Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Do as Torre says but not as he does

Former New York Yankees manager Joe Torre worked with SI reporter Tom Verducci on a tell-all bio that recently came out about Torre's tenure as Yankees manager. Verducci apparently compiled years of reporting and research on the Yankees for this retrospective, and Torre filled in as many blanks as he was willing to.

With distance from a job comes a candor about it that may not have existed during the job due to your standard terms of non-disclosure, and Torre's provided enough gossip logs for the media fire, making sure to throw in bits about the squad's behind-the-back disdain for A-Rod ("A-Fraud") plus criticism of owner George Steinbrenner.

Buster Olney, who managed quite a living out of writing about the Yankees, took note of a certain hypocrisy, whose key points I will note in obnoxious bold text:

It is Tom Verducci who wrote the actual words of the book, and over the past two days, Verducci has worked to underscore this point and to note that the fragments about Alex Rodriguez, Brian Cashman and the Steinbrenners are just tiny pieces of a book of almost 500 pages. The voice is third person, not Torre's, as it was the first time Torre and Verducci collaborated. A lot of the words are based on Verducci's reporting.

But here's the problem with that: It's Joe Torre's book. His name is on it. He got paid for it. He had a chance to read every word, every sentence, every paragraph. He had to approve every passage....

... in spring 2003, David Wells and a ghostwriter published a book, "Perfect I'm Not: Boomer on Beer, Brawls, Backaches and Baseball," and Torre was furious, angry that Wells had aired some of the Yankees' dirty laundry in the pages. Wells tried to distance himself from some of the words in the book, saying they belonged to the writer, but the Yankees' manager would not accept that....

Joe Torre won a ton of media respect for his "handling" of the many understandable egos employed by the star studded New York Yankees, even producing the hyperbole of placing him among the greatest managers of all time.

But it's fairly easy to fill out a lineup card when your 25 players are among the league's best, thanks to an owner so rich and obsessed with winning that he handed his general manager a blank check to sign the best available talent on the market each winter. And as some media heads have noted, Torre doesn't exactly possess a magic touch. Torre's previous managerial records:

New York Mets (1977-1981): 286 wins, 420 losses (.405 win percentage)
Atlanta Braves (1982-1984): 257 wins, 229 losses (.529)
St. Louis Cardinals (1990-1995): 351 wins, 354 losses (.498)

It takes about .550-.560 to contend. Compare these records with the 1173 wins and 767 losses (.605) he compiled in his 12 years with the well-rolled New York Yankees. A look at the talent level of those 12 New York Yankee teams should tell you all you need to know about why they won, and it wasn't because of Torre's firm hand and menacing stare in the clubhouse. That firm hand and menacing stare oversaw 8 losing seasons out of his previous 14 with other clubs. He won with Jeter, Bernie, Posada, Cone, Tino, Mo Rivera et al and all the other All-Star free agents that came after them because any manager with a functioning brain could win with such a group.

The credibility of Joe Torre allegedly comes from a belief that he possesses an innate skill to derive winning from his talent, when in reality, Torre is just like any manager in that his record is typically only as good as the talent provided to him. Last season, his first as skipper of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Dodgers eked out a playoff appearance from an 84-78 record in a less-than-competitive NL West division despite allowing the fewest runs in the NL (4.0 per game, half a run below league average) due to a relatively anemic offense that scored 4.32 runs per game, 4th fewest in the NL. Where was the magic, Joe?

If that doesn't call into question the respect that media pundits believe Joe Torre deserves, then how about his hypocrisy in calling out David Wells for divulging clubhouse gossip in a book and helping squeeze the team into fining Wells $100,000 for it... then doing the exact same thing himself several years later, and even resorting to the same excuses as Wells (distancing himself from the book by blaming the ghost writer), excuses that he dismissed from Wells years ago?

Perhaps we can dismiss Torre's distanced excuses as well. Buster Olney has, and he probably won't be the last writer to call Torre on it. Either way, the facade over the myth of Joe Torre as a great man and manager has further faded, as well it should given the facts.

He was a pretty good catcher though.

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