Torre so much more than a player and manager
Hall of Famer has always been engaging, offering insight, anecdotes, quips
NEW YORK -- I knew him when he was 9. That is, I knew Joe Torre best when he wore No. 9. He wore the number of Ted Williams, Bob Pettit, Minnie Minoso and hockey's elite. Torre wore it in Cardinals red and later as manager of the Mets and Braves and the Cardinals again. "Number nine, number nine, number nine," the Beatles said.
It mattered not that Torre had worn No. 15 while playing for the Braves for nine summers before he became the Cardinals' No. 9. He became as much No. 9 to me as Mickey was 7, Whitey was 16 and Campy was 39. That the Yankees' No. 6 is to be put in mothballs in Torre's honor Saturday, that he is to be forever saluted as No. 6 in the Bronx is fully appropriate. Good for him. But, to me, he is No. 9, thank you.
To borrow phrasing from WWOR, Channel 9 in New York, he is "My 9." Stan "The Man" is No. 6 to me. Or Dr. J, the ultimate Sixer. Or Clete Boyer or Tony Oliva. Joseph Paul Torre of Brooklyn, Jeter's Mr. Torre, is the No. 9 on my roster. That's unlikely to change.
I was a New York City kid, Bronx-born -- so Hank Bauer was my first No. 9. He led off and played right field for Casey's Yankees. Roger Maris eventually encroached on Bauer's territory, wearing his number and replacing Bauer in right field. Few recall that Maris also led off for Mr. Stengel (see Opening Day, 1960). I could have chosen Mr. Theodore Ballgame as my 9, but I feared his swing and scorned him when he beat my team. Maris was on my roster of favorites for quite a while.
All I knew of Torre back then was that he was a chubby-faced catcher with the Milwaukee Braves and brother of one of their first basemen in the 1957 and '58 World Series. I hadn't had the pleasure yet. I was years away from becoming a credentialed baseball writer.
Now I know -- I've had the pleasure, and a distinct pleasure it's been. During more than 40 years of kibitzing in clubhouses, dugouts, airports, lobbies and coffee shops, I came to regard No. 9 as No. 1, the best man to speak with after a game when my notebook was hungry for candor, insights and well-developed thoughts about the game.
Torre always accommodated, he provided quality and quantity as a matter of course. He was the best at what he did, like John Wooden, far and away the best year after year. Questions often seemed unnecessary. Torre anticipated the angle and recognized what reporters needed. When he returned to his locker from the shower, a towel wrapped around his waist, he was prepared, ready to bare his baseball soul and/or enhance everyone's stories.
After he had grounded into four double plays in one Mets game, Torre armed himself with the sort of response that made him the best quote in the game. He blamed Felix Millan for being on base each time he had batted.
Several Latin American players and Mets pitching coach Bill Monbouquette were late for Spring Training one year. The players had visa problems and Monbouquette's flight from New Hampshire had been canceled because of fog. "Visa-bility problems," manager Torre said.
When Shea Stadium's lights went out during the 1977 blackout, Torre wondered whether the Mets ever had endured a darker day. And when All-America football player John Stearns brought so much intensity to baseball, manager Torre said, "He wants so bad to be so good." And: "The idea is to be intense without being tense." He enjoyed playing with words. At times, he seemed like one of us.
A personal favorite, one with some Yogi to it, came when scheduled doubleheaders still were commonplace: "Winning the second game of a doubleheader," Torre once said, "is the hardest thing to do whether you've won or lost the first game."
There was so much more to Torre, though. As player, manager and Angels play-by-play man, he put the game in proper perspective. Torre always had an anecdote that fit the circumstance. He routinely demonstrated touch and seldom stubbed his tongue. His Mets teams were quite challenged. He protected them by providing anecdotes that made for better writing and reading.
And so Torre became the all-time go-to guy for at least one reporter. Looking out for No. 9 was SOP for those of us covering New York's other team in the late '70s and early '80s. Of course his standing as a player and manager mattered. When his Yankees teams reminded us of Casey's World Series champions, Torre gained a great distinction. No manager who enjoyed dugout success comparable to his was so accomplished a player as No. 9. And no player as accomplished as Torre enjoyed comparable success as a manager.
The Hall of Fame inducted Torre last month for those and other reasons.
The first time Torre and I spoke ... oh, how he spoiled me! After a few enjoyable moments at his locker in the visiting clubhouse at Shea, I wondered whether -- no, I hoped that -- all players would be so insightful, so glib, so willing to share what had gone through their minds. And so available.
Turns out that only a relative few were even remotely close to Torre -- Tom Glavine, Ed Lynch, Lou Piniella, Bob Gibson, Billy Wagner, Chipper Jones, Hubie Brooks, Roy Smalley, Dan Quisenberry, Willie Stargell, Bobby Murcer, Bob Watson, Teddy Simmons, David Cone, Robin Ventura, George Scott, John Smoltz, Carlton Fisk, Bill Madlock, Jeff Innis, Stevie Henderson, Cliff Floyd, Jose Valentin, Rich Gossage, Buddy Harrelson, Dave Parker, Jason Isringhausen, Gary Gaetti, Todd Zeile, Mike Cameron, Keith Hernandez, Jimmy Rollins and, when they chose to cooperate, Pedro Martinez and Carlos Delgado. One more: surprise, surprise -- Thurman Munson. But that's another story.
Torre and the Cardinals came to Shea in late July 1971. He was the leading hitter in the National League. Tom Seaver shut down the Cards in the third game of the series. Torre had two hits, one against Seaver, and finished the night batting .370. His average never was that high again. Torre finished at .363 and led the league.
Torre had left 70-some-odd passes that night. He had people, Brooklyn brothers included, to see after the game. Torre's 31st birthday had passed nine days earlier when the Mets were in St. Louis. But he gave me the better part of 15 minutes, having afforded me 20 minutes of quality time before the game.
Torre filled my notebook with quality stuff. He charmed me. The story came easily, a rare occurrence for me. Somehow, he saw it the following day and thanked me. I've always thanked Torre for making my job easier and more enjoyable. Today I salute him as well.