• Sal Maiorana

Failing to win in 1997 jacked up the pressure on Joe Torre in 1998

TAMPA – The primary reason why Joe Torre stayed in the employ of George Steinbrenner for 12 years was because all he did was win. That’s how you kept your job during the Steinbrenner reign of terror and Torre’s 12 teams went to the postseason every year, played a combined 406 games over .500 for a winning percentage of .605, captured 10 AL East division titles, six American League pennants, and won four World Series championships. The secondary reason? Torre had an uncanny ability to not let Steinbrenner’s relentless and bombastic modus operandi get him down. No matter how much pressure the Boss put on him, Torre simply listened, nodded his head, thanked him for his input, and then continued to just keep doing what he’d been doing. So, when Steinbrenner said the day after the Yankees were eliminated from the 1997 playoffs by the Indians, “We’ll win it next year. Mark that down,” Torre casually turned around that perceived pressure point and essentially lobbed the ball back into Steinbrenner’s court. “When the Boss says that, it means he’s going to get you the players,” Torre told reporters. “Any manager would live with those rules. I have no problems with not having to be asked my opinion on things, as long as I’m confident they’re going to do whatever they can to put the best club they can on the field and in the clubhouse.” Of course, that’s exactly what Steinbrenner did. Out were Wade Boggs, Cecil Fielder, Dwight Gooden, Charlie Hayes, Brian Boehringer, Pat Kelly and Kenny Rogers, and in their places came third baseman Scott Brosius, second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, designated hitter Chili Davis, and pitchers Orlando Hernandez and Darren Holmes. Also, outfielders Darryl Strawberry and Tim Raines were re-signed as free agents. Even though general manager Bob Watson created a stir by resigning just before the start of spring training and turning the duties over to his assistant, Brian Cashman, the Yankees headed to Tampa as the clear-cut favorite in the division. The 98-win Orioles still figured to be dangerous, the Blue Jays would be improved with Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens back to anchor their rotation, and the Red Sox were expected to rebound from a miserable 78-84 record in 1997 with Pedro Martinez coming to Boston. But none of those teams could match the depth and skill the Yankees had up and down their 25-man roster, prompting Torre to say just prior to Opening Day that his lineup would be, “The best I’ve ever written down on paper.” “Going into spring training, I feel like we could win the World Series,” said Paul O’Neill. “I’ve felt that way the past three years. The only way to get rid of that bad taste is to start another season. I think everybody expected us to beat Cleveland. There’s always a lot of confidence in the Yankees. Sometimes you expect things to happen and they don’t. I was as disappointed as I have been during my 11 years in the majors. I was very disappointed we didn’t continue to play.” Joe Girardi felt the same way, that the Yankees lost to an inferior Cleveland team, and it only fueled him – and he hoped it did the rest of his teammates – to make amends in 1998. “I think we were good enough to win the World Series last year,” Girardi said. “We just didn’t play well enough in the postseason. I sat down at my computer and wrote how I felt after we lost. From a personal standpoint, I felt we were cheated. I felt that everyone could have done a little more for us to get to the next level. I think it made me train harder during the offseason.” As the spring progressed, there was nothing to dissuade anyone from believing 1998 had the chance to be a special season. “Last year, we had a terribly distracting spring, even though you deal with it the best you can,” Torre said. “We’re a more balanced ballclub now. We may not have as deep starting pitching, but if we can keep our five guys out there, we’re better than most people. I am having more fun this year than last year, and it has something to do with the team, too. I really like what I see right now.” As did Steinbrenner. “We’ve got a good team this year,” Steinbrenner said. “Better than last year.” How much better? “He’s definitely put the pressure on,” Torre said of the Boss. “He asked if there was an American League manager that’s ever gone undefeated in a season. That puts a lot of emphasis on Opening Day.”

NEXT POST on June 30: The Yankees stumble to an 0-3 start.