-five series and I don't remember the crapshoot argument being invoked. If you lost, it was because somebody beat you, not because life wasn't fair.
4) PR isn't a stat, but perhaps it should be. Maybe Joe Torre was just being efficient in holding a big-ass press conference last week since he was presumably besieged for interviews. Maybe he was just being considerate of every reporter who covered him. Maybe he was doing Costas a favor by giving him his first one-on-one since leaving his post. Or maybe Joe Torre gives lie to the ol' “I never read the papers [or Internet]” dictum so many sports people insist we believe. It's pretty obvious Joe Torre cares what is said about him. He doesn't have to. He can probably do whatever he wants or, as that jingle for the Nevele put it, he doesn't have to do a thing (people do that, too). Yet Torre has a storyline and he has talking points: he wasn't treated with respect; he deserved a longer contract; he was plenty motivated. If he didn't say a word, most observers would come to those conclusions independently. Discount the outlying cranks who like to come off as iconoclasts, and everybody who's covered Torre regularly has generally burnished his image for him for years. Maybe now that he doesn't have batting orders and pitching rotations to worry about, maybe he's right to worry about perceptions. Maybe, to paraphrase the line about rich folks who are careful with their nickels, that's how people who enjoy positive perceptions continue to be perceived positively.
5) Drama must linger. Why are intelligent people pretending it matters that Torre won't say if he will eventually go to his former place of business and throw out a first ball or tip his cap? Of course he doesn't want to right now. Who the hell wants to go back to the company he or she just left acrimoniously? He just finished a dozen years doing what he considers a great job and was met with stony silence when tried to express that view. No, he wouldn't be anxious to return. Nor might his former employers be anxious to have him back. But eventually they will. For someone who obviously appreciated the enhancement his image received from his success in that job, Torre will someday, sooner than later, want to own that part of his history. Everybody eventually goes back for at least ceremonial purposes. Casey Stengel took another job after being fired in 1960 but went back in 1970 for the retirement of his uniform number. Yogi Berra famously huffed he would never go back after being fired in 1985, but he returned in 1999 because he decided life is too long to hold an endless grudge. Billy Martin…he always returned. He'd return right now if he could. Of course Joe Torre will return there to wave if not manage. He'll look good doing so and his former employers won't lose anything in the process. But don't expect it to be tomorrow. Put aside the $5 million and put yourself in Joe's shoes: you wouldn't return tomorrow either.
6) Bob Costas can come off as an elitist twit. After watching Joe Torre sport an insignia I reflexively froth at for a dozen years, you'd think he'd be the person in this HBO interview I'd be most annoyed by when it was over. But no, it was Costas. And it wasn't anything he said or did in the interview that annoyed me, it was the afterchat with Bryant Gumbel when the host asked the interviewer what the chances were of Torre managing again. Fifty-fifty, Costas guessed, an informed way of saying “I don't know.” Costas ventured that Joe would require an ideal situation, that Torre obviously isn't going to manage the Cincinnati Reds (FYI, they just hired Dusty Baker) or the Milwaukee Brewers. OK, maybe I'm being too literal-minded here, but the way he gave off this vibe of condescension when he dismissed the Brewers in particular peeved me no end. Why couldn't Joe Torre manage the Milwaukee Brewers? What's so dadburned extraordinary about a specific baseball manager that he's incapable of managing a specific baseball team? If Costas' point was the Brewers probably couldn't pay him all he would want, I'll buy that. But that didn't seem to be his implication. It was more the Brewers aren't good enough for Torre. That's absurd. The Brewers nearly won the National League Central last season. They have an outstanding young nucleus, not altogether different from what Torre walked into in 1996. Maybe a more patient, more experienced manager than Ned Yost (whom we last saw tussling with Johnny Estrada in the runway to the home dugout at Miller Park) is just what they need to become a champion. They have relatively new ownership that isn't afraid to spend a few bucks, they have a very nice facility with healthy attendance and Milwaukee — where Torre began his major league career in 1960, not incidentally — appears to be a wonderfully livable town. A couple of pennants and, before you know it, snobs like Costas would be falling all over themselves calling Milwaukee an adorable baseball hotbed, the Brewers a summertime version of the Packers and their fans — not the Cardinals' — the best in the game, tailgating inheritors of the sacred and homey traditions established for the Braves of '57 and the Brew Crew of '82. Why not? A year ago, maybe two months ago, Costas (like a lot of us) could have similarly patronized the Colorado Rockies and seemed urbane and knowing in the process. Today, there's no success story quite like Clint Hurdle and the heretofore obscure, small-market, instantly dismissable Rockies. Today, in his heart of competitive hearts, I'd bet Joe Torre would happily trade his last twelve years for Clint Hurdle's next four to seven games.