Friday, October 12, 2007

The Mind is Strong but the Heart is Feeble

I have campaigned for Joe Torre's dismissal for nearly four years. When he brought Jeff Weaver into Game 4 of the 2003 World Series instead of Mariano Rivera, I considered it an unforgivable mistake that cost the team a championship. It was a fireable offense, and I spent that off-season telling everyone who would listen that Torre needed to go.

Not a brilliant tactician in the best of times, Torre seemed to throw more and more wins away because of bullpen neglect with each passing ring-less season. His refusal to bring his best reliever into a tie game on the road is as well documented as it is foolish. Compounding the problem, he picks one or two relievers each season to wear down to the point of exhaustion or injury, so when anyone other than Rivera is brought into a close game after June, the results are likely to be ugly.

Torre's other in-game management strategies have also failed him in this dim century. He favors "small ball" over sensible ball. He bunts too often, in the wrong situation. He plays the wrong guys (see: Womack, Tony) and mismanages his bench. He seems incapable of catching up to modern baseball thought and employing new approaches, though the same can be said of all but a handful of current managers.

The conventional wisdom on Joe Torre is that his skill handling the New York media and massaging the egos of his star players atones for whatever strategic shortcomings show up during games. But in recent years, the clubhouse has fallen apart, and the tabloids have piled on the Yankees, leaving Torre's worth questionable at best. He failed to quell Hurricane Sheffield, he let players snipe at each other in the press, and worst of all, he let the Alex Rodriguez situation spiral out of control.

ARod is a lightning rod for attention and criticism, so no matter what Torre did, ARod would have dealt with some backlash in New York. In 2006, though, Torre allowed the wildfire surrounding his struggling star to spread and engulf the team. Whether out of misguided "tough love" or genuine ineptitude, Torre submarined ARod in an infamous Sports Illustrated article implying the third sacker didn't have the faith and support of his teammates and manager. Then, in self-destructive move of shocking naivete, Torre batted one of the best hitters of all time (in his prime) eighth in a playoff game against Detroit. This was unforgivable move number two.

Playoff results rely largely on luck, but the Yankees' lack of success on that front, coupled with Torre's obvious procedural shortcomings, seems like clear evidence he should be replaced. Finally, after many years of nightmares in which I'm screaming my throat bloody but no one can hear me, Torre's demise seems imminent.

And I don't know how I feel about it.

Initially, I assumed my mixed feelings were sheer sentimentality, which I needed to vanquish. Torre was around for the best sports era of my life, and he's part of a million fantastic memories. Despite his faults, I once had genuine affection for him, and I realized that when he was gone, I would miss the old goat.

I can't deny that it got to me when he said, after Game 4, "The 12 years just felt like they were 10 minutes long." It all came rushing back to me, flooding my eyes with tears: Paul O'Neill's lunging catch, Joe Girardi's triple, Chuck Knoblauch's bubble, Derek Jeter's flip, Chad Curtis's home run, Jim Leyritz's happy shrug, Mariano Duncan's T-shirts, Don Zimmer's cheeks, Ramiro Mendoza's posture, Scott Brosius's leap, David Cone's perfect game, Mariano Rivera's raised arms.

The champagne, the parades, the ad hoc T-shirt shops set up at corner gas stations the week after the World Series, the newspapers saved under the bed, the sheer fucking joy.

Joe Torre was part of it. And he's one of the last gunfighters still standing. Jeter, Rivera, Pettitte, Posada and Torre. That's it. All of a suddent, next year, it might just be Jeter. What if Torre gets fired, and Rivera, Pettitte and Posada leave in protest? Will a new manager be worth it? Maybe not.

Especially when you start considering possible replacements: Joe Girardi is the best option, but he wore out some young arms in Miami. Don Mattingly has no track record, there's no reason to believe he'll be better than Torre. Tony LaRussa is an egomaniacal dinosaur, stuck in his tropes from a pre-Jamesian era.

Perhaps I'm just getting cold feet. Perhaps I can't bear to say goodbye to one of the last remnants of the glory days. Or perhaps I've been wrong all along, and Torre brings more to the table then he takes away.