Advertisement

As Joe Torre takes on the unruly Dodgers, there’s a new hope for glory and . . . A Legend on the Line

David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times. Contact him at david.ulin@latimes.com

Joe Torre trudged through the spring training clubhouse at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla., the same way he walks out to the pitcher’s mound late in an important game. There was that distinctive lumber: dogged, plodding almost, head down, long arms station- ary, eyes not giving anything away. He threw a poker-faced glance at his players, many of whom were sprawled in front of their stalls chatting, slowly pulling on their uniforms. Most paid little attention to him, as if they didn’t even notice he was there. Eventually, he headed down a long corridor, turned left and was gone.

For a larger-than-life guy, this was a distinctly smaller-than-life appearance--or perhaps it was as measured as the man himself. “The way I think of Joe is that the camera could be on him and you would never know if he was up 10 runs or down 10 runs,” said Kim Ng, the Dodgers’ assistant general manager who worked in the New York Yankees’ front office from 1998 to 2001, the period when Torre led that franchise to four straight American League pennants and three World Series titles. “That’s just typical Joe.”

It’s for this reason, as much as for his reputation as a winner, that in November, just two weeks after he left the Yankees, the Dodgers hired Torre as the 26th manager in the history of the team. The Dodgers, after all, are a ballclub in transition. And Torre is a big part of that change. After a much publicized feud between veterans and younger players at the end of last season, the team imploded, losing 11 of its final 14 games and finishing in fourth place in the National League West. Torre, it is hoped, will be a stabilizing influence who brings gravitas to the clubhouse, a certain instantaneous respect.

Still, in the early days of spring training, he seemed a little tentative, or more accurately, not quite settled in. Driving in his golf cart from the Dodgers’ clubhouse out to the practice fields, where squads of players ran through hitting and fielding drills, he was an object of fascination, like some rare bird not quite fully acclimated to a new territory. Fans shouted for his autograph; reporters asked about his departure from the Yankees, which was not his idea and still seemed, in a sense, to be a fresh wound. Through it all, Torre sat as still and self-contained as the Mahatma, left leg crossed over his right, eyes hidden behind dark glasses, hat pulled in low over his face. This is the kind of self-possession the Dodgers want to get to, this sense of mastery, of control. This is the way teams win championships, through calm and discipline.

Advertisement

“The one thing I hope I bring over here,” Torre said, “is credibility. That’s the thing that’s important to me. I want them to trust that I know what I’m talking about, just from my experience. Because I know I’ve always respected experience. I’m here, as a part of this organization, to do something together, and for them to know where I came from and the success that I’ve been a part of--I think that helps.”

And yet, as his first season in Los Angeles begins, Torre too finds himself in transition: He’s a legend who has something to prove. In conversation, he backs away from such a notion, but it’s impossible not to be aware of it in almost everything he does. First, of course, there’s the challenge of a new team, of new players, many of whom he doesn’t know. Torre’s open about that. “I’m not sure what I’m going to see here,” he admitted one afternoon in his Vero Beach office, dressed in uniform pants and a Dodgers pullover. “We’re just going to try to put together as much information as we can in order to put something together and start the season.” That sounds like a modest goal, and it is, in some sense, but it also may be an attempt to set a realistic tone.

Torre, after all, comes to Los Angeles amid high expectations. The Dodgers faithful regard his arrival as the baseball equivalent of the Second Coming. And why not? At 67, he’s a guaranteed Hall of Famer. His 12-year run with the Yankees--in which the team won 10 division titles, six American League pennants, four World Series and made the playoffs every year--is matched only by those of Casey Stengel and Joe McCarthy, two of the most iconic figures ever to manage a baseball team.

Neither Stengel nor McCarthy, however, won another championship after leaving the Yankees, and both had trouble in their final years in New York. The same has been true of Torre (who, like Stengel before him, was regarded as something of a journeyman manager before his tenure with the Yankees; in 14 seasons with the New York Mets, Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals, he captured just one division title while losing 100 more games than he won).

Advertisement

In 2004, the Yankees collapsed in the American League Championship Series against their arch-rival, the Boston Red Sox, becoming the first team to lose a best-of-seven series after being up three games to none. Since then, they haven’t made it past the first round of the playoffs, despite having the highest payroll in the game.

Last October, during the division series against the Cleveland Indians, owner George Steinbrenner announced that Torre would be fired if the Yankees didn’t advance. Eventually, Torre was offered a one-year contract. But with a $2.5-million pay cut and a package of performance-based incentives, he had no choice but to refuse.

