ANAHEIM, Calif. – There are only tough jobs and impossible jobs in their line of work, which is why, I suppose, Joe Torre owns a surfboard and Joe Girardi has done well not to gnaw the lacquer from his fungo bat.
The surfboard was a gift. And the next wave Torre catches will be the first.
But there’s a long-board spirit in Torre these days, Old Guys Rule and all that. He’s 68, has a mismatched ballclub in first place and is a good 3,000 miles from the nearest Steinbrenner.
“So far,” Torre said over the weekend, 140-plus games into his West Coast gig, “I’ve got a better tan. It’s wonderful.”
To the dismay of a fan base that merrily fills Dodger Stadium despite 20 years of mostly inconsequential baseball, Torre has not transformed the Dodgers into much more than they are: a pitching-heavy team whose daily lineup lacks players in their primes. Even Manny Ramirez, whose trading-deadline arrival brought early spikes in wins and dreadlock extensions, has found the job bigger than it appeared. He’s batted .397 with 11 home runs and 34 RBIs in Dodgers script, yet the club is just 19-17 with him.
But, and maybe this explains the healthy glow and Endless Summer perspective, the NL West has been kind to Torre, Manny and the Dodgers. There is a sense some of the organization’s rising talents – Matt Kemp, Chad Billingsley, James Loney, Andre Ethier, Clayton Kershaw – have had nice growth seasons, ones that will serve them (and the franchise) in Torre II and Torre III, assuming he serves to the end of his contract.
If nothing else, the young Dodgers have been allowed to be young Dodgers. When they lugged their duffels into their first big-league clubhouse, they discovered the world not only wasn’t about them, but didn’t think much of them, either. The manager at the time – a very nice gentleman named Grady Little – was suffering from his own crisis of confidence and, as it happened, was on his way out. Their new, veteran teammates cared more about their own jobs and their own at-bats than for creating a chummy, constructive workplace.
“This ballclub, the young kids, they haven’t had a lot of fun,” Torre said. “I think they’ve put a lot of pressure on themselves.”
Torre signed up and did what he could to relieve the clubhouse tension. Manny eventually stood in the middle of the lineup and eased the production responsibilities. Or, tried.
And still the Dodgers lose almost as often as they win, which, as of Monday night’s 4-0 loss in San Diego, was good enough for a game-and-a-half lead with 18 to play.
Torre walked in the door looking settled. He has a knack for that. Now he is settled.
“I found that I can look forward to coming to the ballpark again,” he said, having put distance between himself and the untidy separation from the Yankees. “It became a lot for me to deal with. I dealt with it, but it wasn’t a lot of fun.”
Yes, he still speaks to Girardi – once his catcher, then his bench coach – pretty often.
There’s a new Steinbrenner at the top, and a wholly new set of circumstances for the Yankees. Barring absolute collapse by not one, but a handful of teams ahead of them, the Yankees will miss the playoffs for the first time in a full season since 1993. The fact that they have three more wins than Torre's Dodgers is of no comfort to Girardi.
The responsibility for that lies with the organization’s failure to reinforce its big-league pitching staff, most often a pivotal strength in Torre’s 12 seasons in New York. Torre’s teams thrilled with offense, but generally won with pitching.
Girardi, instead, has presided over an expensive team in transition, one that has required – as of Alfredo Aceves on Tuesday night here – 13 different starting pitchers. Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy, the organization’s hopes for a new foundation and two of the reasons it passed on Johan Santana, started 15 games between them, and the Yankees won three.
More than $80 million is expected to come off the Yankees’ payroll this winter, potentially creating opportunities and financial windfalls for the likes of CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira (and, sure, maybe Manny). But, that’s next season. Girardi first had to wear this one, the one Torre left behind.
“I think you could say it’s a daily process,” Girardi said Monday, standing along the first-base line during batting practice, hours before the Yankees would lose to the Angels 12-1. “You have a plan every day, a schedule every day, but it’s ever changing.”
Nearly three months ago, another of Torre’s former coaches – Willie Randolph – had come to Anaheim and been fired. His final game was on this field. His final night as manager was spent in the hotel the Yankees awoke in Tuesday morning. By contrast, Hank Steinbrenner revealed Monday that of course Girardi would be back next season.
“He’s managed through a lot of stuff,” general manager Brian Cashman had said a couple hours earlier.
Girardi is 43, had managed only one prior season (2006, admirably, with the Florida Marlins), and sometimes that showed. For the moment, according to two Yankees players who spoke privately, he lacks Torre’s uncommon touch in the clubhouse. For the moment, he’s still learning to manage every detail of all nine innings. But, they agreed, Girardi can juggle a bullpen, inarguably important when you’re running through 13 different starters.
“He’s been exactly what I thought,” Derek Jeter said. “That’s the best way to put it.”
It didn’t seem like a criticism. Jeter played with Girardi the catcher and appreciated him. He played under Girardi the coach and liked him.
“It’d probably be a better question for someone who didn’t know him as well,” Jeter said.
Wilson Betemit nodded his head.
“He’s a good manager,” he said. “I like him.”
No matter the angle, the season has been a devastating disappointment for the organization. “A waste,” one official called it. The Yankees didn’t win. And, other than Joba Chamberlain (whose shoulder didn’t hold up either), the developing pitchers that were to form the team’s core were injured or ineffective or both. Second baseman Robinson Cano digressed alarmingly, that coinciding with a $30-million contract extension. Injuries swallowed seasons for starter Chien-Ming Wang and catcher Jorge Posada.
Girardi has run it. He’s explained it daily. And for the first time in a very long time, it seems, that’ll all be over before October.
“You go back to work,” he said. “This game is full of exciting times. It disappoints at times, too. That’s the nature of the game. To me, I believe this is where I’m supposed to be.”
Funny, the other Joe was just saying the same thing.
“My wife keeps teasing me,” Torre said, “saying, ‘You still want to do this?’ ”
He spread his arms, raised his eyebrows, smiled. The sun caught the ends of his fingers.
“I’m here,” he said.
- Joe Girardi
- Joe Torre