SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Joe Torre is one of baseball’s most familiar faces because his 29 years as a manager were spread among the most popular teams in the four quadrants of the country: Yankees to the East, Dodgers to the West, Braves to the South and Cardinals smack dab in the middle.
Torre’s face might also be baseball’s most reassuring. Regardless of the score, the stress or the swirl of uncertainty on the field, Torre exuded complete control whenever TV cameras zoomed in. He was expressionless yet readable. Behind those deep-set Italian-American eyes was wisdom, deliberation, toughness, kindness and intelligence.
No wonder Commissioner Bud Selig has tabbed Torre to become baseball’s public administrative face. When discipline is meted out, Torre will explain why. If umpires’ hubris needs reining in, Torre will get it done without diminishing their authority. If replay is expanded or a crackdown on beanball retaliation becomes necessary, Torre will make the announcement and take the questions in measured, congenial tones, leaving the impression that baseball knows what it is doing.
At least that’s the plan. Selig was clearly pleased introducing Torre in his new role as executive vice president for on-field baseball operations Saturday at the new spring training home of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies. For all its skyrocketing revenue and unprecedented attendance, MLB sometimes slips on home plate when it comes to explaining why events unfold on the field the way they do.
Exhibit A: MLB suspended Game 5 of the 2008 World Series between the Phillies and Rays in the sixth inning because rain rendered the field unplayable. Afterward, Selig couldn’t adequately explain why executives of both teams – but not the players or the media – had been informed beforehand that the game being called would result in play being resumed the following day. Normally, a game called after the fifth inning is in the books, and many of the players were under the mistaken impression that had the game ended when the Phillies led, 2-1, after five innings, the World Series would have been over. The Rays tied the score in the sixth, and play was suspended shortly thereafter. The television audience was unclear whether allowing the sixth inning to begin had robbed the Phillies of a series-clinching win. Initial blog missives from the press box sent mixed messages as well.
Selig’s decision to require that nine innings be played was the correct one. Not ensuring that the information filtered to the game’s participants – and to the media, for that matter – was a mistake. Maybe Joe Torre would have recognized that not informing the players presented a problem, and presumably he would have explained it satisfactorily afterward.
Decisions will gain the benefit of the doubt because Joe Torre will have made them. Or at least, he will have announced them. Selig’s blue-ribbon committee that includes Torre, managers Tony La Russa, Mike Scioscia and Jim Leyland as well as general managers, owners and other executives, will continue to weigh in on pressing issues.
“I’m not going to be in this thing alone,” Torre said. “As a manager you confer and you make the decision. I’m anticipating the same thing here.”
He wouldn’t say how he leans on prominent topics such as expanding replay, but he did say that from his vantage point as a player and manager for 51 years, he had recognized ways to improve the game. Ridding the game of performance-enhancing drugs – an area baseball has made significant progress on – won’t be among Torre’s duties.
“As a player you are responsible for yourself, and as a manager you are responsible for 25 players and the coaches,” he said. “Now I’m responsible for 30 teams, and what their concerns might be.”
Torre said he’d patched up differences with the Yankees executives who angered him during contract negotiations after the 2007 season. He said he regretted creating the mistaken impression late last summer that he wanted to manage the Mets, one of his rare public relations gaffes.
Without making it sound like a front-burner issue, Torre said that the procedure for baseballs going from the humidor to the playing field at Coors Field could be examined. Suspicions have been voiced about Rockies’ pitchers using less-lively balls from the humidor while opposing pitchers are given balls straight from the box. Multiple complaints might warrant a look by the new executive vice president for on-field baseball operations.
The issue Torre brought up more than once was pitchers retaliating after a teammate had been hit by a pitch. He doesn’t like beanballs, and he doesn’t like umpires tossing players from the game. Most of all, he lamented the lack of control a manager has over the situation. Now maybe he’s in a position to do something about it.
“I don’t know the answer, but sitting there in the dugout you feel, what can you do about it?,” he said. “It certainly doesn’t seem like it’s right.”
It’s one of several issues that relate to the umpires, and guess who gets the last word now? That tickles Torre, although he does empathize with the difficulty of their task. He doesn’t think they ought to be responsible for the pace of the game, or the way retaliation by pitchers is punished.
“The umpires have a lot of dirty jobs and I don’t think that’s right,” he said. “Everything is put on the umpires. It’s something that needs to be addressed. I think we beat on the umpires – the players, managers, media people. They have been victimized by the replays. They are not allowed to be human.
“I want them to make sure they understand that they are a part of this game as much as the managers. If we want the game to be made better, we want to all contribute to that goal.”
That's Torre at his finest, making a point and conveying his plan, all while smoothing feathers. No wonder Selig was pleased.
- Joe Torre