CAPTION: Behind him stand the faithful, 55,000 strong, giving him one final grateful salute.
It's March 31. Opening Day for the new Yankee Stadium is a mere two weeks away, and Opening Day for the newly rebuilt Yankees is in six days. Another typically tumultuous offseason is drawn to a close, another few hundred million dollars has been spent, and another few scandals have rocked our Evil Empire to its core - perhaps none so deeply and cruelly as the third-person tell-all written under the name of the greatest hero of the most recent Yankee dynasty, Joe Torre.
I don't mind that Torre wrote a book about his time in pinstripes. I don't care that he took the opportunity to embarrass people he felt had it coming to them. My only comment on the situation is this: Torre's claim that if he'd gotten the players he wanted, the Yanks would have won a few more championships is nothing more than bitter second-guessing.
Except for that he's right. The Yankees' championship teams of the late 1990s were built on pitching, pitching, and more pitching. The second half of the Torre Era was littered with big names on offense, shaky pitching staffs, and early postseason exits.
And none of them more frustrating than the last one.
October 8, 2007: ALDS - Game 4
(Note - I found the following recollection of this game on my office computer as I was cleaning out my desk this morning. So anything in the present tense in this piece is dated from (I assume) October 15, 2007 - the day Torre stepped down.)
I remember in 1995, after the Seattle series, reading about Don Mattingly sitting at his locker, hobbled by his bad back, saying quietly – almost to himself – “If this is it, it’s a hell of a way to go.” A week later, he hung it up.
I watched another era end on October 8, 2007. Tell you the truth, that was the only thing that was really registering. The only other thing I really remember from the game itself was the bottom of the 9th: Jeter, of all people, trying to put a home run swing on a ball he desperately needed to hit for a single (fly out to deep left-center, one out). Then, after Abreu’s solo home run came A-Rod’s warning-track fly out to right, and finally Posada’s upper-deck shot (“Foul! by half a foot, and the count is 0-2…”) followed by the horrific realization that the well was dry. The Mystique was gone. There would be no miracle comeback. In fact, the next pitch was absolutely going to be strike three.
And it was. And the anger set in. But that wasn’t as important tonight. Tonight was all about Joe Torre.
I’ve watched about five hundred games over the last four years, and at least a thousand over the last ten. I’ve watched every playoff game the Yankees have played in my lifetime. I’ve skipped classes, skipped work, whatever I’ve had to do. I was at Game 2 of the 2004 ALCS, sitting in Section 39 with the Bleacher Creatures, and John Olerud’s home run landed twenty feet from where I was sitting.
I’d actually been in the Stadium the day before, watching Game 3 from the left-field bleachers as Johnny Damon and young Philly Hughes gave us one more chance to come back and win the series.
But it was getting to be over now. Wang had been terrible, and poor old beat-up Mike Mussina hadn’t been able to reprise his magical relief appearance from 2003. And now, the Yankees had their backs to the wall, down 6-3 in the top of the 8th inning of what would be the final game of the ALDS, with a little-known rookie pitcher named Jose Veras on the mound and in trouble. One more run was going to end it for good; our backs would break. You could hear the desperation in the stands even through the TV. Joe Torre was walking out to the mound to talk the kid down and give Mo some more time to warm up.
I was getting drunk. It was reflex. I had turned to Jack Daniel’s in Game 4 of ’06 when Jaret Wright, Sidney Ponson and Corey Lidle almost combined to throw five whole innings in an elimination game. I was so proud of them that day I could have puked. Maybe I did. And I was working my way towards that point again tonight. We were done.
I don’t know when I noticed the sound coming through the TV, the call coming from the seats all over our beautiful Stadium.
I had heard all the reports over the past 48 hours about how George Steinbrenner, in his aging, demented glory, had told a reporter that he didn’t think our manager would be offered a contract to come back next year if the Yankees lost this series. My instinct was to dismiss it; every report said the old man’s son Hank was running the team now and he surely wouldn’t be foolish enough to dismiss a legend as his first act...would he?
Then why are we all standing?
From the crowd comes a final, heart-rending salute.
JO-OE TOR-RE! (clap clap clapclapclap) JO-OE TOR-RE! (clap clap clapclapclap)
Torre stays focused. There’s no way he doesn’t hear the crowd but he has a job to do. He walks over to Veras, and the rest of the team – Jeter first – circle around them, waiting for word, or advice, or strategy – or maybe just wanting to be standing next to him right now.
Yankee fans know how to thank their heroes. And as incomplete a team as this is, everyone knows we were one less swarm of bugs away from winning Game 2. Nobody’s blaming Torre. They’re blaming bad luck. They’re blaming the lack of pitching. They’re blaming Alex Rodriguez, maybe, but not Torre. Nobody in this stadium – nobody in this city – can imagine life without him.
Joe Torre is the Yankees. Like Jeter is. And Rivera and Pettitte. And Bernie.
And like Mattingly before them.
I started to cry, then and there, in the bar. I knew what this goodbye really meant. A piece of what made us the Yankees was going to be gone, soon, unless we could find a way to come back.
And I shouted for Veras to get out of it, and save our guy from the ax. And I shouted for Rivera to get us through the ninth, to give the old magic one more chance to work.
Not that it ended up mattering. Torre’s gone now, seven days later.
It was a hell of a way to go.