Joe Torre was the fourth choice. The veteran manager was out of work in October of 1995, four months removed from the third firing of his managerial career, when an old friend from his days with the Mets, Arthur Richman, a public relations official and special adviser to Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, called him with a question. “Are you interested in managing the Yankees?” Torre made his interest known without hesitation. “Hell, yeah,” he said. Only 10 days earlier, Torre had interviewed for the general manager’s job with the Yankees, but he had no interest in such an aggravation-filled job at its $350,000 salary, a $150,000 cut from what he had been earning as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals before they fired him in June. His brother Frank Torre did not think managing the Yankees was worth the hassle, either. After all, Steinbrenner had changed managers 21 times in his 23 seasons of ownership, adding Buck Showalter to the bloody casualty list by running him out of town after Showalter refused to acquiesce to a shakeup of his coaching staff. It didn’t matter to Steinbrenner that the Yankees reached the playoffs for the first time in 14 years, even if it was as the first American League wild card team in a strike-shortened season. Showalter’s crimes in Steinbrenner’s book were blowing a two games to one lead in the best-of-five Division Series against the Seattle Mariners, and resisting the coaching changes. “Why do you want this job?” Frank Torre asked his brother. “It’s a no-lose situation for me,” Joe replied. “I need to find out if I can do this or not.” Richman also had recommended to Steinbrenner three managers with higher profiles and greater success than Torre: Sparky Anderson, Tony LaRussa and Davey Johnson. None of those choices panned out. Anderson retired, LaRussa took the managing job in St. Louis and Johnson, returning to his ballplaying roots, took the job in Baltimore. LaRussa and Johnson received far more lucrative contracts than what Steinbrenner wanted to pay his next manager. “I’ve got to admit, I was the last choice,” Torre said. “It didn’t hurt my feelings, because it was an opportunity to work and find out if I can really manage. I certainly was going to have the lumber.”
On Wednesday, November 1, Bob Watson, in his ninth day on the job as general manager after replacing Gene Michael, called Torre while Torre was driving to a golf course in Cincinnati. Watson summoned him to an interview in Tampa, Florida. That evening, Torre met with Steinbrenner, Watson, Michael, assistant general manager Brian Cashman and Joe Molloy, Steinbrenner’s son-in-law and a partner with the team. The next morning, Torre was introduced as the manager of the Yankees at a news conference in the Stadium Club of Yankee Stadium, standing in the same spot where Showalter had stood twelve months earlier as the 1994 AL Manager of the Year.
It was an inauspicious hiring in most every way. Steinbrenner did not bother to attend the introductory event of his new manager. The press grilled Torre. Not only had Torre been fired three times, but also he was 55 years old and brought with him a losing record (894-1,003), not one postseason series victory, and the ignominy of having spent more games over a lifetime of playing and managing without ever getting to the World Series than any other man in history. Torre was a highly accomplished player, even a star player, for 18 seasons with the Braves, Cardinals and Mets. He was named to nine All-Star teams and won one Most Valuable Player Award, with the Cardinals in 1971.When he played his last game in 1977,Torre was one of only 29 players in baseball history to have amassed more than 2,300 hits and an OPS+ of 128 (a measurement of combined on-base and slugging percentages adjusted for league averages and ballpark effects, thus making era-to-era comparisons more equitable). His career profile, however, was dimmed by never having played in the postseason.
Torre’s baseball acumen and leadership skills were so highly regarded that the Mets named him a player/manager at age 36 during the 1977 season. He ceased playing that same year, the first of his five years managing awful Mets teams. When the Mets fired him after the 1981 season, the Braves, owned by Ted Turner, quickly snapped him up. Torre immediately led the Braves to their first division title in 13 years. He lasted only two more seasons with Turner’s Braves. Torre spent almost six years out of baseball, serving as a broadcaster with the California Angels, until the Cardinals hired him to replace the popular Whitey Herzog in 1990. Those five seasons were the only seasons in which Torre did not play or manage in the major leagues since he broke in as a 20-year-old catcher in 1960 with the Milwaukee Braves, a team that also included Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews and Warren Spahn and Joe’s brother Frank.
One of Torre’s great strengths as a manager was that he understood what it was like to both star and struggle at the major league level. For instance, he hit .363 when he won the MVP Award in 1971, and 74 points lower the very next year. “And I tried just as hard both years,” he said. One day in 1975 with the Mets, Torre became the first player in National League history to ground into four double plays, each of them following a single by second baseman Felix Millan. He reacted to such infamy with humor. “I’d like to thank Felix Millan for making all of this possible,” he said.
At his introductory news conference, Torre displayed his cool demeanor and ease in front of a hostile media crowd. He answered questions with humor and optimism, and did not hesitate to talk about his lifetime goal of winning the World Series, something the Yankees had not done in 17 years, the longest drought for the franchise since it won its first in 1921. He knew Steinbrenner had grown restless.
