King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Joe Torre set to pound the pavement after Indians eliminate Yankees. Problem is, his best skill is being manager of George Steinbrenner's team.

Published October 9, 2007 11:00AM (EDT)

The New York Yankees failed to save Joe Torre's job Monday night, losing to the Cleveland Indians 6-4, dropping their first-round playoff series 3-1, a result that principal owner George Steinbrenner had said would mean the ax for the manager.

The Indians will meet the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series beginning Friday. The Arizona Diamondbacks host the Colorado Rockies in the opener of the National League Championship Series Thursday.

Steinbrenner was reported to be fuming in his office during Monday's game, which the Indians led after the first batter. Grady Sizemore started the game with a home run off of Chien-Ming Wang, who had nothing, and Cleveland was never headed.

It's actually possible that after three and a half decades owning the most prominent baseball team in the world, Steinbrenner, in his bones a football man, doesn't understand that a baseball game between two good teams, for example a playoff game, is something very like a 50-50 proposition, and that losing a single game or even a short series is not necessarily an indication that the people in his employ are not doing their jobs properly.

It's possible. It's also possible he's wanted to fire Torre for years but found it politically impossible to do so. And that now, after seven years of not winning the World Series, which in Yankee time is almost the same as the Chicago Cubs not having won in a century, and with the Yanks trailing the Indians 2-0 in a best-of-five, it had become safe to go Queen of Hearts on Torre: Win three straight or off with your head, the Boss said before Sunday's game.

The odds against that happening were pretty steep, and even if it did happen Torre's Yankees would then have had to beat the Red Sox in the ALCS and either the Rockies or Diamondbacks in the World Series -- both roughly 50-50 propositions -- for him to escape the chopping block. And he might not have escaped his fate even then. He wouldn't have been the first Yankees manager fired after winning a World Series.

The Yankees won once, then lost, and that's it.

It's no secret Steinbrenner thinks Torre has gotten too much credit for the Yankees' run of success, which happens to coincide almost exactly with Torre's tenure. They were the wild card in 1995 under Buck Showalter, and it's possible they'd have won the World Series in '96, as they did under Torre, if Showalter had still been at the helm.

If the players hadn't killed him first, that is. That's kind of how it goes with Buck Showalter.

Torre managed the Yankees to that '96 title, then three more from '98 to 2000, and to American League pennants in '01 and '03. The Yankees have been to the playoffs all 12 years he has been the skipper, and even with the first-round losses starting to pile up, that's a hell of an achievement.

It's understandable that Steinbrenner would look at his team's brilliant players, its massive payroll, its first-class operation, and figure that any bozo could sit in the dugout, fill out the lineup card and kick some dirt on an umpire every once in a while, all for a lot less money than Joe Torre makes.

And he might be right. The Yankees had four different managers in their first good run under Steinbrenner, which lasted six years, from 1976 to 1981. And that's just counting everybody -- Billy Martin, Bob Lemon, Dick Howser and Gene Michael -- once. There was a lot of coming and going.

Managers often get too much credit and too much blame in baseball, especially for their strategic decisions. Cleveland's Eric Wedge is being lauded at the moment for sticking with his plan, not panicking, keeping a steady hand and so on after he gave journeyman Paul Byrd the ball for Game 4 rather than calling on ace C.C. Sabathia on short rest.

Byrd turned in a nice outing against the Yankees' slumbering bats, allowing two runs in five-plus innings, and the Indians won. But it was entirely possible he could have been lousy. His ERA over his last five starts in the regular season was 6.83. And then Wedge would have been criticized for sitting on his hands, not being proactive, failing to understand that the playoffs are a whole new ballgame and so on.

Torre is nothing special and often actively bad as an in-game strategist. But he has a singular genius for being the manager of the New York Yankees under Steinbrenner. He's the only person who's ever been any good at it, who's been able to keep the Boss at bay, keep the team together, produce results on the field and simply stay in the chair.

Before Torre came along, the longest tenured manager under Steinbrenner had been Showalter, who lasted four years. Torre has lasted 12. The Yanks did win five divisions, four pennants and two World series during that chaotic stretch from '76 to '81, so hey, who needs continuity and steadiness? But that same chaos produced nothing from 1982 through the '94 strike.

The popular picture of Torre is that he was a lousy manager in three stops before he got to the Bronx, then started winning once he put the pinstripes on and was handed a team full of superstars. Actually he just had lousy players when he managed the New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals, and the one time he had some talent, with the Atlanta Braves, he won a division title.

But it's fair to say he had an undistinguished career before signing on with Steinbrenner, one that put him in a group with the John McNamaras and the Jim Fregosis of the world. After 12 years of taking the Yankees to the playoffs he keeps company with fellows like Joe McCarthy and Walter Alston, between whom he sits on the all-time wins list, in eighth place.

Steinbrenner has run the Yankees business brilliantly over the years, building it into the giant that it is today. But it figures that he wouldn't appreciate the greatest talent Torre brings to the table, which is minimizing the negative impact of George Steinbrenner's capriciousness on the team.

Maybe Don Mattingly or Joe Girardi or Tony La Russa or whomever Steinbrenner hires next will have that same skill, but it's not likely. Nobody had it before Torre came along, though nobody had Torre's example either.

Perhaps the new man will put a spark in the Yankees that they've lacked recently under Torre. Been known to happen. How much he'll win may have less to do with that than with what the team does about the various players who are in play because of free agency or contract options: Alex Rodriguez, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Bobby Abreu could all be on the move or headed for retirement this off-season.

Meanwhile, Torre, who is 67, hinted that he won't just shuffle off the stage. "I'm not ready to move somewhere and not do anything," he said after the game Monday, "I can tell you that."

And I can tell him this: However unlikely it is that George Steinbrenner finds another Joe Torre, it's a sure thing that Joe Torre will never find another George Steinbrenner.

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  • By King Kaufman

    King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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