There were probably more than a few nights during Joe Torre’s reign as manager of our New York Mets when I clicked the dial to Channel 9, sat down clearly intent on paying attention, but then got preoccupied reading or something. Now and then I would look up and notice the Mets were losing. Come the ninth, I’d put down my book, magazine or newspaper, see a runner reach base, get my hopes up and have them dashed immediately.
That happened here in the heart of the apparently never-ending Terry Collins era Saturday night. The TV was controlled remotely, the channel was 11 and the distractions were primarily digital and feline, but the same basic formula held. I didn’t find the game gripping and the Mets came up short.
Some things change only a little.
The Mets’ lack of zazz at Miller Park, where the most interesting sidebar was provided by whatshisname the lefty being annoyed that he couldn’t get out of a jam in the fifth and wasn’t allowed to pitch anymore in the sixth, won’t be protested too harshly here, as it provides me an alibi to write about Joe Torre’s imminent Hall of Fame induction, a prospective event that would have overwhelmed with joy circa 1978 because I would have assumed he was going in for the many titles he’d be winning with the Mets in the decades ahead.
In truth, I don’t remember thinking Torre was going to manage his way into the Hall of Fame on those nights when his Mets teams weren’t particularly gripping. But I guess I learned my lesson. For the record, I don’t think Terry Collins will be joining Joe Torre in Cooperstown, though he is sort of following in his footsteps. Nobody managed the Mets for more games without guiding the team to a winning record in any given season than Joe. Take Torre out of the equation, and nobody’s managed the Mets for more games without guiding the team to a winning record in any given season than Terry.
While we’ve been sitting here waiting for that package containing the future to be dropped off by UPS, the current skipper has been racking up sustainability numbers all out of proportion to his winning percentage. Saturday’s 5-2 defeat in Milwaukee was Collins’s 590th game as Mets manager. Since the All-Star break, he has passed Casey Stengel (582) and Yogi Berra (588) to place fifth in the Metropolitan managerial longevity department. Each of them is in the Hall of Fame, too, so maybe Terry’s more of an immortal than I imagine.
Blips of promise aside, it seems he’ll never take the Mets above .500 and it seems he’ll never be dismissed based on his record, so maybe there is no putting him out of our misery. But never mind Collins, his pitcher batting eighth and his weird seasonlong fondness for Abreu and C. Young over giving every last shot to Nieuwenhuis and Brown. This is about Torre, remember?
I never grew as crabby watching Torre not win with the Mets as I do watching Terry do the same. I probably wasn’t as intermittently sour in my teens as I’ve become in middle age, or maybe I just hadn’t seen enough blah baseball yet. Also Torre seemed to hint at better days, not signify settling for waiting. Joe, who managed 709 Mets games, played in 254 Mets games and — in action far more gangsta than anything Jerry Manuel ever attempted — player-managed twice, represented progress, or at least the illusion of it.
Maybe that’s why I didn’t connect my frustrations with the often unwatchable Mets of 1977-1981 to their fearless leader. I had seen Brooklynite Torre play, both as a superstar MVP opponent and a revered veteran coming home at last. Joe was immensely experienced, undeniably local and gave good quote. Hell, he was my first baseball card. When he transitioned from the clubhouse to the manager’s office, it qualified as exciting. All Met managers prior to Torre were guys who played in the majors a million years earlier, a.k.a. before I had ever heard of baseball. Torre was a mere 36 years old when handed the keys to the roster on May 31, 1977. Joe Torre’s the manager? Why, he was hitting .300 just last year! Maybe the Mets aren’t so stodgy after all!
That conclusion was valid for approximately two weeks when management punctuated its harrumph! toward modern times by sending away the high-priced players who dared to grumble that the franchise was being run into the ground by its retrograde chairman of the board. The Mets weren’t going anywhere post-Seaver and post-Kingman in 1977, but they did have Torre, and by dint of being neither his predecessor Joe Frazier nor our albatross M. Donald Grant, he was dynamic.
