• Sal Maiorana

The long wait ends - Joe Torre was going to the World Series

BALTIMORE (Oct. 13, 1996) – When Tino Martinez dug out a low throw from Derek Jeter to record the final out of the ALCS, the dam broke and a river of tears began to flow from the eyes of Joe Torre.

He stood there in the visiting dugout at Camden Yards, almost paralyzed by the moment, overcome with emotion because a dream which had gone unfulfilled during 32 years in baseball, a total of 4,272 games as a player and a manager, had finally come true.

And as he watched his players race to the middle of the diamond to celebrate their 6-4 victory in Game 5 which closed out the Orioles and punched the Yankees ticket to the World Series, it seemed wholly appropriate that the man who had never known October glory would be hugged by the man who they nicknamed Mr. October.

“I’m happy for you,” six-time World Series participant and five-time winner Reggie Jackson told the Yankees manager who, before donning the pinstripes, had never even been part of a winning playoff game let alone reach the Fall Classic.

Torre had grown up in Brooklyn during an era when New York City was the epicenter of the baseball universe and it was almost a foregone conclusion each season that at least one of Gotham’s three teams – the Yankees, Dodgers and Giants – would be in the World Series, usually two.

“I was spoiled,” said Torre. “I was a New York Giant fan living in Brooklyn, but it seemed like the World Series was in New York every year. Whether it was in the Polo Grounds, Ebbets Field, and it was always in Yankee Stadium. It was just a matter of who they were going to play.”

Torre had been so close to the World Series as a young fan, but once he made it to the big leagues for good in the last week of the 1960 season, the World Series became the bane of Torre’s existence as it was never within his reach.

In 18 years as a player for the Braves, Cardinals and Mets, not once did his teams quality for the postseason, and then during 14 years as a manager for the same three franchises, his only playoff appearance came in 1982, and his Braves were swept three straight by St. Louis..

The World Series haunted the frustrated Torre so much that he rarely watched after his season had ended.

“I was envious, very jealous,” Torre said. “I never felt comfortable, as a player or manager, watching the World Series. I always shut off the celebrations. To me, it was like watching someone else eating a hot fudge sundae. I was talking to Reggie Jackson, and he said, ‘Oh, I watch all of them.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but you’ve played in 100 of them.’”

Finally, it was Torre’s time.

“I can’t even tell you how I feel,” Torre said. “I’m stunned. No question about it, this is the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me in this sport.”

During the season the Yankees had owned the Orioles, particularly in Baltimore as they won all six games played at Camden Yards. That mastery continued in the ALCS as they lost Game 2 at home, then swept three in a row in Charm City to close out the series.

In Game 3, Baltimore ace Mike Mussina was twirling a masterful four-hit shutout through 7 2/3 innings before a stunning collapse when, in a span of four batters and nine total pitches, the Yankees scored four runs to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 5-2 victory.

Derek Jeter – who by the end of his career probably had a better case than Jackson to be called Mr. October – started the rally with a double. In rapid-fire fashion, Bernie Williams hit an RBI single and scored when Tino Martinez doubled and Baltimore third baseman Todd Zeile mishandled a grounder. Cecil Fielder followed with a two-run homer.

The next night, four Yankee homers – two by Darryl Strawberry, one each by Williams and Paul O’Neill – keyed an 8-4 victory to get Torre and the Yankees one win away from the pennant.

That night, Torre called his brother Frank who had been in a New York hospital awaiting a heart transplant. Unlike Joe, Frank had played in a World Series, winning in 1957 when his Braves defeated the Yankees with Frank contributing two home runs to cause.

Frank told his brother “one more win” and that came in the form of a 6-4 victory with Andy Pettitte delivering eight quality innings and the Yankees scoring all six of their runs in the third inning off Scott Erickson on the strength of solo home runs by Jim Leyritz and Strawberry, a three-run bomb by Fielder, and a massive error by Baltimore second baseman Roberto Alomar that rendered five of those runs unearned.

“I hope Joe got the game ball,” said Wetteland, who gave up Bobby Bonilla’s two-run homer in the ninth to make things interesting before locking it down. “Knowing what he’s been through, this is a special moment in his life. He gave me a hug and there were tears in his eyes. The man doesn’t have to say a lot.”

“It’s going to be fun,” Torre said of the upcoming World Series where his Yankees would meet the defending champion Braves. “This was the missing piece of my career. It’s big.”

The bigger missing piece was on the horizon.

NEXT post on June 11: Atlanta dominates the first two games of the World Series.