• Sal Maiorana

They said Joe Torre had no clue what he was getting into


NEW YORK (Nov. 2, 1995) - The headline in the New York Daily News was a classic, and it illuminated the fact that Joe Torre, the man George Steinbrenner hired to be his new manager starting in 1996, hadn’t exactly distinguished himself in that capacity across 14 years with the Mets, Braves and Cardinals.

It also turned out to be so very wrong.

On the Nov. 3, 1995 back page of what was then New York’s most popular tabloid, a day after the Brooklyn-born Torre met the voracious New York media for the first time since being named to replace Buck Showalter, screamed the big, bold words that became almost like a rallying cry for Torre in the year to come.


Clueless Joe?


Welcome home, Joe.


Just a few weeks earlier, the Yankees had lost a heartbreaking American League divisional series to Seattle when the Mariners walked it off in the bottom of the 11th in the cacophonous Kingdome, Ken Griffey Jr. motoring home from second base with the second and deciding run on Edgar Martinez’s double into the left-field corner off Jack McDowell.


It turned a 5-4 deficit into a 6-5 victory and sent the Yankees home in shock as they'd lost all three games in Seattle after winning the first two in New York.

A few days later, Steinbrenner fired Showalter and the fans and media went berserk, arguing that Torre was nothing more than a retread not deserving of another chance at the age of 55.

This was someone who, in 18 years as a player had cobbled together a strong career and won the 1971 National League MVP, but he never made it to the playoffs, not even once, playing for the Braves, Cardinals and Mets.

And as a manager he’d produced a mundane record of 894-1,003, a winning percentage of .471 with a lone postseason appearance in 1982 when his Braves won the NL West and then were swept out in three games by the Cardinals.

More than 30 years in the game, Torre had not enjoyed a single playoff victory. Meanwhile, Showalter had taken over a Yankees team that had reached a near all-time low in the early 1990s with three straight losing records including a last-place abomination of 67-95 in 1990.


Yet in just his third year he had the Yankees on top of the American League in 1994 before the players’ strike ended the season, and then in 1995 the Yankees finished second in the AL East and earned a wild-card berth, their first playoff appearance since 1981.

Despite the disappointing end in Seattle, the Yankees were a team on the rise, but the impetuous Steinbrenner deemed that loss to the Mariners as reason enough to make yet another managerial change, the 18th since he had purchased the team in 1972.


The acerbic Daily News columnist, Mike Lupica, was one of many in the media who did not approve of the Boss' latest decision and when all signs were pointed toward Torre's hiring, the Lip began his Oct. 31, 1995 column this way:

“We can only have winners around the Yankees now, that is what George Steinbrenner keeps telling everybody. He had to replace Buck Showalter’s coaches because they weren’t winners.


The Yankees need more people in the clubhouse who understand what it means to play in the World Series or win the World Series.


“Only now, Steinbrenner is supposed to be overheated at the prospect of having Joe Torre replace Showalter, and even Steinbrenner’s most shameless flacks will have difficulty selling Torre as some kind of blockbuster championship hire.


“If Torre is the end of the star search, it will mean the search involved one phone call. Torre was the favored choice by the confederacy of dunces running the Yankees’ office in Tampa even before Bob Watson was hired as general manager.


Torre went to the top of the list once the Braves swept Davey Johnson’s Reds in the National League Championship Series, because Steinbrenner is the phony front-runner of all time.”


Ouch.


If nothing else, Torre unknowingly spat at Lupica, and at that Daily News headline, at the press conference before the paper ever hit the streets the next day. He wasn’t at all clueless, and he knew exactly what he was getting into with Steinbrenner and the Yankees.


“When you get married, do you think you’re always going to be smiling and have a great relationship?” said Torre, who was currently in his third marriage. “I have a wonderful relationship with my wife and we don’t agree on things. To have an opportunity to win, it’s worth all the negative sides you want to talk about. I worked for Ted Turner and Anheuser-Busch. Those people are used to winning. They get very impatient when they don’t, and I can understand that. I do, too. If it doesn’t work out, it’s time to move on. I’ve been fired three times. I know the symptoms.”


NEXT post on March 25: The '96 Yanks had plenty of questions, potential