- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 16, 2003

BALTIMORE. — They call him “Mr. T,” and I pity the fool that tries to fire Joe Torre as manager of the New York Yankees.

Actually, not all the Yankees call Torre “mister.” Derek Jeter does. He has since he took the field as a rookie in 1996, the same year Torre arrived in New York. The fact that Jeter still refers to his manager as “Mr. Torre” or “Mr. T” shows the respect for Torre in the clubhouse hasn’t diminished at all.

His stature in the clubhouse, and throughout baseball, is probably greater than ever this season. Torre managed to keep the Yankees in first place all but 10 days this season. He brought the Yankees into Camden Yards last night for a four-games series against the Orioles with a 51/2 game lead over the Boston Red Sox and the most wins (92-57) in the American League.

If there was a year the Yankees seemed vulnerable, this was it. Spring training was filled with turmoil and distractions, from the arrival of Hideki Matsui to the controversy over the David Wells book to the argument between Jeter and owner George Steinbrenner about the shortstop’s night life.

When Jeter met with reporters in the dugout of Legends Field in Tampa, Fla., this spring to defend his social life, the Yankees camp had the air of the old Bronx Zoo — the late 1970s and early ‘80s when Steinbrenner interfered with club’s day-to-day operations and ran it into the ground.

The Boss — frustrated by the Yankees’ early exit at the hands of the Anaheim Angels in the Division Series last year — put Torre and the coaching staff on notice. “I want them to have a little more pressure,” he told the New York Daily News. “Everybody is going to work harder than they’ve worked before. I want the coaches to know that just being a friend of Joe Torre’s is not enough. They have got to produce for him. Joe Torre and his staff have heard the bugle.”

Well, that is about the only role in this organization that matches the Boss’ stature — bugler. The four World Series titles and seven straight trips to the postseason have been difficult for the Boss to enjoy. Why? Because he has gotten very little credit for it. Torre, rightfully so, received the praise for the Yankees’ consistent excellence. With each pat on Torre’s back, the Boss grows smaller.

The stage seemed to be set for it all to unravel this season in some ugly ending — and it has been close to that. New York appeared to be on the verge of a collapse when it lost two of three to Boston at Yankee Stadium the first weekend in September. However, the team bounced back to win eight of its next nine heading into last night. The team managed to keep the chaos from escalating to where it spills over to the field. And for that, Torre gets the credit.

“Mr. T. does a pretty good job of keeping it to the minimum,” Jeter said. “There are always going to be some distractions, but he keeps a lot of it away.

“There are always distractions, because we play in New York. There is always something going on. But no matter how distracting things are off the field, when you are on the field, the game is the same, and you have to take care of business on the field. You have the responsibility of doing your job like as professional. On the field has nothing to do with what happens off the field.”

Torre sets that tone by the way he handles his players. He manages to get new faces, like a Matsui or even a Ruben Sierra — a player Torre once disdained — on the same page and creates an atmosphere in which unprofessionalism is not tolerated.

Torre said he had no more or less misgivings about this team at the start of the season, despite the furor of spring training and the Boss’ tirades. “I think you develop as a team as the season goes on, and it usually takes you about a half a year, I think, to get comfortable with each other,” he said. “I’m not a big believer of chemistry creating a good team. I think it’s the other way around. I think the winning creates the chemistry. You are all professionals, you go in and do your job. You don’t have to like each other to be successful, but you certainly have to respect each other.”

It will be interesting to see how much respect Torre is accorded in the offseason. The Boss created the impression that anything short of a World Series title — the Yankees have not won it since, heaven forbid, the 2000 season — will bring consequences. Torre has one year left on a three-year, $16.5million deal.

When Torre was hired he was a career losing manager after stints with the New York Mets, Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals (894-1003). He took a job that not many men wanted after Buck Showalter was fired in 1995 after leading the Yankees to the playoffs for the first time since 1981. Now, Torre is a Hall of Fame manager (777-502 with the Yankees, 1,671-1505 overall), perhaps ranking among the best of all time. If the Boss forces him out now, replacement candidates will not only have to fear a Steinbrenner fully unleashed, but also the legacy Torre would leave behind.

Ask yourselves: Is there anybody on the face of the earth who could do better?

I pity the fool who thinks he could.

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