“When you get married, do you think you’re always going to be smiling?” Torre said at the news conference. “I try to think of the potential for good things happening. That’s the World Series. I know here we’ll have the ability to improve the team . . . To have that opportunity is worth all the negative sides.”
All in all, Torre was not warmly received as the replacement for a popular young manager Steinbrenner had chased off after a playoff season. He was an admitted last choice for the job, and soon heard even after his hiring that Steinbrenner was working back channels to see if he could bring Showalter back. Critics regarded Torre as a recycled commodity without portfolio. Torre was in Cincinnati with in-laws on the day after his news conference when a friend from New York called him up.
“Uh, have you seen the back page of the Daily News?”
The New York Daily News welcomed the hiring of Torre with a huge headline that said, “CLUELESS JOE.” The subhead read, “Torre Has No Idea What He’s Getting Himself Into.” It referenced a column written by Ian O’Connor in which O’Connor said that Torre “came across as naïve at best, desperate at worst.” Wrote O’Connor, “It’s always a sad occasion when man becomes muppet.” A last choice, a placeholder for Showalter, a man without a clue, a muppet . . . this is how Torre was welcomed as the new manager of the New York Yankees. None of it bothered him.
“It didn’t matter to me,” Torre said. “I was so tickled to have the opportunity that none of it mattered. I was a little nervous starting out with it. Every time you get fired there is always something you think you can do better. I started thinking, maybe I have to do this different or that different. And then one day before spring training began, I was thumbing through a book by Bill Parcells, the football coach. He said something like, ‘If you believe in something, stay with it.’ And that was enough for me.”
Under Torre’s recommendation, with input from Torre’s new bench coach, Don Zimmer,Watson’s first major player move was to acquire a strong defensive catcher to replace Mike Stanley, who was popular with Yankees fans for his hitting but was never known for his defense. On November 20, Watson traded relief pitcher Mike DeJean to the Colorado Rockies for Joe Girardi. It was the start of a frantic, sometimes curious 40-day period in which Watson, with assistance from Michael and, of course, Steinbrenner, assembled nearly a third of the 1996 roster, getting Girardi, first baseman Tino Martinez, reliever Jeff Nelson and outfielder Tim Raines in shrewd trades, signing second baseman Mariano Duncan and pitcher Kenny Rogers as free agents, and re-signing third baseman Wade Boggs and David Cone, their own free agent.
Actually, Cone’s signing had less to do with Watson but instead illustrated the sheer force and will Steinbrenner exerted over the baseball operations of the Yankees, who were the richest club in baseball but had yet to grow into the financial behemoth that would put them so far ahead of the 29 other franchises. In 1995, Steinbrenner spent $58.1 million on payroll, the most in baseball, but a somewhat reasonable 19 percent more than the second-biggest spender, the Baltimore Orioles. The 1996 Yankees would draw 2.2 million fans to Yankee Stadium, ranking them seventh among the 14 American League teams. Cone was set to re-sign with the Yankees until Watson called his agent, Steve Fehr, to suddenly reduce the terms of the deal. An angered Cone immediately entered into negotiations with the Orioles, negotiations that moved so quickly the Orioles began internal plans for an afternoon news conference to announce his signing. One small hangup remained, however. “I probably would have signed if it wasn’t for those guys in the front office haggling over deferred money at zero percent interest,” Cone said. “I’m telling you, when I talked to my financial guys they said it may be a couple hundred grand they were haggling over at that point. Not to piss on a couple hundred grand, but in the grand scope of things, a couple hundred grand shouldn’t hold things up.” While the Orioles were holding up the deal, Steinbrenner called Fehr from a pay phone at a hospital, where he was visiting an ill friend. He asked Fehr to put Cone on the line.
“I had been with the Yankees only since the middle of ’95,” Cone said, “and hadn’t had much workings with George. I just heard stories about how tough he was to deal with. He told me,‘We need you.We want you.’ He said all the right things and swayed me right back, because I was right on the fence. He said, ‘Everything we offered you is back on the table.’ He apologized, called it a misunderstanding. He kind of threw Bob Watson under the bus a little bit. He blamed him, which I think was Bob just doing his job. But my heart was in New York. I had an apartment in New York. It’s what I wanted.”
Cone agreed to a three-year contract worth $19.5 million. Steinbrenner completed the deal with a vision for the future.
“We want you not just for this deal,” Steinbrenner told Cone, “but for the rest of your career. Before your career is over with the Yankees, you’ll be pitching in a new ballpark on the West Side of Manhattan and I hope we’re drawing three million people a year.”
Even Steinbrenner had no idea just how big a brand the Yankees would become.
