DETROIT -- The lunacy never ends around this team. Here was Joe Torre, a manager who has handled a pennant-race swoon with admirable poise and intelligence, backed into a corner of the clubhouse Thursday morning answering questions about the latest front-office firestorm.
"In baseball, getting fired doesn't necessarily mean you did a bad job," Torre was saying, as calmly as ever. "This stuff doesn't bother me at all. Years ago it might have been different. But there are more important things to think about than what might be."
It was 90 minutes before game time, and Torre may as well have been talking about the weather, he was so casual in handling a media swarm caused by Bob Watson's rather ridiculous comments that hit the papers Thursday.
The Yankee GM may have a death wish, all but challenging George Steinbrenner to fire him. But this was one more example of why Torre is the perfect man for the job of manager of this team at the moment.
Nothing seems to faze him, and now more than ever the Yankees need a steady hand at the wheel -- not to mention a semblance of sanity from the brain trust.
This team is still in first place, isn't it? The Yankees did sweep here, didn't they?
Say what you want about the Tigers, whose pitching staff is now two home runs away from setting a major-league record for most home runs allowed in a season, but any September sweep on the road is to be savored, particularly under the circumstances.
As David Cone said after pitching the Yanks to the 12-3 win, "It was almost a must-sweep. And the way we did it, coming back to erase deficits a couple of different times, it gives the whole team a better feeling.
"As bad as we've played, our ship hasn't sunk. We've got a chance to right the ship, and this was a very good start."
Yes, everyone in Yankeeland should be exhaling for the moment, and yet as usual there is a lot of hyperventilating going around. It starts, of course, with Boss George, and rumblings that he already has decided to fire Watson.
But Watson has raised the level of hysteria by responding publicly with some ill-thought remarks. For one thing, he unfairly dragged Torre into his own doghouse, implying that both he and the manager should be fired if the Yankees wind up blowing this race.
Even more ominously, he accused Steinbrenner of leaking word that he intends to fire Watson, quoted in one story saying, "I would think he would be enough of a man about it to come and tell me."
Maybe Watson wants to be fired -- he does have a contract through 1997. Obviously he's tired of being Steinbrenner's personal punching bag, a role he has filled almost from the moment he took the job last fall.
It started with losing Randy Velarde to the Angels, a move that led George to order Watson back to Tampa from his home in Houston over Thanksgiving weekend. Perhaps it culminated with the trade for a couple of injured players from the Brewers -- one of the few deals Watson made without direct supervision from Steinbrenner.
The irony, however, is that Watson looks good at the moment. With Wade Boggs out indefinitely because of a bad back, Watson's deal for Charlie Hayes may turn out to be a season-saver.
But in any case, if he values his job at all, he ought to stop talking. Watson only seems to get himself in trouble when he talks, going all the way back to a news conference last November when he became flustered by questions about Don Mattingly and blurted out the details of a deadline regarding Mattingly's future plans.
George screamed at him the next day and, according to Yankee sources, does so all the time. Steinbrenner has kept off Torre, perhaps because he senses Torre can't be shaken, and pounded Watson instead. The manager knows it, too.
"He goes through a lot more than I do," Torre said yesterday. "What is it they say, the mayor of New York has the second toughest job in the country. Well, [Watson's job] ought to go right alongside that one."
Torre empathizes with Watson, all right, but he wasn't thrilled to hear the GM had included him in all this talk of being fired. Never mind that Torre has shown great skill handling this crisis and has proven himself a very good manager this season.
More significantly, it is hardly the time for any of this, as the Yankees try to avoid a collapse. Still, Torre was diplomatic in addressing it.
"It's not natural but it's not unusual," Torre said when asked about the very idea of discussing a potential firing while still in first place. "The lead we had is no longer there. Evidently it's not where we are but where we were that this conversation is taking place."
Then Torre smiled and looked out over the crowd of reporters.
"Hopefully when this is all over and done," he said, "we can laugh about it."
Certainly the players were giggling it up in the clubhouse a few hours later, relishing the sweep. They seemed mostly oblivious to the latest round of front-office politics. In that sense, maybe the lunacy doesn't matter so much. Yankee fans can only hope.
Pub Date: 9/13/96