Sports Nut

Why Joe Will Have To Go 

By about the third inning of the White Sox’s 17-4 whipping of the Yankees last Sunday, Tim McCarver ran out of things to say. So he started addressing, again, the very hot rumors that Sammy Sosa could soon be in pinstripes. But maybe, he ventured, just maybe, the Yankees would hold off on Sosa, scrapping their pennant hopes for this season and saving up for an off-season spending spree.

McCarver, mind you, was not advising that the Yankees do this. Nor did he suggest that the Yankees were actually considering it. But the fact that the defending world champions, who at that moment were a mere half-game out of first place, might plausibly be in the position to give up on the season before the All-Star break even rolls around, well, it shows you how foul the mood has suddenly turned in the Bronx. After a powerful start, the Yankees are sputtering in a way that could justify some vintage meddling from the Boss. Of course, the very move that might make the most sense is the one that can hardly be contemplated: the firing of Joe Torre.

It would be sacrilegious. With three world championships in four years—not to mention a miraculously swift recovery from prostate cancer last spring—Torre is the closest there is to a saint in New York City. But he’s also the wrong kind of manager to lead the Yankees to their next string of World Series conquests, whenever that might be.

The managerial career of Joe Torre is well known. He started cross-town with the Mets in the late 1970s, where he was charged with producing a competitive team out of Lee Mazzili, John Stearns, and the raft of prospects picked up in the Tom Seaver trade. Not an enviable task, by any means, but Torre got precisely nowhere with it. It was only after he was dismissed that the team was able to develop some talent (Gooden, Strawberry) and eventually win the World Series in 1986. But Torre got more chances to manage, in large measure because he is such an unbelievable mensch. In Atlanta, he inherited a decent team, made a strong run at the pennant the first year, then failed to move ahead from there. In St. Louis, he made the Cardinals respectable, no more, and then was bounced to the broadcast booth.

That’s where he was when George Steinbrenner called with an offer to manage an abundantly talented veteran team that was chafing under the helm of the overly intense Buck Showalter. A career minor leaguer, Showalter demanded that every player be an overachiever. He was niggling and annoying. In his study of what makes managers successful, baseball analyst Bill James identified that one of the most important factors influencing how a new manager fares is the difference between his personality and that of his predecessor. The greater the difference in personality, the more likely the new guy is to turn things around. Joe Torre’s success with the Yankees illustrates this point magnificently. With the Yankees, Torre’s mellow, avuncular presence, which had never served him particularly well in prior managerial stints, was an asset. For a veteran team that didn’t need extra bunting practice or reminders on how to hit the cutoff man, the unflappable Torre was a perfect fit.

The problem now is that the veteran team has grown old and tired. When the Yankees put a lineup on the field that includes Paul O’Neill, Scott Brosius, and Tino Martinez, with Roger Clemens or David Cone pitching, it’s almost like watching Patrick Ewing and Larry Johnson take the court for the Knicks. You just know they can’t go the distance relying on their broken-down bodies.

If the Yankees are to regroup in time to save the season, it’ll be the young players who turn it around. But they’ll have to get it done on their own. Torre has never been an effective nurturer of young talent. To make this point, I’ll have to leave Derek Jeter out of it, which may seem unfair. But Jeter’s phenomenal advancement as a player seems aberrational to me, a product mostly of his own extraordinary resolve and drive (as well as his competitiveness with rival shortstops Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra). Under Torre’s watch, nearly every other Yankee prospect has failed to develop in the ways that were expected of him. Left-fielder Ricky Ledee, a much-hyped “five-tool” talent, still plays like he’s in way over his head. Pitcher Ramiro Mendoza throws like Pedro Martinez one outing, the next he can’t get out of the third inning. Catcher Jorge Posada, who emerged from Joe Girardi’s shadow with a red-hot bat this spring, still hasn’t earned the trust of the pitching staff. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he finishes the season with 15 or 16 home runs, after whacking 12 in the first two months. Even stars like Bernie Williams and closer Mariano Rivera haven’t realized their full potential under Torre. Williams is a brilliant hitter, but he routinely flunks the fundamentals. Even with impressive speed, he has, inexplicably, not learned how to steal a base. His play in the field is often, shall we say, enigmatic. A couple of weeks ago, he made a gorgeous run after a deep liner and then whiffed on the catch—just plain failed to put his glove where the ball was. It was the sort of play one never sees from a major leaguer, much less a Gold Glover. As for Rivera, who doesn’t marvel at the Panamanian’s mind-blowing heater? But wouldn’t you figure that after five years in the league, someone would have taught him a good set-up pitch.

Fixing the Yankees will require cold, heartless moves. Fans adore Paul O’Neill; half the jerseys you see in the stands at Yankee Stadium bear his name and number. Nobody but Patrick Ewing plays through more pain. But the guy barely runs out grounders anymore, and there isn’t a right-fielder in the game slower to a ball hit in the gap. Plodding Scott Brosius belongs on a small-market club in need of veteran guidance. Maybe the same team will want Tino Martinez, who is scheduled to be displaced next season by prospect Nick Johnson. The Yankees are said to have a handshake agreement to re-up Chuck Knoblauch, but perhaps his throwing woes have rendered that null and void. As for Cone and Clemens, here’s hoping they are encouraged to gracefully bow out.

Joe Torre probably doesn’t have the stomach for this kind of barn-cleaning. And that’s good, because he doesn’t have the stuff to manage the new young team that must be allowed to emerge. Fortunately, there’s a perfect job waiting for him, another abundantly talented veteran team that’s chafing under an overly intense manager. They’re called the Mets, and they could sure use Torre’s light touch.