After 12 years in pinstripes, Joe Torre finds himself 3,000 miles away, in the land of sunshine, palm trees, and Paris Hilton. Will the consummate New Yawker really be able to bleed Dodger blue?
There are some people in this world who simply ooze Los Angeles, whether they reside in the city or not.
Take, oh, Will Smith. With his dashing good looks, meticulously selected wardrobe, Hollywood Rolodex, and GPS-like ability to find the nearest paparazzi-drenched red carpet, Smith is pure, 100 percent L.A. So, for that matter, is Paris Hilton. And Kobe Bryant. And Al Pacino. And Mischa Barton. And Phil Jackson. And … well, the list is endless.
Then there is Joe Torre.
The new manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers conforms to the L.A. image like a 1972 Dodge Dart fits into modern-day NASCAR.
Coming off an unrivaled 12-year stint as manager of the New York Yankees -- during which his team won four World Series titles and never missed the playoffs -- the Brooklyn-born, Brooklyn-raised Torre is as New York as a corned-beef sandwich and Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda. His speech is accented by Big Apple lingo: “Ya know … c’mon … you guys.” His walk, more strut than tiptoe, exudes a polite yet unmistakable out-of-my-way confidence. When Torre has something to say to a player, he refuses to sugarcoat it with Cali-esque surface kindness.
“He’s honest and direct,” says Scott Proctor, a Dodgers relief pitcher who also played for Torre in New York. “With Joe, you know exactly what you’re getting.”
In this fresh baseball season, which is already overwhelmed by news of performance-enhancing drugs, of Boston’s attempt to repeat, and of the Mets’ addition of Johan Santana in order to help exorcise last year’s historic collapse, perhaps the greatest question is this: How will Torre, the beloved face of New York City for more than a decade, fare in La-La Land?
“To be honest, it’s a mystery to me,” says Torre, leaning back in a chair at the team’s spring-training facility in Vero Beach, Florida. “The fact is, I’ve been in the American League for 12 years. I haven’t been exposed to these players, to these teams, to these situations. Everything’s new. So while I’m excited about the challenge, there’s an unknown element that’s a little bit disconcerting.”
As he speaks, he pulls off his blue Dodgers cap, running his left hand through a rapidly thinning hairline. Though the loss of follicles cannot be directly attributed to his Yankee career, it is safe to bet that over the course of last season, Torre dropped more than a few locks.
Such is the result of a 2007 campaign that Torre calls “tough,” a campaign that saw the Yankees get off to a 21–29 start before rallying to make the postseason. As New York fought injuries and inconsistencies, ownership refused to commit to Torre, who was in the final year of a contract that paid him $7.5 million in 2007. By the time the Yankees had lost a first-round playoff series to the Cleveland Indians, it was clear he was on his way out.
“Last year was a very, very tough year for me,” he says. “Just with everything that went down -- I still had enthusiasm, but it was harder than usual. The fun for me was when the games started. But there were so many distractions, it made me question whether I wanted to do this anymore.”
When the Yankees offered a one-year, $5 million deal loaded with incentives for winning playoff games, Torre was beyond insulted. It was as if he had been slapped in the face with an iron glove. He was hurt. Infuriated. Devastated. His thought was: I gave you 12 years of winning … and this is my reward?
Yet as soon as Torre rejected the deal, he stared down the idea of a life chock-full of corporate speeches and rubber-chicken luncheons and Rotary plaques and mind-numbing, never-ending “Let me tell you about the time Derek Jeter …” stories.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” he says. “Baseball has been my life for so long.”
Then, after Dodgers manager Grady Little resigned on October 30, 2007, Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti offered Torre one last moment in the sun (as well as a three-year, $13 million deal). “We’ve got a team packed with young up-and-coming studs,” Colletti told Torre. “We’d love for you to guide them.”
In short, a city betrothed to stars wanted one more.
THE DECISION WAS
not an easy one. Yes, Torre still relished the game. Yes, the idea of returning to the National League (he played for four National League teams in an 18-year career), the land of double switches and pinch hitters and sacrifice bunts, intrigued him. And, yes, the Dodgers were the beloved hometown franchise of his youth: Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider and, later, Sandy Koufax. But at age 67, did he still have it in him? The fire? The drive?
“He’s honest and direct. With Joe, you know exactly what you’re getting.”
“It came down to family matters,” says Torre, who has a 12-year-old daughter, Andrea, with his third wife, Ali. “When you have a young girl you’d have to uproot, it makes the decision tough. How would it impact her? Could she adjust? But once we all decided to take a shot at this thing, I began getting very excited. This is a unique opportunity.”
Indeed, along with a roster loaded with young offensive talent, what Torre is gifted with in L.A. is, well, freshness. Gone are the intrusive owners who seemed incapable of seeing the good in anything but a World Series title. (Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, his health fading, has handed over day-to-day operations of the club to his two sons, Hank and Hal.) Gone are the 30, 40, 50 media members eager to interview him before every game. Gone are the “Fire Joe?” headlines. Gone is the win-or-die attitude from fans. Gone are the persistent steroid rumors engulfing Jason Giambi and Roger Clemens. Gone is the A-Rod circus.
Gone are the frigid Aprils.
Here, in the land of sunshine and sandy beaches, Torre can kick back against a palm tree, bask in the warmth, and enjoy what is most likely the final stop of a five-decade Major League Baseball playing, coaching, and managing career. If the Dodgers go on to win a World Series or two, Torre’s legacy of being one of the elite all-time managers will be secure. If, on the other hand, the team flounders, well, no biggie.
In Los Angeles, the sun always shines.