CLEVELAND – George Steinbrenner's men in Tampa, his various sons, lawyers and allies, had neither the evidence nor the conviction to expel Joe Torre.
So it was better, perhaps, to insult a 12-year employee in the privacy of a conference room than to risk their fan base, their clubhouse and what little is left of their organizational reputation.
Better, in the end, to announce that Torre refused to remain the highest-paid manager in the game, because they all agreed – "unanimous," president Randy Levine emphasized – that Torre absolutely was the right man to manage the Yankees next season. But, apparently, only next season, or less.
Better to have Torre walk than to explain why they pushed, when the next manager cannot match Torre's baseball and interpersonal sophistication.
That was no contract offer. That was no negotiation.
That was an invitation to be fired, to be humiliated again, to have Steinbrenner awaken one afternoon with eyes for Don Mattingly or Joe Girardi or Tony La Russa, to open a lame-duck season possibly lacking his MVP third baseman, his legendary closer, his All-Star catcher and two-fifths of his starting rotation.
To his credit, Torre returned to the airport and boarded a plane bound for the rest of his life.
He left $5 million in Tampa, along with his Yankees No. 6, along with 25 players and a coaching staff he adored. He left behind the job of his life and vacated his seat at the center of the baseball universe.
Good for him.
Those men in Tampa believe no more in Joe Torre than they do Carl Pavano.
First, they cut his base salary, from $7 million to $5 million. Then they promised him $1 million if the Yankees went to the playoffs, another $1 million if they advanced to the American League championship series, and $1 million more if they went to the World Series, at which point his option for 2009 – worth $8 million – would vest.
"Joe Torre," Levine said, "turned that offer down today."
Well, of course he did.
After 12 consecutive seasons in the playoffs (the 12 seasons before Torre netted one postseason appearance – under seven different managers), he turned that offer down. He turned down a pay cut, an interim standing, the daily temperature readings from Tampa and the opportunity to be fired when Kei Igawa made his rotation out of spring training.
"It's nobody's fault," Levine said. "All of us are in it together."
Except at the end of the day, all of them still were in that conference room, staring at the contract Torre had pushed back across the table.
"We respect his decision," Levine said. "We appreciate everything he's done, but it's now time for the New York Yankees to move forward."
Judging from the offer, they not only respect it, but applaud it.
The Yankees are now seven years without a World Series championship. If, in their opinion, Torre was at fault, they could have saved him the trip to Tampa, acted on Steinbrenner's ALDS ultimatum and hired the next guy.
Instead, the men who spent the past week working up Torre's performance review rode both sides, covering themselves in case this decision lands in the same heap as their decisions on Pavano, Igawa, Kyle Farnsworth and Roger Clemens.
"All I can tell you," Levine said, "is that the Yankees made the decision based on what's best for the Yankees. … We obviously wanted Joe Torre to come back. That's why we made the offer. We thought it was a fair offer. If we didn't think it was fair, we wouldn't have made it."
Torre was the final arbiter on that, it appears. As a result, Torre becomes something other than a Yankee, and the Yankees likely become more vulnerable at the dawn of a critical offseason.
It appeared the division series loss was the end for Torre, as Steinbrenner had threatened. In Torre's final game, fans chanted his name. Players lined up behind him. Columnists railed against an organization that no longer recognized Torre's touch. Chien-Ming Wang pitched poorly twice, and the Yankees were done, and Torre got a flimsy one-year offer.
That's how it went. Steinbrenner's son, Hal, said the contract's terms were based not on the division series flameout, but the body of Torre's work.
"We spent two long days analyzing this," Hal Steinbrenner said. "It was not about the last month or the last two months. We analyzed a lot of factors."
He listed none of them.
So, Torre is gone for the moment. He said last week that he might think over other managing jobs as they come up, but didn't really want to move anywhere. That leaves … the Mets?
But not the Yankees.
"With what he's accomplished, I think that he should manage as long as he wants to manage," Cleveland Indians manager Eric Wedge said. "I know there's a business side of it, but from what I understand, for him to look at that [contract] and say no, good for him. You know what? He's earned and deserves to do whatever the hell he wants to do."
He didn't want to go home. It's how it worked out. Yes, good for him.
"I guess I hope that however it came down – and nobody knows but Joe and whoever he was dealing with – I hope Joe is happy," Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "I think he deserves the respect. And I think you're going to hear people in baseball, every area of baseball, say probably very, very kind, respectful things about Joe. … And they're all deserved. I just hope he's happy."