Saturday, December 14, 2013

Parallelism: Torre and Stengel in Pinstripes

The managerial career of Joe Torre, one of three iconic managers who will be inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame next summer whose careers crossed the millennial divide, has eerily remarkable parallels to that of Casey Stengel, Hall of Fame class of 1966.  As with Stengel in 1949, there were more than a few skeptics wondering, what are the Yankee owners thinking, when Torre was named manager of the storied New York Yankees for the 1996 season.  It certainly wasn’t a question in either case of, “who he?”  It was more a question of, “why him?” or perhaps more appropriately in both cases, what did he ever do as a manager to deserve the chance to restore the Yankees to their rightful place as the best team in the baseball universe?

Parallelism:  Torre and Stengel in Pinstripes

Like Stengel when he first surfaced as manager in pinstripes, Joe Torre had had an undistinguished career managing several teams in the National League. Okay, perhaps not quite as undistinguished a managerial career as Stengel's, whose pedigree was eight losing seasons in nine years, never finishing better than fifth.  Of course, he was managing the Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Braves when both were bad teams, but his banter and irreverence made Stengel often appear like the clownish manager of teams not to be taken seriously, so why should he be taken seriously?  Torre, for his part, had only five winning seasons in fourteen years managing three different National League teams.  After five years managing that hapless '70s show otherwise known as the New York Mets, Torre did win a division title in his first year as manager of the Atlanta Braves in 1982, replacing Bobby Cox no less.  A division title notwithstanding, Torre was fired three years later and would not return to the managerial ranks until 1990 in St. Louis, where he lasted till 47 games into the 1995 season.  Therefore, like Stengel, who came to the Yankees with a career managerial winning percentage of only .439 (581-742), Torre—with a career record of 894-1,003 (.471) as manager—was hardly an obvious choice to take over the New York Yankees.   Both were controversial choices because they lacked a winning managerial resume, and if Casey had a personality that begged for being taken seriously by the serious-to-a-fault Yankees, Torre’s perceived lack of personality seemed hardly inspiring.

Just as Stengel took the reins when the Joe DiMaggio era at Yankee Stadium was coming to an end (although Joltin' Joe would play three seasons for Casey), the Yankees were at the end of the Don Mattingly era when Torre became manager, Donny Baseball having retired after the 1995 season.  In contrast to the DiMaggio era, however, which saw the Yankees win eight pennants and seven World Series from 1936 until Stengel became manager in 1949, including a world championship just two years before, the Mattingly era had been notably unsuccessful.  Mattingly’s time coincided with the longest drought of pennants and championships in Yankee history since they began winning regularly way back in 1921.  Unlike in the DiMaggio era, when Joe McCarthy was master of the Yankees’ universe until 1946, Mattingly lived through ten managerial changes in his thirteen years as their star first baseman, including Billy Martin three separate times.  (Martin was also on the Veteran's Committee ballot this year, but had virtually no chance with Torre, Bobby Cox, and Tony LaRussa being undeniable locks to be elected.)  The Yankees had not won a World Series since 1978 and had not been to the post-season since 1981, the year of their last pennant.

As when Stengel became manager, the Yankees faced an uncertain future when Joe Torre was given command of the ship.  The Yankees were reloading both times and future success was not guaranteed, particularly because the 1949 and 1996 Yankees each faced the prospect of competing against teams potentially better positioned for success in the immediate future:  the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians in Stengel’s time; the Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles in the AL East and the Indians in the AL Central in Torre’s time.  Both managers inherited a veteran at the peak of his career playing a critical position:  shortstop Phil Rizzuto for Stengel, center fielder Bernie Williams for Torre.  And both managers had a veteran even better known for being a resilient gamer than for his considerable skills on the field of play:  “Old Reliable” right fielder-first baseman Tommy Henrich on the Stengel Yankees, the perfectionist “Warrior” right fielder Paul O’Neill on the Torre Yankees.  Both managers also had a compelling but still unproven talent playing at a critical position at the start of his career:  Yogi Berra at catcher for Stengel, Derek Jeter at shortstop for Torre.    