That Steinbrenner could cut a huge free-agent deal from a hospital pay phone at a moment’s notice spoke to his impact on the entire organizational culture. If he wanted something done, it was done. There was no haggling over deferred money with zero interest. Steinbrenner was himself one of the best closers in baseball, especially when motivated by intense criticism that came about because of the breakup with Showalter, as well as whirlwind changes that swept out popular Yankees such as Stanley, Randy Velarde and Don Mattingly, who faded into retirement. Steinbrenner’s last-minute call from the pay phone, stealing Cone out from under the Orioles, the Yankees’ main competition in the AL East, was a key moment in the building of a dynasty. Cone would become the most respected leader of the Yankees’ four world championship teams under Torre. Cone was the glue, if not the very spirit, of the dynasty. In addition to being a ferocious competitor, Cone was a skilled, willful tactician in handling the New York media. His rapport with the media allowed more quiet types, such as Bernie Williams and Paul O’Neill, the best hitters on the team, to play free of the media responsibilities that typically fall to front-line everyday players in New York.
“I kind of fell into that role in my career,” Cone said, “by watching Keith Hernandez and some of the Mets the way they did it. I remember watching Frank Cashen, the Mets general manager, talking in the dugout to reporters and going, ‘On background guys . . .’ and then talking on the record. You watched how they handled it and you could develop a little closer relationship with the writers. Those were the days when you could go out and have a beer with the writers after a game. It was a different animal.
“I think I was at least somebody my teammates with the Yankees knew wasn’t doing it for self-promoting purposes.That’s what I was always worried about: would it come across as self-promoting? That was a balancing act. I think going through the 1994—95 strike and being a de facto spokesman on the players’ side really helped a lot. I was trying to flip everything, reverse everything, and trying to be a stand-up guy. And going through the strike and finding myself on the Yankees the year after the strike, I knew all the writers at that point. I just kind of fell into it.”
On the first day of the 1996 spring training camp, Torre gathered his team for a meeting. Many of the players didn’t know him and he didn’t know many of the players. He looked around the room. Among the group were the veterans new to the team, such as Raines, Martinez, Nelson, Girardi, Duncan and Rogers; a 21-yearold rookie shortstop named Derek Jeter; returning outfielders Bernie Williams and Paul O’Neill, a guy people in the front office had warned him had a “selfish” streak; veteran pitchers Cone, Jimmy Key and John Wetteland; and young pitchers Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera. Torre’s coaches were Zimmer, Mel Stottlemyre, Willie Randolph, Chris Chambliss, Tony Cloninger and Jose Cardenal.
“All of my coaches have been to the World Series,” Torre told his team. “That’s what I want. But I don’t want to win just one. I want to win three of them in a row. I want to establish something here that’s special. I don’t want to sacrifice principles and players to do it one time. I want to establish a foundation to be the kind of ballclub that is going to be able to repeat.”
Dick Williams, the former big league manager who was working with the Yankees as a special adviser, pulled Torre aside after the meeting and told him,“That was a hell of a meeting, one of the best I’ve ever seen.”
Said Cone, “I remember right off the bat that calming influence that he had, the way he conducted team meetings, the way he talked to people. You could sense that he was going to be a calming influence. He had a lot of experience. There was still a lot of speculation at the beginning of spring training about Showalter, a lot of talk about George trying to bring him back. Maybe they were going to bump Joe upstairs and bring Showalter back. I remember the first couple of meetings showed how even-keeled and level he was.”
The Yankees were getting Torre at the perfect time in his life. It wasn’t just that his three managerial firings made him the made-to-order unflappable foil to Steinbrenner. “What’s the worst that can happen? I get fired again?” he would tell reporters. The timing was just right also because in between his hiring and the start of camp Torre unburdened himself of a dark family secret he had been carrying ever since he was a boy growing up in Brooklyn. Torre’s father, Joe Sr., was a New York City police detective who filled the family home with fear because of the physical and emotional abuse he brought upon his wife, Margaret. Joe, the youngest of five children, never was the direct target of such domestic violence, though it shaped who he was. Torre hated confrontation and loathed loud voices and noises. He so feared his father that if Torre saw his father’s car parked outside the house when he came home from school, Torre would simply keep walking.
Torre suppressed those feelings and never spoke about his father’s domestic abuse. Then, in December of 1995, Torre’s wife, Ali, talked him into joining her at a Life Success seminar, a program designed to foster personal growth. Ali saw a guarded, aloof side to her husband. Each time she would say “We need to talk,” she saw how he would grow tense. Maybe, she thought, the seminar could be helpful. Torre figured he would go through the motions of showing up at some new-age, self-help lecture. By the time the seminar and activities were over, Torre had emotionally unburdened himself to total strangers about the abusive household of his childhood. As a big league manager, Torre always preferred operating at low decibels, without confronting people. His method was to trust people and communicate in even, measured tones. But now his calm methodology was boosted by an inner peace that came from letting go of the dark family secret and understanding himself better. His personal confidence soared. His demeanor and optimism were exactly right for the 1996 Yankees, whose players returning from 1995 were pained by having blown the series to Seattle. They also had played under the tightly wound Showalter, who had played, coached and managed so long in the Yankees organization, where Steinbrenner’s divide-and-conquer style of leadership was designed to keep everyone uncomfortable, that trust did not come easily to him.
