VERO BEACH, Fla. – On a back field at Dodgertown, in a too-brisk-for-spring breeze, Joe Torre stuffed his hands in his back pockets, the way he does when he's going to make a pitching change. His blue cap was perched a bit too high on his forehead, so the brim trembled against the wind. I could see the right-field fence and waving palm trees in his sunglasses.
He said something about the Dodgers, in Brooklyn, that team, that elegance and how it related to his childhood, when he wasn't a fan of theirs at all. But, I think, we both knew these aren't those Dodgers anymore, and no amount of black-and-white photos on the dining-room walls would make them so. Twenty down years will do that to a franchise, and its reputation.
Somebody – someday – will be standing there when the Dodgers are restored, when the adroit drafts of the past half-decade arrive with broad shoulders and steaming fastballs, when Matt Kemp and Chad Billingsley and Clayton Kershaw become practiced big leaguers, and the philosophical and personnel thrashings-about cease.
Torre's contract says he'll wait at least three years for it. If his work in New York is an indicator, Torre in that time will force the values of responsibility, professionalism, maturity. You know, with the occasional David Wells mixed in.
Or, as Jeff Kent described it midway through spring training, "A big batch of accountability."
"It's a different club," Don Mattingly said on the grounds of Holman Stadium here. "Really different, from the standpoint of all the young and talented players. They need to continue to learn. Joe's going to be patient, but it's not going to be OK to screw up and keep screwing up."
You could pick through Torre's 14 seasons in the National League and conclude he's a better manager without the forced pitching changes and strategic subtleties. Probably, though, he's a better manager when his players are better, like the rest of them. You could believe the latest out of Tampa, which suggested Torre went lax on his players, who over time and under Torre abandoned their attention to detail and conditioning. Probably, though, the real ballplayers showed up ready to play, while the others would have gone soft under Patton, given a few years.
Torre greets these stabs at post-post-mortems and revisionism with passing irritation, but then a shrug and a sigh. He's been banged around before.
Anyway, none of it matters today, not to the Dodgers, not when the alternative to Torre was Grady Little, a good man whom the Dodgers believe lost his nerve last September, or Joe Girardi, whose first choice in dugouts was the Yankees'.
And it doesn't seem to matter to Torre, who was barely out of pinstripes before he'd found the script blue, and with it an organization of depth and talent just dying for direction.
So, out there on the back field, where sustained gusts pushed every fly ball to the left-field line, I said, Joe, you've already won your championships, brought Hall-of-Fame resonance to an upstanding career, and, if I might say, made your money.
You're 67. You've done Broadway. What are you doing here?
The Dodgers, he said. It's the Dodgers. But there was something else, deeper than childhood memories and lifelong admiration.
"Baseball wasn't fun the last three years," he said. "The game was fun. The players were fun. But everything connected to it wasn't fun. I was curious if it could be fun again."
In his moments of lucidity, George Steinbrenner had continued to ride Torre (and GM Brian Cashman) hard. The World Series appearances had been replaced by division-series washouts, followed by the predictable ruminations about Torre's touch and Cashman's IQ and just what it is $200 million buys anymore. Despite Cashman's attempts, the Tampa and New York offices would never be completely aligned, not as long as The Boss was being wheeled in and out, which further stressed the Bronx side.
Torre stayed above the undercutting as best he could, including last fall, when Steinbrenner announced that if the Cleveland Indians eliminated the Yankees, so too would they eliminate Torre. It didn't turn out quite that clean, but the result was the same – Torre walking away from what he viewed as a hollow offer coming at the end of an impertinent process.
"They just should have done it right," Mattingly said. "Put the guy on a throne and walk him around, then let him go. That's what they should have done."
This, however, was coming before then. Torre would have stayed, sure, taken their longer-term money, continued his efforts to burn a 27th championship into that old facade. But the tedium of all that swirls around the Yankees had begun to wear him down, somewhere beneath the sad eyes. At times last season, Mattingly felt obligated to give Torre a poke, a reading of his emotional and physical temperature.
"I'd say, ‘Joe, you all right?'" Mattingly recalled. "He just looked tired. Beat up. So, I could see a little of it last year. … It's very subtle with him. Every once in a while you see it. He's never going to complain."
A month after taking the Dodgers job, Torre had a knee replaced, developed anemia, and spent the winter wondering if he'd have the energy to run a ballclub.
More than once, he said, he asked himself, "Am I doing the right thing?"
He didn't get a legitimate answer until the days before he left for Vero Beach, when his body began to feel right again, when the notion of another baseball season put him again on the balls of his feet.
And by this week, in the hours before he led a Dodgers team to China, there was no telling this Joe from the old Joe, not in his gait or in his dignified bearing. Maybe it'll work here, he'll work here, and the Dodgers can be relevant here. Maybe it can be fun again.
"It's starting a new chapter," he said, "which never in my wildest dreams I thought I'd want to do."
- Joe Torre