The most valuable player of the 1999 World Series may have been Mariano Rivera, but the most valuable person was Yankees Manager Joe Torre.
Without Rivera, as well as Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams, there would be no Yankees dynasty. They're the indispensable players. But Torre is the irreplaceable person. He's the heart of the Yankees--the franchise that, for generations, was supposed to function quite well without that particular organ. The manager with the kindest ferocious face in sports makes these Yanks everybody's team, not just New York's.
As the Yankees burst from their dugout to celebrate their World Series triumph on Wednesday night, tears streamed down Torre's face. He's so happy to be alive these days--he claims to feel everything so much more intensely since his return from prostate cancer treatment this spring--that emotions just pour out of him.
However, in that celebration, there was no mistaking which players Torre sought out. He grabbed Paul O'Neill around the neck and pulled their heads together for a hug. O'Neill's father, a former Class AAA player, had died that morning at 79 after a long illness. Yet O'Neill played that night. "You're a warrior," Torre told him.
Torre also looked for third baseman Scott Brosius and utility man Luis Sojo. Both their fathers died this season, too. For months, Torre appreciated the way Brosius willed himself to stay upbeat in the clubhouse. Perhaps the Yankees' stoicism came, in part, from their memories of how Torre himself, during the 1996 postseason, spoke openly about--but never gave into the sorrow and worry of--watching his brother Frank wait for a new heart.
In the aftermath of the sweep of the Braves, Torre also sought out David Cone and catcher Joe Girardi, two players who may not be back next year because of the usual Yankees contract complexities. Torre made sure everybody--read, owner George Steinbrenner--knew that these two are what he calls his "clubhouse barometer. . . . If I have to get a feel for the mood of the team, Joe and David, they're pretty good barometers for me."
As he approaches his 60th birthday, with as many World Series triumphs as Whitey Herzog, Billy Martin and Earl Weaver combined, Torre has become baseball's symbol of sane, mature leadership.
When he tips his hat forward in the dugout, leans back and glowers, he seems appropriately annoyed at whatever foolishness has transpired on the field, yet not the least upset. When he relieves a pitcher, he seems to find the right word. After ordering Allen Watson to issue an intentional walk to the only batter he faced, Torre came to the mound and said, deadpan, "I've got to get you out of here. You're killin' us. You're too wild."
When the issue at hand is serious, Torre is at his best, yet, apparently, without trying to be. He just acts naturally and it works. When coach Don Zimmer was hit in the head by a foul ball in the first-round series against Texas, Torre's face turned ashen. The next day, Torre said, "I was sitting [next to] him. I should have prevented it. But I covered up myself."
Torre's way with a reprimand is firm as well. Chad Curtis, the two-homer hero of Game 3, has views so extremely conservative that even other players take note. Curtis took it upon himself to dump on NBC reporter Jim Gray, live on national TV, on Tuesday night, saying that "the Yankees" had decided not to talk to him on the field--apparently as some sort of team retribution for Gray's controversial interview with Pete Rose.
Torre cut Curtis off at the knees the next day--homers or no homers. "I just wish Chad had said that was his choice instead of that it was the team that agreed to do this. Because I know the whole team didn't have this type of meeting or anything like that," said Torre. "We have a certain obligation to NBC that we're going to fulfill."
In his years in New York, Torre has learned that you better figure out what you mean and then say it. Then live with it. If you change your story or talk out of both sides of your mouth, in New York you're not a "stand-up guy." And the town will eat you alive.
These days, it would be more apt to say that New York is eating Torre up with a spoon. A couple of weeks ago, Torre was sitting on the Yankees' bench talking about his current role in baseball as a senior eminence, a voice of wisdom, a possible future Hall of Famer. The reverence around him was so thick you had to wade through it with shin guards.
Why, Joe has become the prototype of the millennium manager. He's smooth yet honest with the media. He copes deftly with his owner's massive ego. He tends to the souls and psyches of his players. Yet, at the same time, he's a man's man, a former MVP slugger, a guy with a face that clouds up like a Category Five storm. He's Alan Alda with a steel-wool beard.
The only person who doesn't buy into this red-hot Torre trend is Torre.
Looking at the worshipers around him in his dugout, Torre said out of the blue, "If winning the World Series is the measure of everything, does that mean I was a failure for my first 35 years [in baseball]?"
Nobody's got an answer for that one, especially considering Torre's 14 years as a sub-.500 manager for the Mets, Braves and Cards, or his forgettable years as a TV broadcaster. Torre likes it that way.
"It's better when you have to wait a long time for it," he said. "I mean, as long as you do get it. You appreciate everything more."
The fame and glory calibrators are surrounding Torre even as we speak. Even his own brother Frank loves to yack about Joe going to Cooperstown. "He talks about the Hall of Fame. I say, 'Leave me alone,' " says Joe. "I'm having more fun than I ever had in my life. . . . This is wonderful. Wearing a World Series ring, there's nothing better than that."
Unless, of course, like Torre, you also wear it well.
CAPTION: New York Yankees Manager Joe Torre waves to crowd during appearance on "Late Show With David Letterman" after his team swept the Braves to win World Series for the second consecutive season.
CAPTION: Yankees Manager Joe Torre started the season on the mend after prostate surgery but ended it on a celebratory note, as his team won its third World Series championship in four years.