Here's why Torre was Yankees' greatest skipper

May 7th, 2020

There have been a lot of classic games on television in this time when there are no baseball games being played, and they’ve included so many played by Joe Torre’s Yankees who are, for now, not just the last great Yankee dynasty, but the last great baseball dynasty. It all happened at the time when the Yankees, under Torre, became the Yankees again.

Joe McCarthy won seven World Series as Yankees manager. So did Casey Stengel. They had to win four games in October to do that. Torre, whose Yankees won four World Series in five years and played in a total of six in eight years, had to win 11. Would McCarthy’s Yankees and Casey’s Yankees have won as many if they had to go through the meat grinder of needing to win three playoff rounds to win it all, as random as October can be? Maybe. But it’s simply not logical to think so. It’s why I think it’s Torre who was the greatest -- and probably most important -- Yankees manager of them all.

And over the last couple of months, he’s also taken a second look at some of those games, and that time in Yankee baseball, the way the rest of us have.

“I was watching our Game 6 against the Braves on YES,” Torre said of the night when his Yankees won their first World Series in 1996. “And I was a mess, even knowing what the hell happened that night. It was different being in the dugout. You’re busy. But you don’t get the feeling of drama that the announcers create.”

Here is something you remember, when you do take another look at Torre’s Yankees: How fragile October really is. They were knocked out in Game 4 of an American League Division Series against the Indians in 1997, when they looked like they were about to win that five-game series in four before Sandy Alomar Jr. hit an eighth-inning home run off Mariano Rivera. And then came the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 against the D-backs in 2001, when the Yankees had the lead and were three outs away from making it five World Series in six years.

They were about to go ahead of the Marlins, 3-1, in the 2003 Series before Alex Gonzalez’s walk-off home run, off Jeff Weaver, in the bottom of the 12th. And of course we’ve seen, again and again over the past few months, the downhill ride that began for the ’04 Yankees in Game 4 against the Red Sox when they were ahead 3-0 and three outs away from another World Series.

“But you know what I think of, too?” Torre said. “How close we were to falling behind 0-2 to the Rangers in the first round in ’96, and then how we lost the first two games of that World Series at home to the Braves. All we did after that was win 14 World Series games in a row, until we lost Game 3 to the Mets in 2000.”

Nothing like that will ever happen again. Torre ultimately became the first manager to win four World Series since Stengel. Again: Stengel’s Yankees won 28 games in October, because that’s all you needed to do in those years. In Torre’s World Series-winning seasons, his team won 44. They just kept coming.

“It was a magical,” Torre said. “It really was. My club showed so much character. And we never once stopped to admire ourselves.”

He talked about moments across the years he remembered, good and bad, like the bottom of the ninth against the D-backs that night in 2001. For nearly two decades, he has heard people say that he shouldn’t have brought the infield in before Luis Gonzalez’s Series-winning blooper over Derek Jeter’s head.

“What, he couldn’t have fisted one against Mo [Mariano Rivera] on the ground?” Torre said. “I’ll be an SOB if I was going to lose on a broken-bat ball to short while the winning run crossed the plate.”

He remembered something his wife, Ali, said to him before that World Series, and how exciting it was going to be watching the Yankees go up against Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling.

“I said, ‘Really? Grab a bat,’” Torre said.

He talked about watching Tim Wakefield give up Aaron Boone’s bottom-of-the-11th home run in 2003 to win the pennant for the Yankees and how the next year, after the Yankees lost Game 7, he had the grace to pick up the phone on his desk and call Wakefield in the Red Sox clubhouse to congratulate him.

“Just because I’d watched him walk off the year before,” Torre said.

He remembers a moment against the D-backs in Game 7 when he went to the mound before Jay Bell came to the plate with runners at first and second, nobody out. Everybody knew Bell was going to bunt.

“Get an out,” he said. “Let’s not get fancy.”

Bell bunted the ball right back to Rivera, who closed on the ball quickly and threw a strike to Scott Brosius at third. If Brosius had thrown to first, it would have been an easy double play. But Brosius just came off the base holding the ball.

“I might have planted too much of a seed about a sure out,” Torre said.

Then, Torre spoke of a moment in the middle of Game 4 against the Red Sox in 2004, when the Yankees had the lead and the bases loaded and Trot Nixon ended up making a sliding play in right-center against Hideki Matsui.

“I thought to myself in the dugout, ‘That’s not a good sign,’ just because we had a chance to break it open at that time,” Torre said. “Little did I know.”

Torre’s Yankees never won another Series. But they had won plenty and done plenty by then, not just on field, but for the Yankees brand.

“I used to preach that if we focused on small things, big things would happen,” Torre said.

Big things did. Very big guy in that dugout. Three World Series in a row. Four in five. Send up a flare when it happens like this again, at Yankee Stadium or anywhere else.