“They had a taste of the playoffs,” Torre said, “and I think they were grown up enough to know somebody has to make the decisions. Whether you like me or believe me, you have to understand that. They were at the point where they knew in order to win we have to work together. And somebody has to point us in that direction.”
Torre provided a complete contrast to Showalter’s micro-management style. He gave his coaches and players a wide berth. One word kept coming up over and over again in the application of his management philosophy: trust.
“What I try to do is treat everybody fairly,” Torre said.“It doesn’t mean I treat everybody the same. But everybody deserves a fair shake. That’s the only right thing to do. I’d rather be wrong trusting somebody than never trusting them.
“I’m of the belief that the game belongs to the players, and you have to facilitate that the best you can. I want them to use their natural ability. If they’re doing something wrong, you tell them, but I’d like it to be instructive, rather than robotic. The only thing I want them all to think about is what our goal is and what the at-bats are supposed to represent. And that simply is this: ‘What can I do to help us win a game?’ ”
Players quickly bought into Torre’s management-by-trust style, and they did so because its abiding principle was honesty.
“Honesty is important to me.Where does it come from? I don’t know, but even when I think back it was always something that was ingrained in me. Even now I may have trouble when I have to tell someone the truth if it’s not a pleasant thing, but I won’t lie to them. I can’t do that. The only way you can get commitment is through trust, and you’ve got to try to earn that trust.”
Torre applied the same principle to dealing with the media. His work as a broadcaster with the Angels and his gift for storytelling made him a naturally relaxed witness in front of the prosecutorialleaning reporters and columnists in New York. He was informative without compromising his team. He was refreshingly honest.
“I may have misled the media, but I never knowingly lied to the media,” Torre said. “I may not have answered something directly or changed the subject and gone in a different direction, but I don’t remember purposefully lying to somebody.
“I thought it was an important part of the job, the media being such a big part of what goes on in New York. I thought it was my obligation to communicate with them so they would have the information right from me. So I thought it was something that there was no time limit on.
“My one point to the players was they were never going to read something that they haven’t heard from me, at least something significant. And that’s part of the trust I try to create.”
Before the 1996 spring training camp even began,Torre showed his trust in Cone by naming him his Opening Day pitcher. Jimmy Key, Andy Pettitte, Dwight Gooden and Kenny Rogers would take the spots behind him in the rotation. Unbeknownst to Torre, however, Cone was suffering from a mysterious tingling in his fingers. It started when Cone reported early for spring training and simply was playing catch.The tingling grew so progressively worse that the fingernail on his right ring finger turned blue. Cone said nothing about it.
On Opening Day in Cleveland, Cone threw the kind of game that practically defined his Yankees career. It emphasized his flirtatious relationship with disaster, though somehow the two of them never actually met. He walked six Indians batters and none of them scored. In 38-degree weather, Cone threw seven shutout innings in a 7-1 win. As soon as he walked back into the clubhouse, he looked down at his right hand. It was ice cold and clammy, worse than it had been all spring. His entire right ring finger was blue. He approached trainer Gene Monahan and said, “Something’s wrong with my hand.”
The Yankees sent him to Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in New York for an angiogram.The head vascular surgeon, Dr. George Todd, was on vacation at the time.
“They couldn’t find anything,” Cone said, “so they put me on blood thinners and ran me back out there to pitch again, which in hindsight was probably not the right thing to do.”
The symptoms continued. When Todd returned from vacation and saw the angiogram, he feared something was wrong with Cone–probably an aneurysm, or a clot, somewhere in his circulatory system, a potentially deadly problem depending on where it was located–and they needed to bring him back in for another angiogram.
“I pitched a complete game against the White Sox,” Cone said.“I was pitching great, leading the league in ERA. I couldn’t figure it out. I was barely able to feel the ball. I guess I didn’t try to overthrow. I was just painting with everything and getting away with it.”
The angiogram was a grueling procedure. As Cone described it, it involved a catheter through the groin, massive painkillers and lying on his back on a steel table for hours. Cone, drugged, sore and tired, saw the doctors and nurses rush back into the room with smiles on their faces after studying the results of the angiogram. “We found the aneurysm!” they announced.
Said Cone, “I was like, ‘Fuck you. Don’t tell me that way!’ They were so happy because they found it. ‘You’ve got an aneurysm!’ I was drugged up, but that’s when I really got scared. I knew something was wrong. I just thought it was something in my hand. I didn’t know it was up there.”
