On Dodgers manager Joe Torre

The Baltimore Sun

Vero Beach, Fla.-- --The New York Daily News dubbed him "Clueless Joe" the day after George Steinbrenner hired him to manage the New York Yankees in 1995, something Joe Torre could laugh about a year later while he was holding the first of his four world championship trophies.

He knew, however, he would one day be clueless again, because that's how it works when you're managing with expectations so large that 12 straight playoff appearances is good enough only to get you insulted.

Maybe insulted is too strong a word. Torre was offered a one-year contract by the Yankees after last season, much of his salary contingent on the team winning the World Series - as if the guy who could put a World Series ring on every finger of his right hand (except the thumb, of course) just wasn't motivated enough to get the Yankees back to the mountaintop.

No, insulted works just fine. Torre steered the Yankees through one of the most troubled eras in baseball history. He held them together when Jason Giambi got caught up in BALCO and when Alex Rodriguez couldn't get along with Derek Jeter and when everything seemed to come apart during the early months of last season.

Which doesn't explain why he'll be wearing a Los Angeles Dodgers uniform today when the Orioles host the Dodgers for an exhibition game at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, but who said anything ever has to make sense when it comes to the Steinbrenner family and the Yankees?

"I think change is good," Torre said last week. "Change is good for both sides. I really think that. When I made my decision not to accept what they were offering, I never looked back. I never went back and questioned my decision."

Another clever headline writer recently dubbed him "Zoo-less Joe," which pretty much sums up the difference between this spring and last. Torre signed on to manage another of Major League Baseball's cornerstone franchises and seems to be enjoying the difference in off-the-field intensity between Legends Field and Dodgertown.

"It's still spring training," he said. "You still have to focus on what you need to find out. This is certainly a whole lot different atmosphere. It's more fan-friendly. It definitely seems like a more relaxed atmosphere. Whether it is or not, I know what I have to do."

He has to win. That's the part that's the same in New York and Los Angeles, two huge baseball markets that expect nothing less. Torre was considered a so-so manager after directing the New York Mets, Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals to marginal success. Now, he's a slam-dunk Hall of Famer. He could have ridden off into a Cooperstown sunset, but he chose to put his reputation on the line one more time.


That's a fair question for a 67-year-old guy with nothing to prove. He was a premier player - the National League Most Valuable Player in 1971 - and he owns more world titles than any other living manager. Last year looked like a logical time to go home and wait for the veterans committee to ring him up in a year or two.

The answer might be in the way his final act played out on Broadway.

"The last three years in New York were not fun," Torre said. "They were a little tougher than the other years. Last year especially. We started the year slowly. I had to answer a lot of questions before we got to baseball. It just wasn't a whole lot of fun."

It's not as if he has traded the Yankees for a pressure-free environment. The Dodgers bear some similarity to the Yankees organization when Torre arrived there. It is a storied, big-money team that hasn't been on top for a couple of decades - since the 1988 "Kirk Gibson" World Series.

The difference, of course, is in the intensity of the fans and the attitude of the ownership, though Torre insists he will take the same approach in Los Angeles that he took in New York.

Still, he wouldn't be human if he didn't pick up the paper and read about the latest Yankees controversy - for example, Hank Steinbrenner's derisive public comments about Red Sox Nation two weeks ago - and breathe a sigh of relief that he doesn't have to be the Yankees' firewall anymore.

"My job as a manager was to try to keep the players focused," he said, "knowing the Yankees, knowing George Steinbrenner, knowing how volatile things could be there. The man wants to win.

"As far as it being 'not my problem,' it wasn't my problem. Whatever went with being there was part of it. Yes, you had to answer a question once in a while, but I never let it distract me. It wasn't the main focus of what I was hired to do."

No doubt, he'll have to put out his share of brushfires in Los Angeles, but that's also part of it. This time, at least, the guy apparently has a clue.


Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon most Saturdays and Sundays.

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