Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Honest Joe Rides Again

Was anybody surprised by the disclosure this week that a new book by Tom Verducci and Joe Torre is often critical of the New York Yankees? Maybe it's eye-opening to hear that some of the Yankees refer to Alex Rodriguez as "A-Fraud," but if the shoe fits, wear it. Is it just coincidence that the team's failure to do anything in October began the year that Rodriguez moved to New York? He produced good numbers in the 2004 postseason before his notorious bad-sportsmanship swipe at Bronson Arroyo which became the enduring image of the Yankees' unprecedented choke in the ALCS. In the following three seasons, he was a key non-contributor as the Yankees failed to get past the first round of the playoffs. In 13 games in those three ALDS, he went 7-for-44 (a .149 average) with 15 strikeouts and two double-play grounders, and drove in exactly one run. Shades of Dave Winfield!

More shocking to me is a mention in one article that when Torre was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1999, team doctors informed George Steinbrenner before they told Torre. What?!? Were they back in the 1930s, when Lou Gehrig wasn't told that the disease gripping his body was fatal? Was Steinbrenner Torre's legal guardian? Did he bully the doctor into telling him first? I can't fathom that. Imagine going to your doctor, then being put through a battery of tests at the hospital, including a biopsy, and having your doctor call your boss first to let him know what's going on? You'd be ready to launch a lawsuit (it's against the law, not merely a violation of decency), or maybe just launch a good right cross to the numbnuts who thought your tumor was more important to your boss than it was to you. Unbelievable!

The crux of the Verducci/Torre criticism of the Yankees apparently focuses on Torre's escape from New York after the 2007 season. Everyone in the city knew all season that Torre's days were numbered, that with Steinbrenner's sons taking over the team they'd want their own manager instead of the man who had somehow forgotten how to get his team to the World Series. Following a long-standing Yankees tradition of undignified managerial dumpings, the new management gave Torre a contract offer he deemed "an insult". The new book details the intrigue behind the scenes, with GM Brian Cashman either supporting or betraying Torre, but in any case not preventing a scenario in which Torre was nudged firmly toward the egress. Torre seemed happy to get out, landing in Los Angeles where he managed an inferior Dodgers team into the playoffs while successor Joe Girardi managed to steer the Yankees out of the postseason altogether.

That would qualify Torre for the first laugh, if not the last laugh. After the initial reports about the new book surfaced, a friend wrote to ask whether this was "Honest Joe or Sourgrapes Joe" making his case. Without reading the book, I'm voting for Honest Joe. I had a memorable encounter with Torre about 15 years ago and came away with a strong impression of a man whose restrained candor made me believe everything he said.

In the summer of 1993 I set out on a two-month cross-country trip largely devoted to interviewing a group of 1960s players. More specifically, I interviewed men who were player representatives during the early days of Marvin Miller's tenure as the head of the Players Association. I was hoping to write a book about it, but my timing was wrong. This was a year before the awful strike of 1994, and my pro-union stance was unappealing to publishers. So I wound up doing 30 or so interviews and having a great time meeting some very interesting people.

Joe Torre was near the top of the list of people I felt were essential to my project. Not only had Miller named him as one of the most dedicated and valuable player reps, but he had also a price for his activism. A member of the Atlanta Braves in 1968, he ran afoul of the team's general manager, Paul Richards, whose antipathy toward Miller and the union was second to none. Richards believed that Miller should go directly to hell and had no hesitation about telling writers and anybody else in his vicinity what he thought should happen to Miller after that.

During the winter of 1968-69, Miller urged players not to sign their contracts because of a serious dispute with the owners over the pension fund, which was a huge issue at the time. With salaries minimal, the pension was a key component of a player's financial security, and the owners were balking over increasing the pension fund despite the expansion that winter from 20 to 24 teams. Miller urged players to avoid signing and to boycott spring training. Torre was a key figure in spreading the word, and the spring training boycott occurred. It would have led to a disruption of the start of the season, but new commissioner Bowie Kuhn couldn't bear the thought of starting his reign with a work stoppage, and prevailed on the owners to cough up the necessary pension money to placate the players. Meanwhile, however, in the middle of March, Paul Richards rid himself of the thorn in his big toe by trading Torre to the Cardinals for fellow All-Star Orlando Cepeda.

Thus interviewing Torre was vital to my understanding of the consequences of union activism. He was managing the Cardinals in 1993, so I contacted the team's PR director to request an interview. Or tried to. I left messages, kept calling and leaving more messages, but got no response. I was on the road by then and called at least a couple of dozen times, and still nothing. Finally I wrote to Torre directly, explaining what I wanted to talk to him about and why. Soon after that I heard from the PR guy, who was peeved that I had gone over his head but granted me an interview.

So it was that I made my way to Torre's office at Busch Stadium about three hours before a night game. The greeting was friendly, and I turned on my tape recorder and asked him the first question, about Paul Richards. Instantly he was candid and informative, speaking quietly but forcefully about Richards' hostility and the pressure he exerted on him to curtail his union activities. Torre had spent a dozen years in the Braves organization, so it hurt to think that Richards didn't want him there, but he understood why it happened and was happy in St. Louis. We talked for a half-hour or so, and I learned as much from him in that time as I did from most of my other interview subjects in an hour or two. Most of all, I was impressed by his forthrightness. Every answer was to the point, thorough, and unflinching.

I had the impression that he would gladly have talked to me for an hour or two, but our conversation was suddenly interrupted when announcer Jack Buck entered the office unannounced. Barely noticing me, Buck began complaining about what an idiot his broadcast partner (former player Mike Shannon) was. The night before, there was a hit-and-run play where the runner was caught in no man's land by a line drive, and Buck ripped Shannon's analysis of the play to shreds. He went on and on about Shannon's incompetence, a good five or ten minutes. Finally he came up for air, and Torre gave me a wistful look. "I guess we're done," he said. "Did you get enough?" I said sure, and he stood up and left the office. I needed a moment to put my tape recorder away, and Buck drifted over to me and pretending that he knew me from somewhere. I was left wondering whether (A) Torre had orchestrated the interruption to give me a reasonable amount of time but not too much; (B) Buck was a jackass; or (C) life is good, no matter what happens.

One thing I knew for certain: Joe Torre is a man of integrity. Even when he was talking about people who treated him poorly, he didn't attack them in return. He spoke matter-of-factly and openly, and let others form conclusions. I'm sure that's the case with the Verducci book. He really was treated shabbily by the Yankees. That isn't sour grapes -- it's just business as usual in the Bronx.

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