Then remind yourself that the Dodgers have compiled a 1-12 record in the playoffs over the past 20 years. For a team that consistently ranks amongst baseball’s highest payrolls, (Dodgers are 7th overall at $118, 588,536), they haven’t won a playoff series since 1988. Now Torre brings with him instant credibility and presence to an unquestionably talented roster that fell apart last September, partly due to in-house squabbling and a fractured clubhouse.
Pinch hitter Mark Sweeney, who has played for his share of managers, says Torre’s playing and managerial career made a clear statement in itself as does as his ability to communicate with a vast array of personalities. “It’s his credibility, the calmness and also the fire. It’s a rare combination because sometimes you have to be laid back, sometimes you have to be a little fiery, and he has everything. He has instant credibility because of what he’s done and especially from being with the Yankees and their success.”
Former Yankees’ broadcaster and current Dodgers’ broadcaster Charley Steiner says there’s a palpable change in atmosphere the moment Torre walks in the room. “I liken Joe to John Wayne in one of those old cowboy movies, the black-and-white movies from the 50’s. You know, he arrives in town, he gets off the horse and he has the spurs on his boots and he walks into the saloon. The swinging door opens and when he bellies up to the bar and the spurs stop jingling, the place turns silent and they wait to hear what this stranger has to say. That’s Joe!”
“When he walks into the room, it’s his room and it’s not because he’s loud. Joe was a great baseball player. He was a catcher and a third baseman and he hit .360 one year. He’s been an upper echelon player in his day, he’s managed for 20+ years and obviously had success in New York, so when he walks into the clubhouse, who is going to question him?”
Well, apparently just about everyone in New York did including insatiable Yankee fans, over-the-top New York media, and the Steinbrenner family, which made Torre’s decision to come to Los Angeles essentially a no-brainer. “When I left the Yankees and the Dodgers showed interest, to me, it was very intriguing,” explains Torre, who grew up idolizing Willie Mays and the New York Giants before switching allegiances to Eddie Matthews and the Milwaukee Braves, the team his older brother Frank played for.
“First of all, it’s the Dodgers organization. From growing up in Brooklyn and knowing what they represented to realizing I had been 12 years in New York with the Yankees, having the opportunity to move west was probably the best situation for me. The other league, the other coast, it just seemed like something that would be appealing. Southern California is more laid back than the east. I don’t think that’s a negative, it’s just the lifestyle is a little different. I’m not saying the need to win is any less than it is back east. With the Yankees, unfortunately, you couldn’t even reward or congratulate a successful year which meant winning more games than anybody in baseball and going to postseason. But once you’ve won four World Series in five years, anything less than getting to and winning a World Series is deemed a failure there and that became a little tough to swallow. But again, it’s expectations and sometimes you’re victims of your own success.”
Steiner says the day Torre arrived, Steiner simply looked at Torre and asked why it took so long for him to get to Los Angeles. “When I came out here, somebody asked me to compare the Yankees and the Dodgers,” explained Steiner. “And I said then that after a victory, the prevailing emotion should be one of joy, satisfaction, elation. In New York after a victory, the prevailing reaction was one of relief, and that’s very difficult to go through 162 times a year. God forbid you lose. There was an expectation, an unreasonable expectation of winning all the time. I don’t think Joe’s desire to win has diminished at all. The difference is he’s not walking around with a noose around his neck every day.”
Another aspect Torre found appealing was getting away from the highly invasive New York media, where an athlete’s private life is just as prone to end up splashed on the front page or in the sports section as actual game coverage. “Right now baseball is in the sports section, which is ideal for me. I think we always have to keep in mind even though sports are very important, these are our lives. Baseball has been my world just about all my life and it’s certainly a huge part of what I’ve done and what I care about, but it is a game and I think sometimes we’ve gone too far in needing to know about people’s private lives.”
Transitioning from the East Coast to the West Coast, from the Dhfriendly American League to the National League and from the City that never sleeps to the sunny, laid-back lifestyle of La-La Land was never the deciding factor for Torre. Uprooting his wife Ali and 12-year old daughter, Andrea Rae, who remain in New York until the end of July, was a heavy consideration. “I knew before I made that final decision there was the matter of uprooting my family and moving out west with a 12-yr old daughter — that’s not easy to do. But my Wife was a big part of the decision making, assuring me that my daughter would make the adjustment. It’s been tough and she hasn’t left the East Coast yet, but I think she’ll make friends and everything will work for her.”
While Torre admits he’ll miss the electricity of New York and the Broadway shows, he didn’t hesitate when asked if he’ll miss the Red-Sox-Yankees rivalry. “No! Not even in the slightest,” Torre says adamantly. “And again, it was great to experience it. The highs were very high and the lows were very low, but I think after 12 years, that was enough for me.”
While nothing in the NL resembles the bad blood between the Yankees and Red Sox, Torre was surprised to see that the Dodgers biggest arch rival appears to be the San Diego Padres, a fan reaction that caught him off guard. Two teams from So-Cal are actually capable of an intense rivalry? “When it comes to baseball, that laid-back stuff is out the window,” Torre said, laughing. “To win, you’ve got to be a little ferocious and we have a very good division here because of all the teams that have won or are close to winning. We certainly anticipate a tough go this summer.”
Perhaps the biggest difference for Torre is that he no longer has to put up with daily calls from George Steinbrenner or have his every move questioned by ownership and media alike. For Torre, baseball is once again an enjoyable game and he’s away from what Steiner best termed the three-ringed circus in New York Torre is doing what he does best, being a baseball manager. But make no mistake about it — Torre is indeed enjoying all the comforts of living in Los Angeles, including the terrific year-round weather.
“It’s the weather and the fact that you can go out to have a cup of coffee or a cup of Bigelow tea and relax. I always found Southern California to be one of the places where you can go out, eat outdoors and just sit there and be very comfortable. There aren’t very many places in the country that you can go and enjoy that relaxation. That’s one thing you didn’t get much of in New York, the chance to breathe a little bit and I find that’s most appealing here.” With his busy baseball schedule, Torre hasn’t found much time to explore many of L.A.’s hot spots, but he enjoys stopping by Dan Tana’s in West Hollywood for a late-night Italian meal after a baseball game or indulging in Piccatine di Vitello ai Capperi e Aglio Arrosto, or another of the delectable home made pastas prepared by Chef Antonio Mure at Carpacio’s along with a glass of Guado al Tasso on a rare day off.
The Dodgers will fly an estimated 54,417 miles upon completion of the regular season, and that’s time Torre uses to unwind. He doesn’t typically read much during the flights but takes advantage of his computer and DVD to catch up on some TV shows or pop in a Billy Crystal movie when he needs a good laugh. Crystal, who Torre proclaims to be a Yankee deep-down despite his periodic visits to Dodgers Stadium, actually gave him a line to use on David Letterman’s show when he discussed his move from the Yankees to the Dodgers. “I said, moving to the Dodgers, the biggest decision we have to figure out is who gets custody of Billy Crystal.”
As the dog days of summer approach, Torre is indeed a man rejuvenated from a fresh start in baseball, where billboards that say, “Hello Joe” plaster the Hollywood freeways and where the fans’ adulation has left him a little bit surprised and embarrassed.
He created over a decade of memories in New York and it’s almost inconceivable to think that the final year of Yankee Stadium will conclude without Joe Torre at the helm. When the last game is played and the final out is recorded, with it will go Torre’s most memorable moment as manager of the Yankees. “To me, it took me a long time to get to a World Series and to watch Charlie Hayes catch the final out in the ‘96 World Series. That will always be special because that was the first one and there will never be another first one.”
One era is gone forever in New York and a new one waits in Los Angeles. Torre is living large in L.A. and loving it along with the hopes of creating some memorable moments for Dodgers’ fans in the years to come. “He’s great for this team,” says First Baseman James Loney. “As a manager I think you’re supposed to just kind of know your players individually and know how to treat each one and he’s doing a great job of that.”