Baseball is a notoriously unsentimental business, but there was something unsavory about how the Yankees handled the situation. “I don’t think my decision to leave there would have been different even if we’d won,” Torre said. “But you know, you’d rather have somebody say we want to make a change, instead of running around the block.”

Torre says he wasn’t looking for another managerial position, but “you have to really think before you decide you don’t want to do this anymore.” He also says this will be his final contract, that after three years in Los Angeles, he will be through. “Once I walk away,” he said, “that’ll be it. And I certainly --obviously, I should say--chose doing that as opposed to doing this again over there. Because it really wasn’t fun. And I need for this to be fun.”

Advertisement

Fun is a relative concept, though, and you have to wonder what it will mean to Torre if the Dodgers do not win. As Murray Chass wrote in an Oct. 31 New York Times column, “Torre’s reputation has never been better. . . . [But should] he fail to direct the Dodgers to the playoffs, critics could reconsider his Yankees years and suggest that he won in those years because of the monstrous payrolls George Steinbrenner provided.”

The more you listen to Torre talk, the more you see another element at work here: Let’s call it history. Torre was born and raised in Brooklyn, although as a kid he rooted for the New York Giants. He understands the Dodgers as an institution, an organization with a reputation equivalent to the one he left, with a long line of fabled players such as Duke Snider and Jackie Robinson. “It’s part of why I took the job,” he said. “It’s one of the storied franchises. I certainly remember growing up with Snider and Reese and Furillo and Campy and Jackie in 1947 and thereafter. Jackie--you probably hated him more than anybody because every time he was in a rundown play, nobody ever tagged him out.”

As for why this resonates, Torre was sitting in his golf cart talking to reporters in Vero Beach one morning when the name of Dodgers third-year catcher (and budding star) Russell Martin came up. Torre is a former catcher, and, as he did in New York with catchers Joe Girardi and Jorge Posada, he has identified Martin as a potential leader, a player of commitment and poise. Someone asked about Martin’s place in the lineage of Dodgers catchers, and Torre recalled watching Roy Campanella hit towering home runs in Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field. “He never got a chance to play at the Coliseum,” Torre reflected, “but with those high fly balls, that would have been a sight to see.”

On the one hand, that’s a throwaway line, an example of how baseball exists in memory and on the field at once. Campanella yields to John Roseboro, to Steve Yeager, Mike Scioscia, Mike Piazza and Russell Martin, and all of a sudden 60 years of catchers telescopes in upon itself. Yet, listening to Torre, you can’t help but recognize that you’re looking at the arc of a life. It’s a long way from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, but in making such a journey, Joe Torre may, in some odd sense, be coming home.

Advertisement

Dodgertown is a living piece of baseball history, a link to the game’s past. A former U.S. naval air station, it has been the Dodgers’ spring base since 1948, when Torre was in grade school and the team played in Brooklyn. Traces of this heritage are everywhere, from the black-and-white blowup photos all over the complex--in a corridor just outside the clubhouse hangs a shot of Campanella, Robinson, Snider, Gil Hodges and Walter Alston taken during a 1950s spring training--to the homey feel of Holman Stadium, with its roofless dugouts and open-air grandstand, where 60 years of Dodgers greats have played.

Next spring, however, the Dodgers plan to move to a new facility in Glendale, Ariz., shedding their last physical link to Brooklyn after 51 seasons in L.A. It’s a matter of convenience, of economics, but it is also a subtext, one more transitional component, a metaphor for a team suspended on almost every level you can think of between the old ways and the new.

For Torre, this issue of where the team has been and where it’s going is complicated by his own steep learning curve. “I think the challenge for Joe is time,” said Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti. “How familiar can you get how fast? Can he get familiar? Absolutely. Does he know what he’s looking at? Absolutely. So it’s really just a matter of time.”

Getting familiar is the whole idea behind spring training, but with this year’s schedule broken up by a series of mid-March exhibition games in China, things became compressed. In the end, Torre said, “You have a month to get the players to try to understand you and you to understand them, and then it’s all about watching them play. You formulate opinions even though the sampling you get isn’t going to be enough. But that being said, you still have to make a decision on the sampling you see.”

Advertisement

To jump-start the process, Torre scheduled a five-inning intrasquad game on a Sunday in February so he could start to get a feel for how his players carry themselves. This was his first chance to see some of them in action and, perhaps equally important, their first opportunity to see him on the field.

Throughout the early days of spring training, Torre functioned more as a constitutional monarch than as an on-field manager in any traditional sense. During drills and warm-ups, he was often talking to reporters or drifting from practice field to practice field. In the clubhouse, players kept their distance, as if not quite sure yet what to make of him.

