• Sal Maiorana

During a seismic sweep of the Indians, Joe Torre's brother Rocco passed away

CLEVELAND (June 21, 1996) – For the better part of the season, Joe Torre was dealing with a serious family situation, the failing health of one of his older brothers, Frank Torre.

Frank, a left-swinging first baseman who’d played from 1956 to 1963 with the Milwaukee Braves and Philadelphia Phillies, winning a World Series in 1957, was in need of a heart transplant and the 64-year-old was residing down in Florida and hoping he’d live long enough for that to happen.

So, when the phone rang in the visiting managers’ office at Jacobs Field between games of a Friday day-night doubleheader and Torre was greeted by his wife Ali on the other end, he naturally jumped to the logical conclusion.

“It’s interesting because when my wife called me, she asked if I was sitting down,” Torre told reporters as tears welled in his eyes. “Right away my thoughts went to my brother, Frank.”

Instead, Torre was stunned to hear Ali say that his oldest and relatively healthy brother, Rocco, a retired New York City and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency police officer, had passed away at the age of 69 of a heart attack.

“Then it was my other brother, and it was like somebody hit you in the face,” said Torre, who shared that Rocco had been watching on television as the Yankees rallied in thrilling fashion to defeat the high-flying Indians 8-7 in 10 innings.

After taking a moment to reflect, Joe decided to stay in Cleveland and return to New York two days later for the wake and funeral. The Yankees completed the Friday sweep with a 9-3 victory, rallied from down 5-0 on Saturday to win 11-9, and with Torre on his way home Sunday they put a bow on an impressive wipeout weekend with a 6-5 victory.

Rocco’s death had certainly cast a pall, but from a baseball perspective, four straight wins over the defending AL champs who’d entered the series 22 games over .500, the best record in baseball, was quite a statement. It also stretched the Yankees lead in the AL East to a season-high four games.

The first game was a makeup from an April 4 postponement, and Torre faced a pitching dilemma. David Cone was still out, Jimmy Key had gone back on the disabled list for the second time in a month, and 11-game winner Andy Pettitte was unavailable on the current turn through the rotation due to elbow soreness.

Before the team left for Cleveland George Steinbrenner had summoned Torre and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre to his Yankee Stadium office in a panic wondering what they were going to do against the mighty Indians. The plan was for Brian Boehringer and rookie Ramiro Mendoza to pitch the doubleheader, and after making his protestation clear, the Boss had no choice but to go along, saying, “Fine, but it’s your ass that’s on the line.”

A little more than three months into his tenure, Torre’s “ass was on the line” even though his team was in first place. The Yankees won both games.

In the opener, Boehringer was knocked out in the fifth with New York trailing 4-1, and it was 5-1 when the eighth inning arrived. “We were going nowhere,” Torre recalled.

Until Wade Boggs singled, Paul O’Neill walked, both raced home on a Tino Martinez double which chased Indians starter Charles Nagy, and Ruben Sierra doubled off Eric Plunk to cut the deficit to 5-4.

When Steve Howe gave up a run in the bottom half the Yankees seemed dead, but against Cleveland closer Jose Mesa they tied the game in the ninth. Pinch-hitter Mike Aldrete singled, Boggs walked, and after Derek Jeter struck out, O’Neill singled home one run and Martinez tied it with an RBI groundout.

Then in the 10th, Jeter – 0-for-5 to this point – came through with a two-out, bases-loaded, two-run single and that proved just enough after John Wetteland allowed a solo homer to Jeromy Burnitz before getting the final two outs.

“To come back and score seven runs in the last three innings was more than we could have expected, especially since we haven’t been hitting for the last week or so,” said Torre. “This has done a world of good for our confidence, just breaking out of a slump at the right time. This was huge for us.”

That was not lost on the clubhouse. “This was the biggest win for this team this year,” Mariano Duncan said. “This felt like a playoff game. You will never see (the Indians) give up a lead like that again at home. We showed them no team can take anything lightly.”

Ramiro Mendoza

After consoling their manager, the Yankees punctuated the day with a runaway in the nightcap as they banged out 17 hits – including three each by Jeter, Martinez and Andy Fox – to ease Mendoza’s night.

They raced out to a 7-0 lead in the first three innings and Mendoza pitched care-free, allowing no earned runs on just three hits and two walks in five innings before Mariano Rivera (three innings, one run) and Jeff Nelson (a scoreless ninth with Wetteland unavailable) brought it home.

“This is the best team in baseball we beat twice, that’s something we can draw from,” Wetteland said. “That’s why this was so tremendous.”

The Saturday game featured a nine-run sixth that erased a 5-0 deficit. The Yankees erupted for eight hits and two walks, the biggest blow struck by Sierra – who started in left field for the second game in a row – as he launched a tying three-run homer off Dennis Martinez.

And in the Sunday finale, with Torre leaving in the second inning to head to the airport for his two difficult days ahead, Dwight Gooden outpitched ex-Yankee Jack McDowell, backed by home runs from O’Neill, Martinez and Bernie Williams.

Bench coach Don Zimmer, who took over the managerial role when Torre departed, quipped, “It’s a great day for me. We had won the first three games. If we had lost, Torre would have been all over me.”

Taking the four-game sweep as a whole, Williams said, “This was a great accomplishment.”

He wasn’t wrong.

NEXT post on April 27: The end of the line for Steve Howe.