Page 2 columnist
Every season I watch Joe Torre manage the Yankees and fight off those envious, "Why can't we get guys like that?" feelings. For as long as I can remember, my beloved Red Sox have been managed by a harrowing collection of boozers, incompetents, senior citizens and idiot savants. When Boston management finally brought in a manager this year who seemed relatively intelligent -- Joe Kerrigan -- the team immediately free-fell into one of the most dreadful slumps in franchise history. Go figure.
On the heels of Jimy Williams' inexplicably successful "Rain Man" routine, Kerrigan's collossal failure was one of my most dumbfounding experiences as a sports fan. For most of the summer, I had no explanation for what was happening. None. As the time passed and the losses mounted, I began to wonder if managing a baseball team was even all that difficult.For instance, in football, we know that head coaches matter. We know this. Teams assume the personality of their coaches, for better and worse; as casual observers, we can always determine which teams seem prepared, which teams play the hardest and which teams consistently seem to have three or four wrinkles per game up their sleeves. Between those brutal workdays, dozens of important decisions per game, 53 players to select and manage, suffocating media pressure and a staggering amount of plays and formations to remember, you could almost argue that coaching an NFL team is like racing an automobile -- hands on, all the time, life or death. Managing a baseball team? That's like serving as the captain of a luxury yacht. You rely on your equipment, manage your crew, defer to their abilities, stroke egos and search for icebergs. That's it. That's your job. Basically, you're Captain Stubing. As long as Doc takes care of the sick passengers, Julie handles the social events, Isaac mixes martinis, Gopher stays out of trouble and the "Love Boat" isn't ramming into anything, you're golden. So what makes Joe Torre so special? What makes him stand out? From what I can gather, five reasons explain his good fortune: 1. He's a good guy.
2. He knows how to handle the media.
3. He has the requisite "attention to detail" skills.
4. He doesn't get in the way.
5. He plays hunches consistently well. None of those seem like overwhelmingly special qualities. And yet managers continue to fail, one after the other. Sift through the majors right now and only a handful of managers command sweeping, "If this guy ever leaves Team X, he'll be out of a job for about 30 seconds," respect from people in and around the game: Torre, Bruce Bochy, Dusty Baker, Bobby Valentine, Tony La Russa, Lou Piniella and Jim Leyland (who isn't even managing). That's it. That's the list. I ask you again ... why does Torre succeed where so many others have failed? Let's examine those five "reasons" in detail: 1. He's a good guy
Torre's players adore him because he sticks up for them, he believes in them, he never embarrasses them, he protects them, he always offers them explanations (if they get bumped from a start, if they get benched and so on) and he probably squashes a variety of personality crises behind the scenes that never see the light of day. There's something fatherly about him; he's like a giant teddy bear. When he gets choked up after a pivotal Yankees victory, he seems genuine, and that's a rarity in sports today.Of course -- and this is crucial -- the "Good Guy" routine only thrives on a team loaded with Good Guys, as well as three to four players who lead by example and keep potentially disruptive teammates in line. Would Torre have captured four titles in five years without veteran leadership from his unique group of "throwback" players? Of course not. Torre succeeded with the Yankees because of six words: right man, right place, right time. Stick him with the Melrose Place Red Sox this season, and he would have bombed almost as spectacularly as Kerrigan did; without any strong leaders in the clubhouse, Torre would have been overwhelmed like Michelle Pfeiffer during the first 20 minutes of "Dangerous Minds." And if you don't believe me, remember this: Joe Torre has been fired as a major-league manager three different times. Count 'em... three. 2. He knows how to handle the media
They call them "managers" for a reason: The word describes someone who manages a group of people over an extended period of time. And except for -- possibly even including -- dealing with players, dealing with the media is the toughest part of the job, by all accounts. Nobody can sidetrack a season more quickly than pesky reporters, sarcastic print columnists and cranky talk radio hosts. You need to be able to play the game and avoid every possible land mine. Easier said than done. Just remember, once the fans lose faith in you, that seeps into the clubhouse -- especially when those pesky reporters start throwing gasoline on the fire -- and then it's only a matter of time. To Torre's credit, he manipulated the New York media beautifully over the past six seasons, maybe his most remarkable skill. In a town where everybody rips everybody, Torre has somehow remained beyond reproach. (Note: Some managers last longer than they should because of their ability to endear themselves to the media and their players. We saw it happen here in Boston with a man named Joe Morgan, who parlayed a quirky sense of humor and an interim manager's tag into an astounding four-year run, including a 301-262 record and two division titles ... and yet Morgan made so many inexplicable in-game decisions over that span that he never worked in the majors again after getting fired in 1992. A little love and a few jokes can travel a long way in this business.)