The aneurysm was found in the upper area of the arm, in the shoulder region. On May 11, in a three-hour surgery, doctors cut two arteries, removed the aneurysm, and took a piece of a vein from his thigh to patch the connection and restore blood flow. The Yankees were 20-14, in first place, but without their ace and leader. No one could be sure when or if Cone would be back that season.
Cone had thrown 147 pitches in his final game of the 1995 season, the Yankees’ Game 5 loss at the Kingdome in Seattle against the Mariners. On his last pitch, he walked in the tying run. Cone was so tired and depressed after that game that he barely left his Manhattan apartment for days. His arm was so sore that even combing his hair was painful. Doctors could never draw a direct link between those 147 pitches and his aneurysm, but Cone was left to wonder about the possible connection.
“I don’t think there’s any way to know for sure because of the wear and tear,” he said. “It’s like a flat tire. When do you get it? But it had to have something to do with it, because I showed up the next spring and immediately had tingling in my fingers when I started throwing the ball again.”
The 1996 Yankees, though, were an extraordinary team precisely because their fate did not rest with any one player. Nobody on the team hit 30 home runs, collected 200 hits or stole 20 bases. The offense was below average, ranking ninth in the 14-team league. The pitching was good, though not spectacularly so. It ranked fifth in ERA.The Yankees never won or lost more than five games in a row. Their strengths were their resourcefulness, the ability to find any crack or crevice in any game or any opponent and exploit it, and a lockdown bullpen that made winning on the margins not nearly as risky as it appeared to be. Rivera and Wetteland typically could be counted on for the final nine outs with little trouble. The Yankees made the most of a mediocre offense to win 92 games. They hit .293 with runners in scoring position. They were 25-16 in one-run games. They were 70-3 when they led after six innings.
Resourcefulness, however, was an art form not fully appreciated by Steinbrenner. An aficionado of football, military history and intimidation, Steinbrenner wanted to crush opponents, not just carve them up with singles and one-run wins. Even as the 1996 Yankees racked up many of those efficient victories, Steinbrenner would call up Torre to complain. Steinbrenner, however, could not bully this manager.
“I was so excited to be managing a club that had a chance to win that whatever he dealt out to me, I was in a great frame of mind with it,” Torre said.“We’d be winning games and he’d be semi-embarrassed because we’d win on a squeeze bunt or a base hit. He wanted to mutilate people.”
On Tuesday, June 18, Steinbrenner summoned Torre to his office at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees would win that day to improve their record to 39-28 and their first-place lead over the Orioles to 21⁄2 games. Steinbrenner, though, remained uncomfortable, particularly with the Yankees, racked by injuries to their pitching staff, leaving for a four-game series against the hard-hitting Indians (a team that would lead the league in wins with 99). Steinbrenner was concerned that Torre planned to use two rookie emergency starters pulled from the bullpen, Brian Boehringer and Ramiro Mendoza, in a doubleheader. The rookies were followed by two starters from the back of the rotation, Rogers and Gooden. Steinbrenner wondered if there was somebody else, anybody with experience, who could pitch, even if it meant calling up someone from the minor leagues.
“I had no idea how we were going to win against Cleveland, with the pitchers we were sending to the mound,” Torre said. “But I told him everything was going to work out.”
Eventually Steinbrenner stopped roaring and said to Torre, “Fine, but it’s your ass that’s on the line.”
It was a scenario that would be repeated many times over in Torre’s years managing the Yankees. Steinbrenner was always nervous or anxious about something. Torre, banking on his optimism and his trust in his players, would soothe the restless, fearful Steinbrenner with some assurance that things would turn out just fine for his team. The calming influence that Cone and the players took note of from the first day of spring training was as vital a trait for Torre while dealing with Steinbrenner as it was while in the dugout and clubhouse dealing with his players. The lion would roar menacingly and Torre calmly would stick his head into the animal’s mouth and come out smiling and unscathed. The Yankees won all four games in Cleveland, three of them by one or two runs.
“Well, you’re doing it with mirrors!” Steinbrenner barked at Torre.
“We’re playing solid baseball, Boss,” Torre said. “We stay in the game and our bullpen wins it for us. That’s the whole thing: we shorten the game. We turn it into a six-inning game with the guys we have coming out of the bullpen.”
The Yankees built a lead over the Orioles that grew to as large as 12 games on July 28, only to shrink to 21⁄2 games with 14 games to play after a 21-24 regression. The Yankees, though, held on with six wins in their next nine games while Baltimore stumbled. The winning pitcher in the clinching game was none other than Cone, who had come back in September from the aneurysm surgery.
The postseason became a 15-game version of their regular season. The Yankees capitalized on any opening and their bullpen was virtually unbeatable, losing only one game. The Texas Rangers had the Yankees six outs away from a two-games-to-none deficit in Game 2 of the best-of-five Division Series when the Yankees flashed their resourcefulness again. Bernie Williams began the eighth inning with a single, alertly moved to second on a deep fly ball, and scored on an opposite-field single by Cecil Fielder. They won in the 12th inning on a sacrifice bunt by Charlie Hayes, which third baseman Dean Palmer threw away, allowing Jeter to score from second base.