This was hardly unexpected. With more than 60 players in camp, and a new organization to adjust to, Torre had no choice but to take the long view and let his coaches handle much of the early detail work. Still, you could sense a certain impatience, a desire to move beyond the talking and get down to the field of play. As the players gathered, Torre stood behind home plate like an expectant father, hands tucked into the front of his uniform pants. Then he took a seat on a folding chair on the home plate side of the third base dugout, where he watched the action, occasionally making notes.

The squads featured a mix of regulars and nonroster players, with young stars anchoring both sides--Matt Kemp and James Loney on Team Koufax and Andre Ethier and Andy LaRoche on Team Drysdale. The day was hot, with maybe 100 fans scattered throughout Holman Stadium, mostly along the base lines and behind the screen. It was about as far from a playoff atmosphere as a baseball game can be, and yet it also felt like the start of something, like a first step in the building of a team.

Advertisement

This, of course, is exactly the point, and it’s why the Dodgers brought in Torre. More than any other sport, baseball is about the long haul, less a matter of individual games than of building a team culture, a winning tradition, if you will. That’s what Torre did with the Yankees, who, before his arrival in 1996, had not been to the World Series in 15 years. It’s also what he could never do with the Mets, Braves or Cardinals, which suggests the difficulty of the task. Torre understands this as both a manager and a player: A nine-time All-Star, he spent 18 years in the majors and won the National League’s most-valuable-player award with the Cardinals in 1971, when he led the league with a .363 batting average and 137 runs batted in, but he never played in a postseason game.

“To me,” he said, “doing anything as an individual, like winning the batting title or winning the MVP, is a great accomplishment, but it’s not even close to accomplishing something as a team. When you win a championship--especially nowadays, with the layers of playoffs and things you have to go through--I can’t tell you how satisfying it is.”

If there’s a key element to all this, it’s what Colletti calls “ownership from the player’s perspective,” a sense of commitment, of placing the team above the individual, of keeping one’s eye on the greater good. Torre’s 1998 Yankees--who won 125 games and are widely regarded as one of the greatest teams in baseball history--did not have a player who hit 30 home runs and had only one pitcher who won 20 games. There were no superstars, just a group of players focused on a single goal.

This is where the Dodgers fell apart last September, with veteran second baseman Jeff Kent complaining that his younger teammates didn’t “get it,” while 23-year-old first baseman James Loney questioned Kent’s leadership. “With any organization, there’s baggage,” Kent said in Vero Beach, brushing off the conflict. “So much is made of the idea that we should be hugging, that we should all go out to dinner, but more important is the translation of talent and knowledge, with the older guys showing what they know and the younger ones asking for it.” What Torre brings, Kent continued, “is a reputation for professionalism. He’s got instant credibility because of what he’s done. He expects guys to be accountable. You’ve got to do it all season. You can’t just flip a switch and turn it on at the end of the year.”

Advertisement

Torre doesn’t have a lot to say about last season’s Dodgers turmoil; he was, after all, enmeshed in turmoil of his own. “I think it’s unfair for me to go in and figure I have to right something” is about as far as he’ll take it. “I’ve been in those situations, and even if there are issues, we’re all here to do the same thing.”

As to how he might handle any such conflicts, Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter has an idea. “They won’t have that problem this year,” he said of the Dodgers, praising Torre as a communicator, a conciliator, a manager who begins by gaining the trust of his players and lets everything build from there. “People say you treat everybody the same. You don’t treat everybody the same, you treat everybody fairly. Different people have different personalities, and you push different buttons. You don’t push the same buttons to motivate a Bernie Williams as you do with a Paul O’Neill.”

Jeter makes a compelling argument, especially when it comes to the Dodgers, for whom younger players are expected to play an essential role. This too is one of the challenges. “There were many days last season,” Colletti noted, “when we had four players on the field with little more than a year of big-league time--and sometimes when [Chad] Billingsley was pitching, there were five.” A year later, that’s even more true; although veterans such as Kent, Nomar Garciaparra and new arrival Andruw Jones are important, the Dodgers will rely on Kemp and Loney, Ethier and Martin. The way Torre handles this young talent will determine whether he succeeds or fails.

Not only that, the Dodgers play in what is arguably baseball’s most competitive division, with the defending National League champion, the Colorado Rockies, and a retooled Arizona Diamondbacks team that many observers think is one of the league’s best. For Colletti, this is an advantage: “My goodness,” he said, “these kids are 25, 26 years old; they’ve been in two pennant races. A lot of players in baseball, it might be years before they’re in a pennant race. I mean, last year we were a game and a half out with two weeks to play.”