Like Stengel, Joe Torre had little margin for error.  Just as Stengel might not have survived without quickly winning the Yankees another pennant, the same was almost certainly true for Torre—especially since Yankee Boss George Steinbrenner was famously volatile about losing, impatient about not winning, and quick to dispose of managers who did not have his team come out ahead, as he did with the well-respected Buck Showalter for failing to win the 1995 ALCS despite having returned the Yankees to competitiveness and their first post-season appearance in fourteen years, albeit by way of the wild card.  Moreover, public dismay in New York that the Yankees' most successful  manager since the 1970s was being replaced by Torre, who was widely perceived in the Big Apple as an ineffectual manager, notwithstanding his division title with Atlanta in 1982, caused Steinbrenner to try to reverse his decision.  Showalter was no fool and refused to come back as manager with his intended replacement already signed up and presumably in position to step in the next time Steinbrenner decided he had enough of Showalter.  So Torre became manager, knowing two things:  the New York fan base was not supportive of the decision to replace Showalter, and Steinbrenner would not hesitate to relieve him of his responsibilities quickly if the Yankees slipped from contention.

With his future as a major league manager on the line in 1949, all Casey Stengel did was win an unprecedented five pennants in a row, and an unprecedented five straight World Series.  And in so doing, Casey's clownish persona transformed into that of an eccentric creative genius; he became sort of an Einstein in the art of managing.  Stengel's achievement in winning five and five in five was all the more remarkable because his team was not nearly as dominant as McCarthy's great Yankee teams of the 1930s and early 1940s.  After leading the Yankees to 103 wins in 1954--the only season Casey cracked the 100-win barrier--and not winning the pennant (because the Cleveland Indians won 111 and set an AL record that still stands for highest winning percentage), the Yankees won five more pennants and two more Fall Classics for Stengel.  In twelve seasons managing the Yankees before he "made the mistake of turning seventy," Stengel won ten pennants and seven World Series.  

And with his career as a big league manager at stake in 1996, all Joe Torre did was take the Yankees to five World Series in his first six years at the helm, winning four world championships.  And in so doing, Torre's unflappable, steady persona transformed into that of one of the country's most respected leaders; he had a subtle touch for managing up, managing down, and keeping his team from being distracted by Steinbrenner's bluster and intemperate actions.  Torre's achievement of five pennants and four World Series championships between 1996 and 2001 is all the more remarkable given that, in the wild card era, he had to navigate his team through two rounds of post-season series just to get to the Fall Classic.  

Same as Stengel, Torre managed the Yankees for twelve years, and his teams finished first in the AL East ten times, just as Casey's team finished on top of the unitary American League ten times.  And, like Stengel, who was unceremoniously dumped in an awkward “was he fired, or did he retire” press conference, Torre's departure from the Yankees was less than elegant; it can be argued that the Yankee front office maneuvered Torre into firing himself by offering a new contract whose foundation principles were degrading to a manager who had accomplished so much.  Torre's Yankees made the post-season every year he was their manager, twice as a wild card entry, winning six pennants and four World Series, all while enduring one Mr. George Steinbrenner (who was also on the Veteran's Committee ballot this year, but failed to pass muster).

For the record, Joe Torre won 1,173 games in his twelve years in charge of the pinstripers, just barely ahead of Casey Stengel's 1,149 victories as Yankee manager.  The Yankees had a .623 winning percentage under Stengel, the equal of a 101-61 season in today's schedule--(Stengel's Yankees were in the era when the baseball season was 154 games long)--and a .605 winning percentage under Torre, the equivalent of a 98-64 record.  Joe McCarthy, Hall of Fame class of 1957, is the Yankee manager with the most longevity (sixteen years in pinstripes), most wins (1,460 in 154-game seasons)) and highest winning percentage (.627, the same as a 102-60 record today).   

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