NEW YORK -- For someone with as illustrious a career as Joe Torre, it might come as a surprise that during his playing days, he dealt with the same insecurities that a lot of young people face: low self-esteem, anxiety and an overwhelming feeling of guilt when something goes the wrong way.
Torre, who finished his career as a nine-time All-Star and the 1971 National League MVP Award winner, began it as a 19-year-old with big dreams and a whole lot of baggage. Though he didn’t open up about it until he traded his seat in the dugout for the top step, Torre admits that he probably didn’t enjoy his playing career as much as some players do now. He often felt at fault if his team didn’t win games, as if there was something he could have done better or more of.
While that’s a common refrain players often utter today, Torre’s reasons came from a much deeper place. Born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., Torre was the youngest of five children who grew up in a household where his father, a police officer in the NYPD, abused his mother, Margaret.
In 2002, halfway into his tenure as the manager of the Yankees, having already won the four World Series titles that solidified his 2014 induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Torre started the Safe at Home Foundation. Together with his wife, Ali, Torre made it his mission to help kids like him, even though, at the time, it was rare for a man to talk openly about domestic violence.
On Tuesday, Torre -- who is now Major League Baseball’s chief baseball officer -- sat in the dugout at Yankee Stadium and talked about the foundation that he never thought would exist.
“I never in my wildest dreams thought I would ever talk about it, and that’s the thing with kids, which I know I felt in my home growing up when my dad was abusive to my mom,” Torre said. “I felt like I was responsible for what was going on, because there was a lot of whispering going on in my house, and my mom would never share it with me, even though I saw the results of what my dad did to her.”
The foundation’s programming initiative, called Margaret’s Place -- in honor of Torre’s mother -- provides a “safe room” in schools where kids who deal with violence in the home can go to seek help from a master’s-level counselor and gain comfort from a network of fellow kids.
There are 15 Margaret’s Place programs in four states across the U.S., including New York, New Jersey, California and Ohio. Since its founding, the Safe at Home Foundation has paired nearly 100,000 students with the resources they need to succeed in spite of their struggles. In addition to the “safe rooms,” the therapists hold workshops for teachers to build a safer school environment and for parents to make homes and communities stronger, and they lead schoolwide campaigns to empower students to become advocates against violence.
For Torre, the importance of seeking help is at the core of the foundation’s mission, which is to educate in order to end the cycle of domestic violence. It was in therapy later in life that he first discovered that his long-standing issues with low self-esteem and general anxiety had a root cause.
“The most important thing that they realize is that they’re not alone and it’s not their fault,” Torre said. “So they open up a little bit to someone who has a similar situation. It’s not a cure; you’re just giving them tools to deal with it. This is happening at home -- obviously they have to go back home -- but you’re giving them tools to deal with what’s going on. We work on their self-assurance and self-respect, and caring about them is probably the most important thing.”
Before Torre shared his story publicly, he felt a lot of shame, thinking that there was something wrong with him. Now, he’s able to reach out and touch young people who have been through the same experience.
“It feels good to talk about it,” Torre said. “You know you’re connecting with young people, and they feel better when they leave because you care about them. There are a lot of similarities with what I did for a living as a manager. I think it’s important that players know you care about them. Because I know when you talk about players, you talk about how much money they make, but they’re still human beings and they’re still young people. It’s been reassuring.”
Before Tuesday’s game between the Yankees and the Orioles, a new public service announcement for the Safe at Home Foundation played on the video board in center field. Torre opened it by telling the audience: “Being a champion means making an impact on and off the field.”
That single line sums up what Torre has stood for throughout his career, and it is his hope that the foundation he never thought would exist continues to grow beyond his wildest dreams.
“We know how important children are and young people are to our future,” Torre said. “We’re going to need leaders, and we certainly do our best to have these kids leave our program with a lot more self-esteem than when they came. I’m proud of what we do, and I’m just glad the Yankees made it possible for us to come out here.”