Then, the next year, the Mets showed up at Shea wearing snappier uniforms, pullovers with a couple of buttons at the top and a touch of blue and orange trimming adorning cuffs and collar. With the decade 80% over, the Mets had decided to join the 1970s. Joe was still a young man as managers went and his players were those kids you were urged to bring your kids to see and they were gaining maturity right before our eyes! Right before our eyes when we bothered to look up from our book, magazine or newspaper, that is.
Was Joe Torre a good manager with bad players when he helmed the Mets? Or did he have a load of learning ahead of him to qualify for the pedestal he will be put on this afternoon upstate? I don’t know that I was sophisticated enough in the late ’70s and early ’80s to delineate, but I never minded his extended tenure and I gave him every benefit of the fifth- and sixth-place doubt. The Mets were already tumbling relentlessly into the abyss when he took over for Frazier, so I never blamed him for not rescuing them. The evanescent spurts of Magic-Is-Back type improvement, as viewed through Joe-colored glasses, obscured the shortcomings of a team that was perennially warding off 100 losses. If he didn’t seem preternaturally wise like Gil Hodges or supremely serene like Yogi Berra, he also didn’t seem out of his element like Joe Frazier.
You know how Collins’s biggest strength is that “he’s never lost the clubhouse”? Well, Lee Mazzilli seemed to like Joe Torre. Steve Henderson seemed to like Joe Torre. I liked Lee Mazzilli and Steve Henderson. That was as much Pythagorean theorem as I ever cared to apply to baseball, including the year I studied advanced algebra.
Torre was a fixture at Shea from the minute he was traded to the Mets from St. Louis in the fall of 1974, but after five years as manager, his time was up. The pace of displacement was accelerated by the installation of a new general manager. Joe may have come with the place, but Frank Cashen was entitled to make renovations. When 1981 ended no more successfully than 1980 or 1979 or 1978 or 1977, it was goodbye Torre, hello somebody else. Managers, you may have heard, are hired to be fired…except for Terry Collins, who will be telling your grandchildren’s grandchildren that the Mets are in most games; that they’re just not getting the big hit; and that he’s going to sit Flores yet again because, “It’s important that we get Ruben going.”
If you weren’t around when Torre was a Met through and through, you probably picture him in the other kind of pinstripes, the ones that never featured those neat blue and orange accents. Or maybe you just know him as the common sense-averse MLB executive in charge of keeping the Mets from wearing FDNY, NYPD and PAPD caps every September 11. He’s been exalted since October of 1996, by which time you could be pretty sure he felt secure enough to leave “NEW YORK METS, 1975-1981: Player, player-manager & manager” off his résumé.
He wasn’t exalted when we had him, but he was going to lead Mazz and Hendu and the rest of the kids to fourth place if everything broke right, and if they can get to fourth and stay close to third by the All-Star break…
When Joe Torre’s Mets had visions of first-division sugarplums dancing in my head, you can bet I put down whatever I was reading and paid rapt attention.
Torre will put down his cup of Bigelow Tea long enough to stroll arm in arm in performance-enhanced arm into the Hall with two other exalted managers: Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa. In one particular parochial context, we can lump them as a unit and consider them the Treacherous Three. Cox’s Braves beat our boys in the 1999 NLCS; Torre’s Yankees ruined the Subway World Series of 2000; and La Russa was the one who started Jeff Suppan in Game Seven in 2006 and closed with Adam Wainwright. Not incidentally, also ensconced in Cooperstown as managers are the late Dick Williams, from the 1973 A’s, and Tommy Lasorda of the 1988 Dodgers.
In other words, every manager who has succeeded against the Mets in October has been honored for depriving us of an extra ring or five. You could view that as something of a slap at our sanity, but I prefer to take it as a cosmic compliment, as if various Veterans Committees decided the hardest thing a manager can do in baseball is keep the Mets from a championship. Once you step right up and beat the Mets, however, you’ve really earned your plaque.
Conversely, not in the Hall of Fame as of this writing are the two extraordinarily talented managers who led the Mets to world championships. Label me as parochial as you like and let Walter White stir the Stevia into my Bigelow, but would you really not take Gil Hodges or Davey Johnson over any of these guys any day of the week?