— Joe Torre is going to be 70 years old in July, and he wants a contract extension to manage the Dodgers through the 2011 season. What’s more, the team will give it to him.
In some quarters, this would be seen as a miracle. Only divine intervention, you could argue, could explain how a mild-mannered, tea-drinker whose language wouldn’t be out of place in a convent could go from a three-time loser to one of the greatest managers in the history of Major League Baseball.
This isn’t hyperbole. Torre has 2,246 wins as a manager against 1,915 losses. Only Connie Mack (3,731 wins), John McGraw (2,763), Tony La Russa (2,552) and Bobby Cox (2,413) have more wins in the history of the game. Of those, only McGraw and Cox have a better winning percentage than Torre’s .540.
When a person gets on that list in that company, there’s no alternative but to call him great.
And then there’s the very idea of a man who’s going to be 70 telling his bosses he wants another year on his contract and after that, when he’s 71, he wants a nice job in the front office. I don’t care what you think of his talents, you have to tip your hat to that guy, especially in a business in which everybody gets fired, and it’s usually sooner rather than later.
It’s easy to beat up on Torre, and there are as many people who are into that form of amusement as there are people who worship the cushioned bench he sits on. He’s not so much a great manager as the world’s luckiest man, they say.
They have a point. After failing as the manager of the Mets, Braves and Cardinals, Torre was supposedly through in 1995. Then the Yankees hired him to replace Buck Showalter, who had gotten them back to the playoffs for the first time since 1981.
Handed one of history’s great teams, Torre won the World Series in 1996 — New York’s first since 1978 — and then repeated three straight times from 1998-2000. He followed that with seven more trips to the playoffs but no more titles, a sin that ultimately cost him his job with the Yankees.
Most people would have retired right then. But Torre took the job with the Dodgers and took them to the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, running his streak of playoff appearances to 14 straight.
Anyway, it’s easy to say that all Torre did was push the right buttons on the most expensive team in the game for all those years, and then continue to do the same with a team in the NL West, arguably the weakest division in baseball. What’s so hard about that?
The truth is, it’s all but impossible. The Yankees spent more money and had more stars than anyone for years and had nothing to show for it other than an endless parade of fired managers. In baseball, so many things can and do go wrong, that the hardest thing to do is what you’re expected to do.
And Torre has always done what he’s expected to do, which is make the playoffs.
What makes it difficult to give him his due is the fact that he comes wrapped in brown paper. It’s hard to imagine a less charismatic person than Torre running anything.
He’s most often described as avuncular, which is nice if you’re somebody’s favorite uncle but hardly an adjective applied to great managers. He never gets angry, never cusses, isn’t particularly quotable, is as flamboyant as a Toyota Corolla, and has no flair for the dramatic.
What he excels at is sipping green tea, puffing on expensive cigars and never panicking. He’s had some players who hate him, but he’s never had a locker room insurrection. His teams have never fallen apart and lost their focus. That may not sound like much, but it’s worked for him.
Heck, he even gets along with Manny Ramirez. Ramirez trimmed his dreads for Torre when he arrived two years ago, and Torre backed off on his preference for hair that exceeds collar-length for Manny. Ramirez has said he doesn’t expect to be back in 2011 after he plays out his option, but if he leaves, it won’t be because of the manager.
There’s more to it than that, of course. To keep overpaid major league players happy and focused takes a talent that few have. To keep getting them to the playoffs year after year, even when they’ve grown tired of your act, requires some sort of genius.
With Torre, it’s adherence to core values. He believes in cool dedication to the task at hand. He genuinely wants to win every game. He makes his players feel his confidence in them, even when nothing seems to be going right.
And he does it year after year after year.
He’s done it for so many years and with such consistency, he’s worked himself into this enviable position of being able to dictate to his bosses what he wants to do. And he’s done it at an age when most people who want to keep working can’t find anyone to employ them.
The man’s going to be 70 in July and he’s telling the Dodgers he needs one more year. They’ll give it to him, too, for the best reason there is: