Last night, the New York Yankees were defeated by the Cleveland Indians, 6-4 and thereby ousted from the playoffs. Normally this is something in which I would take devilish delight. But not today. Because that loss is almost surely the end of the remarkable tenure of their manager for the past 12 years, Joe Torre.
Just for fun, I followed the game via an open thread on Bronx Banter, a Yankee fan blog affiliated with Jon Weisman’s great Dodger Thoughts via the Baseball Toaster. I’ve checked out that blog before, but generally didn’t hang around because it struck me as a place where someone might throw a piece of loose concrete at your head and everyone else would say it fell off a building.
I made up my mind early not to be a “troll.” Even though I’m a confirmed Yankee-hater going back to 1964, I didn’t want to be rude to fans who might be grieving. When Yankee pitcher Chien-Ming Wang gave up four runs in the first two innings and was gone in the second without having gotten anyone out, grief loomed closer. You can’t count a lineup like the Yankees’ out, ever, but the tone of the fan comments got gloomy right away. I tried to keep my comments positive, though. These guys seemed to appreciate a boost now and then; plus I didn’t want any chunks of concrete flying my way (some did anyway, but I think it was a case of mistaken identity).
As we now know, the Yankees home run prowess went for naught as each dinger flew over the fence with no one else on base. Bronx Banter is a far more profane world than Dodger Thoughts, but I found myself increasingly protective of these guys. The community around that blog were tough-but-tender types. And far more than I, they recognized they were watching the end of something — the end of Joe Torre’s astounding 12-year reign as manager during which he brought the Yankees into the post-season every year.
For these fans, Joe Torre is a complex kind of father figure. He’s a gentle man, wise and kind, with a record of success you can’t argue with. But fans being fans, they always wanted something more from him. In his case, I think they wanted him to be more brutal. He was the too-nice father who let Roger Clemens pitch Game 3 even though he was in no shape to do so. He was the befuddled father who let Wang pitch Game 4 even though he’d massively failed in Game 1. Since the last Yankee world championship, the perception is Torre “let” inferior teams like the Diamondbacks, Angels, Marlins and finally the hated Red Sox overcome the Yankees because Torre made bad decisions. There’s nothing more painful and infuriating than watching your father fail in front of everyone else.
After years of raging against him, it started to sink in that he was really going to leave. George Steinbrenner had promised to fire him if they didn’t win the playoff series with the Indians, and they didn’t win it. Some Bronx Banter posters were already discussing whether Joe Girardi or Don Mattingly should replace him, but most of them refused to play. The unimaginable was happening. It was Joe’s last game.
The New York Times’ sports blogger Will Leitch used a bigger vocabulary to capture the feeling this morning:
When it ended, fans were not storming the field, or screaming for vengeance, or burning their Yankees caps. When Torre came out to the mound for his final pitching change, fans, while still holding out hope, recognized the moment, chanting his name, knowing they were likely seeing him for the last time. Steinbrenner probably thought – if he was still awake – they would be hissing, furious at another missed opportunity, thirsty for blood. But fans are smarter than that. They knew, if Torre does leave, that they were seeing the end of something that was beautiful to them. Torre had not failed them, and neither had Rodriguez, or Jeter, or even Wang. Sometimes, in baseball, you lose. The fans were not gnashing teeth and rending garments; they were not about to abandon their team. They never were.
Baseball is a game of rhythms, of tradition, of familiar faces, of knowing that every day, your team will be playing and you will be cheering. It is about bonds and family and camaraderie with those whom you otherwise would have nothing in common. It is, above all, about finding a semblance of a home. It is not about vitriol or anger. And over the last 12 years, in New York, it has been about Torre. This is a fact that Steinbrenner has never understood and, clearly, never will.
After the game, Torre looked even more tired than usual. But he looked like a man at peace.
“This ballclub, they have a great future. … I look back on these 12 years with great pleasure. I was a kid who had never been to the World Series … the 12 years felt like they were 10 minutes long. These are special fans, and this is a special place.”
Yankees fans wake up this morning disappointed, sure, but they also wake up with an appreciation of something that is gone, and will never be again. Monday night proved, again, that though they might not deserve the ghost that is George Steinbrenner, they absolutely deserved Joe Torre.
Congratulations Joe, for achieving a place in baseball history that you will not soon have to share.