It’s decision time for Joe Torre

Joe Torre's season has been filled with frustrations and uncertainty.
(Michael Zagaris/Getty Images)

Joe Torre turned 70 this summer.

The Dodgers lost that day.

No surprise, really. It’s been that kind of season, Torre’s third in Los Angeles, where the sun shines reliably, the post-game questions are generally lobbed and a man can grow old in peace no matter the final score.

He fits here, which happens to say less about the city or its baseball than the man. He’d fit near anywhere, so long as there was baseball.

He’s won and he’s lost like they all do. He won big, like few do. He was a bum and he was royalty, all in the same lifetime, sometimes in the homestand. No matter where he was in that rolling sequence, down or up, he’d push back his cap and scratch the top of his forehead and come as close as he could to honesty.

There’d be a game the next night or a season the next April. There’d be a laugh to be shared, a story to be retold, then an at-bat to win it or lose it. It was how he liked it, too.

He was Joe and he was Joe Torre, Inc., one crafted from the other. But mostly he was just Joe from Brooklyn, Joe the Yankee, Joe with his head down, hands stuffed in his back pockets, that scar shaped like Jersey on his cheek, Joe trudging to the pitcher’s mound and back.

Maybe the Yankees made him. The uniform does tend to last forever, a vaccination mark that won’t be scrubbed. But Joe made the New York Yankees, too, for a time.

The Dodgers used to make men like that, but not so much anymore. Now those men pass through, arriving from someplace and on their way to someplace else. When Torre came, the union was a coup for the franchise, not the man. He legitimized the Dodgers, 12 years after the Yankees legitimized him. And, for a time, they won.

He’s 4,306 games in as a manager, five teams in. He’s 70 years in. A daughter in high school in. Countless missed moments in. A place in Maui in, where the starter on the first tee of the local golf course reminds every group, “Putts roll toward Molokai.” It’s paradise.

So, how long does he stay in? His contract is up. His successor is all but chosen. The Dodgers aren’t winning anymore. The team’s owner is in court, fighting his estranged wife and hard evidence that he lacks funding to build and maintain anything like a championship club.

“If he left,” a friend of Torre’s said, “it would be for all the reasons anybody would leave there right now.”

Torre still enjoys managing and shooting the breeze with Dodger legends such as Sandy Koufax.
(Nati Harnik/AP Photo)

On a day in early September when all that was left of the Dodgers’ season was to determine if it would be a disaster or a total disaster, Torre insisted he hadn’t thought recently about retirement, or leaving the Dodgers for another club, or signing up for another year or two. He hadn’t talked about it much lately with wife Ali.

Torre granted, “At some point you have to say, ‘It’s enough.’ ”

He wasn’t certain this is it.

He’d like to give Don Mattingly his chance, assuming Mattingly is the Dodgers’ choice (and they are leaning that way). Mattingly will manage in the Arizona Fall League and Torre intends to spend time there with him, continuing the education.

“I’ve talked to Donny about that,” Torre said. “But he is not in any rush. Whenever that comes, it comes. I’m certainly anxious to watch him at some point. I know he has so much to offer.”

For the moment, Torre is measuring his own time, his own energy, his own what-else-is-out-there. The Dodgers seem willing to allow it. Though it would surprise no one if owner Frank McCourt privately preferred to skimp on the top step, Torre’s decision appears to remain his own.

He could stay and spend another season trying to get through to Matt Kemp(notes), trying to form a pitching staff around Clayton Kershaw(notes), trying not to notice that his payroll might be a third of the Yankees’.

He could become a consultant to general manager Ned Colletti, get his baseball fix that way and allow his daughter to finish high school in one place.

He could start over someplace else, away from it all.

Ultimately, he’s earned the decision. The Dodgers need him. Mattingly needs him. Whatever Colletti can tape together and call a roster will need him.

But that should be of no concern to Torre.

He’s 70, a prostate cancer survivor, a Steinbrenner survivor, a baseball survivor.

When the months he had before the decision had become days and his office was nearly empty of reporters and the cool stench of another loss, Torre grinned in spite of himself. He recalled being fired from jobs like this one, nothing left but to pack and move out.

“It’s easier,” he said, “when somebody else makes the decision.”

Now it’s his. His life, his call, his happily ever after. He stood to leave and stopped over one final thought.

“You know,” he said, “I want to stay connected with baseball, because it’s where my confidence is.”

For whatever that’s worth.

Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Sep 8, 2010