Advertisement

Colletti’s got a point, but there’s something he’s not saying, which gets back to the particularly brutal way the 2007 Dodgers came apart. “This team came in fourth last year,” said Larry Bowa, the outspoken third base coach who came with Torre from the Yankees, leaving little doubt that it’s up to the players to do better. “A manager,” he said, “isn’t going to make a team win.”

All that makes for a bit of a paradox, since Torre is known as a veterans’ manager, loyal to his regulars. But then, given that he’s new here, he has no regulars to be loyal to. “You give them a longer leash,” Torre said of young players, “and you let them make their mistakes. I don’t think there’s any question. But there are a lot of talented youngsters here, and knowing the energy that the Yankees got from a Wang and from a Cano and from a Cabrera, and then last year with the three young pitchers--it was fun. It was exciting to watch young kids grow.”

In the intrasquad game that Sunday in February, Team Drysdale beat Team Koufax going away. Up 5-1 in the bottom of the fifth, they took their final at-bats anyway, putting runners on second and third before nonroster catcher Rene Rivera grounded out to shortstop to end the game. Tommy Lasorda--a Dodgertown fixture--drove Torre’s older brother Frank out of Holman Stadium in his golf cart while the sound system blared the Young Rascals singing, “Groovin’ . . . on a Sunday afternoon.” The players wandered off to the clubhouse in twos and threes, but Torre lingered, talking with his coaches before moving to the stands to sign some autographs.

Later, Torre would talk about what he’d seen on the field, about how the pitching looked, about how everything was proceeding according to plan. He seemed excited to have finally seen at least some of the Dodgers play. It was so early that he didn’t know which 25 players he’d be taking to L.A., but for the moment, that seemed less important than getting a sense of the organization, learning its depth and nuances, understanding what he had. “It’s the guys who aren’t afraid to fail, those guys usually have the best shot at being successful,” Torre said, leaving the impression that he might as well be talking about himself. Why else take on a new team when he could have walked away from the game as a legend? Why else put his reputation on the line?

Advertisement

The answer is that Torre isn’t a legend but a person, a man of sensitivity and pride. Clearly, he was hurt by how things ended with the Yankees, and clearly he would like to prove his old employer wrong. This too is why he sought to find a home here, why he responded when the Dodgers called.

It helps, of course, that this is a team with which he has a little history, that the very Dodgers he saw as a kid in Ebbets Field played and trained right here. But in the end, all that fades into the mists of memory, just as his Yankees career has. Next spring, it will all be different. Next spring, the Dodgers should be training in Arizona, and Torre will no longer be the new guy. He’ll have a track record; he’ll have won or lost. He’ll have made unpopular decisions. He’ll be a Dodger, for better or worse.

That’s the thing about baseball: It keeps on rolling, and history and reputation go only so far. The Dodgers are a legendary franchise, but they haven’t won a playoff series in 20 years. That makes for an opportunity, but opportunity cuts both ways. And the stakes are high, not just for the Dodgers but for Torre if he is unable to get the team to turn around.

If anyone understands that, it’s Torre; he’s spent nearly half a century around the sport. Winning one game, even one season, is a crapshoot, but building a culture of winning is something else again. “There are so many things that contribute to the game of baseball besides someone’s ability,” he said. “Heart is one, sensitivity is another. I’m loyal to my players. But before you’re loyal to your players, you have to be loyal to your team. Because that involves 25 players. So what you’re doing is for the good of the team.”

Advertisement

--

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The Joe Torre Story

1940

Advertisement

Joseph Paul Torre is born in Brooklyn in 1940.

1960

Makes his major league debut with the Milwaukee Braves. Above, with ace pitcher Warren Spahn.

1971

Advertisement

With the St. Louis Cardinals, he leads the National League with 137 runs batted in and a .363 batting average, winning the league’s MVP award.

1974

Joins the New York Mets. Three years later, he becomes the team’s manager while still a player. Right, the team mascot, Mr. Met.

1990

Advertisement

After six years out of the dugout [including

a stint as a broadcaster for the Angels], Torre is hired to manage the Cardinals.

1996

In his debut season as New York Yankees manager, he leads the team to its first World Series title since 1978.

Advertisement

2007

After 12 straight playoff appearances, six pennants and four World Series titles, Torre leaves the Yankees. Right, at a news conference announcing his departure.


Advertisement