3. He has the requisite "attention to detail" skills
Baseball managers make a staggering amount of decisions during the average game, but 95 percent of them are no-brainers: Don't start your catcher in both ends of a doubleheader, don't warm up your relievers in every game (but warm them up at the right times), play the lefty-righty matchups to your advantage, rest your everyday stars every so often, use everyone on your bench as much as possible to keep them fresh, monitor the pitch counts of your starters, and so on. Could the Average Joe make those decisions? Absolutely.With that said, specific circumstances require at least a modicum of savvy, which seems to be largely predicated on the manager not falling asleep at the wheel. And that's where Torre really excels -- his team always have a chance to win close games because he consistently puts them in a position to win close games. For instance, he possesses an uncanny knack for the following things: A. Pulling a starter at the right time
Monday's game was a perfect example -- Clemens was fading and Torre pulled the trigger right before the wheels came off. Easier said than done. He's a master at this. B. Managing his bullpen
This seems to be a place in which managers can stumble, but it's much easier than you would think... even if some managers don't make it seem that way. But Torre definitely has a knack for moving relievers in and out, keeping everyone fresh and instinctively knowing when he can rely on Mariano Rivera for more than one inning. (Of course, it helps to have Rivera on your team in the first place, but the fact remains that Torre has cajoled six straight healthy seasons from Rivera without a serious injury. Warrants mentioning.) C. Playing the odds (the lefty/righty thing)
Again, it's not impossible to figure out, but you still need to remember 100 different trivial stats -- who hits well against lefties, who can't hit a certain pitcher, who hits better from the right side, etc. -- and incorporate them into your decision-making process during the game. We could pull this off from the sofa, but what if we were sitting in the dugout with 230 other things going on at the same time? Probably not. D. Avoiding bonehead moves
Maybe Torre's most underrated trait. For instance, during Kerrigan's second week on the job, the Sox went into extra innings in Texas, all the way to the 18th, and Derek B. Lowe loaded the bases with one out and (the lead-footed) Bill Haselman at the plate. With Texas only needing one run to win the game, Kerrigan kept the infield back; even as it was happening, Sox announcer Jerry Remy was deeming it a mistake and pointing out the possibility of a slow roller (because Lowe was a ground ball pitcher). Sure enough, Haselman dribbled a grounder to short for a game-winning force-out. Had Boston's infield played in, the Sox could have thrown out the lead runner at home -- just a brutal turn of events that inadvertently jump-started a 6-23 stretch over the next month, knocked the Sox out of the playoff race and caused me to walk to my local convenience store at 2:45 in the morning to buy some Sour Patch Kids and bitch about the game to Joe the Alcoholic Counter Guy (he was the only person I knew who was up at the time). Here's my point: those kinds of things never seem to happen to Torre's teams. After awhile, you stop calling it a "coincidence."
4. He doesn't get in the way
As Joe Theismann once said, "Great players make great plays." And great managers, for the most part, stay the hell out of the way. Remember when Arizona's Bob Brenly ordered a suicide squeeze during Game 5 of the Diamondbacks-Cardinals series? Ninth inning, tie game, guy on third base, one out, Tony Womack at the plate... and Brenly thought to himself, "Hey, I can be the hero!" And he almost killed his team.