It is deliciously ironic that the cover story in the sports section of the print edition of Tuesday's USA TODAY is about Joe Torre. The ex-Yankees manager led the L.A. Dodgers to the playoffs while his former club missed qualifying for the postseason this year after earning 12 straight playoff berths--and four World Series titles--with Torre at the helm. The reason that this story is so ironic is that Al Neuharth--the USA TODAY founder who periodically writes Op-Ed pieces for the paper--has consistently been one of Torre's most outspoken critics. I've never figured out why Neuharth feels such animosity toward Torre, who has won the seventh most games of any manager in MLB history and is certainly a future Hall of Famer--but Neuharth never misses an opportunity to take not so subtle digs at Torre and to blame Torre for supposedly not getting the most out of the Yankees. Neuharth was absolutely convinced that once the Yankees got rid of Torre they would become World Series champions again. Not surprisingly, Neuharth has been silent about that subject recently. I wonder if in Neuharth's annual World Series prediction column he will have the guts and character to admit that he was wrong or if he will make some lame excuses for the Yankees and find some way to take a shot at Torre's Dodgers.
The reality is that Torre did a brilliant job of not only dealing with overbearing Yankees' owner George Steinbrenner but also with handling the day to day challenges of managing a talented ball club operating under intense media scrutiny and tremendous pressure to win the World Series every year. It was classless for the Yankees to not mention Torre at all in conjunction with the final season of Yankee Stadium and it was equally classless for Steinbrenner's son Hank to suggest that Torre's accomplishment this season is somehow diminished based on the relative strength of the Yankees' AL East opponents compared to the Dodgers' NL West opponents. Both teams faced various challenges this year and the bottom line is that Torre successfully navigated the Dodgers through their rough spots while Joe Girardi was not able to do likewise for the Yankees. It can hardly be considered a coincidence that after Torre switched teams New York missed the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade while the Dodgers made the playoffs for just the third time in 13 seasons.
The Yankees impugned Torre's character by asking him to take a huge pay cut, with the stipulation that he could make up the difference financially if the Yankees made it to the World Series; the not so subtle intimation was that Torre needed extra motivation to get the most out of the team and Torre not surprisingly considered that insult to be the last straw after he tolerated years of similar nonsense from George Steinbrenner.
The ending of the whole Steinbrenner/Torre saga in New York reminds me of when Henry Ford II fired Lee Iacocca. As Iacocca recalled in his autobiography, he gave Ford a piece of his mind after Ford dropped the hammer: "Your timing stinks. We've just made a billion eight for the second year in a row. That's three and a half billion in the past two years. But mark my words, Henry. You may never see a billion eight again. And do you know why? Because you don't know how the f--- we made it in the first place!" Iacocca was an innovator who created the popular Ford Mustang and who helped to build Ford Motor Company into a powerful competitor to industry leader General Motors, while Ford II was, in Iacocca's words, "an old pro at spending money but he never understood how it all came in. He just sat in his ivory tower and said, 'My God, we're making money!' He was there every day to throw his weight around, but he never knew what made the place tick." That sounds like a pretty good description of Steinbrenner, who certainly deserves credit for being willing to spend the money to make the Yankees into contenders but who just as certainly does not know nearly as much about baseball strategy as he thinks that he does. Billy Martin, the manager who Steinbrenner notoriously hired and fired several times, once reportedly said that Steinbrenner was born on third base and thought that he had hit a triple. Girardi is a very solid manager and Steinbrenner will spare no expense to bring the Yankees back to the top but how likely is it that Girardi--or any other manager--will put together a dozen year run like the one that Torre just had in New York? Steinbrenner made a mistake forcing Torre out, Neuharth was dead wrong to continuously call for Torre's ouster and it would be nice if both men would be big enough to admit that they were wrong--but being rich and powerful means never having to say that you are sorry.