It wasn’t the kind of baseball Steinbrenner preferred, but it was smart, unselfish baseball and it was working. The Yankees’ fortuitous play continued against Baltimore in the American League Championship Series, a series the Orioles might have led two games to none but for another strange eighth-inning comeback by the Yankees in Game 1. With the Yankees down to their last five outs, trailing 4-3, Jeter lofted a high fly ball to the right-field wall, where Orioles right fielder Tony Tarasco began to reach for it. Before the ball could come down into Tarasco’s glove, however, a 12year-old kid named Jeffrey Maier reached over the wall and deflected the baseball into the stands. Right-field umpire Rich Garcia ruled a home run. There could be no doubt about it now; the Yankees were getting help from above.The game was tied.The Yankees would win in the 11th inning on a home run by Williams. They also would win all three games in Baltimore, sending Torre to the first World Series in his life. Upon the final out, Torre broke down in tears in the dugout.
Disaster awaited Torre at the World Series. Playing for the first time in seven days, and against a red-hot and favored Atlanta Braves team, the Yankees were blown out in Game 1 at Yankee Stadium, 12-1. They were staring at Greg Maddux, the best pitcher in baseball, in Game 2 when Steinbrenner walked into Torre’s office about 90 minutes before the game, fishing for some of that familiar Torre assurance.
“This is a must game,” Steinbrenner said.
Torre barely looked up at him.
“You should be prepared for us to lose again tonight,” he said nonchalantly. It was hardly the assurance Steinbrenner wanted. But then Torre continued: “But then we’re going to Atlanta. Atlanta’s my town.We’ll take three games there and win it back here on Saturday.”
Steinbrenner didn’t know what to say. Here was Torre saying the Yankees would lose again, but then sweep four straight games from the Braves and their all-time great rotation that included Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine? It was crazy talk. Sure enough, the Yankees lost to Maddux, 4-0. They had been outscored 16-1, the worst combined beating in the first two games in World Series history.
Steinbrenner grew more fearful. He worried about getting swept and being “embarrassed,” always one of his great worries. Steinbrenner was always talking about being “embarrassed.” He called up Torre in his office before Game 3 in Atlanta. “Let’s not get embarrassed,” a nervous Steinbrenner said.
“We’re fine,” Torre told him.
Not everyone felt that way. Mike Borzello, the bullpen catcher, remembers standing in the outfield during batting practice before Game 3 with Boggs and Martinez. All of them had the same thoughts as Steinbrenner.
“We were talking about how we just didn’t want to get swept,” Borzello said. “We were all saying, ‘We’ve got to get one, because it will be embarrassing to go four and out. But this team is so much better than we are.’ Really, that’s how we felt until the tide turned.”
Game 3, as well as the entire World Series, reached critical mass in the sixth inning when the Braves loaded the bases against Cone with one out, trailing the Yankees, 2-0. Fred McGriff, the Braves’ lefthanded slugging first baseman, was due up. Graeme Lloyd, a lefthanded reliever, was throwing in the Yankees’ bullpen. Torre walked to the mound, still not sure whether he would leave Cone in or replace him with Lloyd. The book move was to go leftyon-lefty. Torre looked Cone squarely in the eye.
“This is very important,” Torre said. “I need the truth from you. How do you feel?”
“I’m okay,” Cone said. “I lost the feel for my slider a little bit there, but I’m okay. I’ll get this guy for you.”
But then Torre grabbed Cone and pulled him closer so that they were practically nose to nose.
“This game is very important,” Torre said. “I’ve got to know the truth, so don’t bullshit me.”
Said Cone, “I had anticipated what the questions were going to be. Basically,‘Hey, are you okay?’ ‘Yeah, I’m fine.’‘Okay, how are we going to go after this guy?’ He basically said, ‘No, that’s not good enough,’ and turned me around nose to nose. He said, ‘No, I need to know you’re okay,’ almost imploring me to tell the truth. He made eye contact with me and made me look him in the eye. He got closer and closer and grabbed me to pull me closer. He said two or three times, ‘No, I need to know you’re okay.’
“That’s the first time I heard a manager do anything like that, saying it that way. I was fine, as good as I was going to be for a guy who rushed back to the team from surgery. I was not fully all the way back at that point. But I always thought I could make a pitch, a splitter or something. It’s like playing golf where you think you can make a shot. Somehow, someway.”
Cone convinced Torre to leave him in the game. He made a pitch to McGriff, who popped it up. Cone then walked Ryan Klesko, forcing in a run. “It was a borderline call,” Cone said, “but if you make a mistake there he can juice one.” Cone ended the inning by getting Javy Lopez on a pop-up, preserving a lead for the Yankees, who would go on to win, 5-2.
