On a stifling June afternoon in Philadelphia, New York Yankees Manager Joe Torre was about to step into the air-conditioned comfort of the players' entrance at Veterans Stadium when a middle-aged man called his name. Torre is not one of those celebrities who walk past people head down as if they didn't hear a thing. So he stopped, assuming he would be asked for an autograph.
He was wrong. "I met you almost 30 years ago," the man said. "I was in high school and I wanted to drop out. My parents asked you to talk to me one day because they thought I might listen to a ballplayer. They were right. I'm a lawyer now. I just wanted to tell you thanks."
Torre was pleased by the story, albeit a bit stunned. "I had a little tiny vague memory when he brought it up," he said. "But that was it."
Before he could take the last few steps to the players' entrance, Torre was stopped again, by a younger man. "Twenty years ago I had cancer," he said. "They thought I was terminal. You were with the Mets. You came to see me and gave me a pep talk. I never forgot it. When you were sick, I realized I never said thank you."
Again, Torre was rendered almost speechless. He felt as if he had stepped into an old movie. "Except for the part about me promising to hit a home run for someone," he said later with a smile. "I know I never did that."
His memory of the second man was clearer because he did remember the request to speak to a very sick teenager. "But it never occurred to me," he said, standing behind the batting cage in his Yankee uniform a couple of hours later, "that what I did had such an effect on either one of them. It was just a few minutes out of my day in both cases, some word of encouragement. That was all. It was easy for me to do.
"It makes you realize what all of us in sports can do if we put just a little effort into things. And I mean just a little. A word here, a pat on the back there, a phone call. Right or wrong, because of who we are and what we do, it can have a tremendous effect on people. It's something I wish we could all be a little bit more aware of."
Torre, who is 59, has never been an unaware celebrity. He has always understood how fortunate he has been to make a living for the past 40 years either playing baseball, managing baseball or talking about baseball. In fact, when he managed the Yankees to a World Series title in 1996 after participating in more major league games as a player and a manager without being in a World Series than any man in history, even a lot of decided Yankee-haters couldn't help but be happy for him.
In March, Torre was diagnosed as having prostate cancer. He had to leave the Yankees during spring training for surgery and didn't return for two months. He was moved by the outpouring of supportive cards, letters and e-mails that flooded in during his absence. But what struck him most -- as with that June day in Philadelphia -- was the number of people who remembered encountering him somewhere in his past and wanted him to know that he had touched their lives.
"The stuff they brought up was common courtesy-type stuff," he said. "A handshake, a signed baseball, a smile or a wave. It isn't as if I've been Mother Teresa."
But he isn't Albert Belle either. Which is why Torre's common touch makes him so uncommon. This is an era in sports when an autograph often costs money, when simple courtesy is often too complicated for an athlete to handle, where you are more likely to get an elbow from a bodyguard than anything approaching a handshake. If Belle, the Orioles' surly right fielder, is the embodiment of all that is wrong with sports, then Torre is his polar opposite. Belle has to hit home runs to hear cheers. Torre just has to walk out of a dugout.
On a May night, Torre came back to baseball, in Boston, in Fenway Park, a place where the word "Yankees" is considered a profanity, a place where they still rage about the Babe leaving in 1920 and Bucky Dent showing up in 1978. His bench coach, Don Zimmer, talked him into taking the lineup card to home plate before the game. Torre thought there might be some polite applause since he had been sick. Not even close. Everyone in the old baseball cathedral was standing as he walked from the dugout, applauding and cheering.
"It amazed me," Torre said softly.
Really, though, it wasn't amazing. The fans in Boston that night didn't see a Yankee, they saw a man. A very good man. Someone who has spent his entire life touching other people with simple acts, often without knowing how much those simple acts meant.
Too often, it takes a serious illness to make people understand how much other people have meant to them. In Torre's case, the opposite is true: It took a serious illness to make him understand how much he has meant to others. "It's a hard way to learn something like that," he said. "But if it helps me understand how much I can accomplish in five minutes or even in a minute, then maybe something good can come of it."
No doubt something will.