As important as Game 3 was, Game 4 would become the signature game for the 1996 Yankees. Down 6-0 in the sixth inning, Torre gathered his players in the dugout for an impromptu meeting and advised them,“Let’s cut it in half right here.Take small bites. Do the little things to get one run at a time. Let’s put a little pressure on them.”
No Yankees team ever had won a World Series game by coming from that far behind. Only one team ever overcame a bigger deficit in the World Series, Connie Mack’s 1929 Philadelphia Athletics. The Yankees immediately responded to Torre’s advice. They scored three runs with their first four batters of the inning, stitching together three opposite-field singles and a walk for the quintessential ’96 Yankees rally.
The game-tying rally was more bombastic: a three-run home run by Jimmy Leyritz off Atlanta closer Mark Wohlers with one out in the eighth, a blast made possible when Wohlers made the mistake of throwing a hanging slider because Leyritz looked as if he were timing his 99 mph fastballs by fouling them off. The Yankees won, 8-6, in the 10th inning with the tie-breaking run scoring on a pinch-hit walk by Wade Boggs, the last position player left on Torre’s bench. Torre used seven pitchers, five pinch hitters and one pinch runner. He used every one of his players except three starting pitchers, Cone, Key and Pettitte. It was the fourth time in 13 postseason games that year that the Yankees won a game after staring at defeat from the close proximity of six or fewer outs away.
The series was tied at two games each, with the Yankees giving the ball to Pettitte in Game 5 and the Braves going to Smoltz.Torre had some difficult decisions to make with his lineup, the first of which he actually made immediately after Game 4. Torre told Leyritz he would catch Pettitte rather than Girardi, the defensive specialist.
“I said to Leyritz,‘You know what? I’m going to catch you with Pettitte tomorrow,’ ” Torre said. “ ‘And the only reason you’re catching Pettitte is because you hit a three-run homer. I wasn’t going to catch you. So just make sure you do the right thing.’ Because he always wanted to do things his way. He didn’t want to follow the game plan of how we were going to pitch people. But that was his personality. ‘The King.’ ”
Torre filled out the rest of his lineup when he arrived at the ballpark for Game 5. He chose to play Hayes instead of Boggs at third base–emphasizing the likelihood of groundballs there with the lefthanded Pettitte pitching–the hot-hitting Fielder instead of Martinez at first base, despite facing a righthander; and Raines in the outfield instead of O’Neill, who was limited by a sore hamstring. Torre called Boggs, Martinez and O’Neill into his office one-by-one to break the news to them they would not be starting.
“Boggs was disappointed,” Torre said, “Tino was the only one where you could see the anger, and Paulie just looked resigned. He was down. He walked out with his head down and his shoulders slouched.”
As O’Neill left the office, Zimmer saw resignation on O’Neill’s face. The danger with sitting O’Neill against Smoltz was that O’Neill would not be there mentally whenever Torre did have to go back to him. Zimmer thought about O’Neill’s reaction.
“This guy has been playing on one leg all year,” Zimmer said. “I think we really owe it to him.”
Torre agreed. It gave him an idea: why not play Strawberry in left and O’Neill in right? He told Zimmer to bring O’Neill back into his office.
“Manager’s prerogative,” he told O’Neill. “I changed my mind. You’re playing.”
Meanwhile, Fielder, rising to the occasion, was walking around the clubhouse, telling anybody within earshot, “Just get on base! Somebody get on base, and Big Daddy’s got you today! I’ll get you in. Just give me somebody on base.”
Sure enough, Fielder drove in the only run of the game with a double, one of his three hits. Torre’s agonizing lineup decisions worked out well. Leyritz called a smart game. Pettitte threw shut out baseball one out into the ninth inning with the help of 14 groundball outs, three of them by way of Hayes.Torre even allowed Pettitte to bat in the top of the ninth inning with two outs and two on rather than use a pinch hitter and turn the game over to Wetteland.
“People were yelling from the stands, ‘Are you guys crazy?’ ” Torre said. “Zimmer turned around and yelled back at them, ‘Sit your ass down!’ ”
A few sections out of earshot, Pettitte’s wife, Laura, was sitting next to Torre’s wife, Ali.
“What’s he doing?” Laura asked. “He’s never done this before. Andy doesn’t pitch the last inning!”
As Torre explained, “You had Chipper Jones leading off the ninth, who at the time wasn’t as good a righthanded hitter. Freddie McGriff, who scared the shit out of me, was the second hitter. I know letting Andy hit in a 1-0 game probably wasn’t the sanest thing to do. But I just wanted him to be the pitcher in the ninth inning.
“Of course, the first pitch Jones hits for a double down the left-field line. Then McGriff hits a groundball to second base and the tying run is on third. I bring Wetteland in and Javy Lopez hits a one-hopper to third. I lucked out.
“Then I made another decision. I intentionally walked Ryan Klesko and pitched to Luis Polonia, even though Klesko was the winning run.”
Now Torre’s last major lineup decision–putting O’Neill back into the lineup–would come into play. Polonia kept fouling off pitches–five in a row–and coach Jose Cardenal kept trying to get O’Neill to move toward center field because the lefthanded Polonia was not getting around on Wetteland’s fastball.
O’Neill, as was his habit, was too busy working on his batting stroke, taking imaginary swings in right field. Cardenal tried waving a towel, and then two towels, and then three towels to get O’Neill’s attention. Finally, just before Wetteland’s seventh pitch to Polonia, O’Neill caught sight of the frantic Cardenal and moved a few steps to his right. Polonia hit the next pitch hard and to the right-center field gap. O’Neill hobbled after it and thrust his glove up as he neared the warning track.
If O’Neill caught the ball, the Yankees would be one win away from the world championship. If he did not catch it, both runners would score, the Yankees would lose the game, the Braves would be one win away from the title, and Torre would be roasted for letting Pettitte hit and start the ninth and for intentionally putting the winning run on base.
O’Neill caught the ball, and without one wobbly step to spare. He smacked his left hand against the outfield wall for emphasis, while limping to a stop. “To see the expression on his face when he caught that ball,” Torre said, “that was special.” The Yankees were going home with a chance to win the World Series.
To win Game 6, the Yankees would have to solve the magic tricks of Maddux. They did just that in the third inning. O’Neill– there for Torre when he needed him–doubled, Girardi tripled, Jeter singled and stole a base, and Williams singled. It added up to a 3-0 lead for Jimmy Key, who left in the sixth inning having given up only one run.
By the seventh, it was time for what Torre called The Formula: Rivera for two innings and Wetteland for one. Rivera took care of the first part of the plan. Wetteland turned his end of the plan into a bit of an adventure. Three singles cut the lead to 3-2 and left runners at first and second with two outs in the ninth. Braves second baseman Mark Lemke then worked the count full. On the seventh pitch of the at-bat, Lemke lofted a foul pop-up off third base. Hayes squeezed it, and the Yankees were at last world champions once more.
“Ninety-six was a lot of fun,” Torre said, “because we were underdogs the whole time.”
The next two hours were a blur of tears, laughs, hugs and champagne for Torre. It wasn’t until 2 a.m. that a friend drove him home. When Torre arrived home he found his house packed with people, people who wanted the night to go on forever. It was quite a sight: Torre arriving at his own house party still was wearing his champagne-soaked Yankees uniform.
Days later, Torre found himself sharing a late breakfast with Steinbrenner at the Regency Hotel in New York. They were perfect for one another, what with Steinbrenner giving Torre a fourth chance and with his best team yet, and Torre giving Steinbrenner his world championship that had eluded him through 17 years and 16 managerial changes. Torre reminded Steinbrenner that he was due to make $550,000 in 1997. LaRussa, he pointed out, made about three times as much money, and now Torre had won as many world championships as LaRussa, who had won with Oakland in 1989. Steinbrenner agreed Torre deserved better. He tore up the second year of the contract and the two of them negotiated a new deal: $3.75 million over the next three seasons.
Privately, Ali Torre wished her husband, having fulfilled his dream of a World Series title, could walk away
They had a baby girl, Andrea, at home. She also knew, however, that Torre had developed a special bond with this group of players. He couldn’t leave them. He also wanted to make good on his spring training vision of winning multiple titles. Torre and the Yankees would not win in 1997. Four outs from winning the Division Series against Cleveland, Rivera gave up a tying home run to Sandy Alomar. Rivera lost, 3-2, in the ninth on an infield single by Omar Vizquel.The Yankees lost another one-run game in the clincher, 4-3. Torre came back after that season, too. And he came back after winning the World Series again in 1998 and he came back after winning it again in 1999 and he came back after winning it again in 2000 . . . 11 more seasons in all after that first year as Yankees manager fulfilled his dream. He went on because the 1996 world championship confirmed his belief in the power of trust. The championship was a validation. It changed him as a manager, even as a person, and he liked what he had become.
“I finally started getting self-esteem as far as the work I did,” Torre said when explaining why he stayed with the job. “I finally discovered what I did worked. You always think you’re doing the right thing, but there was always a reason why it didn’t pan out. It came back to you got fired for one reason: you didn’t get the job done.
“When we did it in ’96, it was such a high for me, realizing that we won, and I felt very much in control of the situations where these players who had been there before I was there respected what I was doing. You never get enough of that. And that’s why. That’s why.
“And then the Yankee thing. You know eventually you’re going to wear out your welcome. But the core of players that was still there, I wasn’t ready to walk away from them. And the money was good. And the challenge. Every single year was different, even though the team was the same, the name of the team, there’s always another ingredient introduced to what you’re doing. I feel like I can look at a team and try to put the puzzle together.”