Advertisement

Yankees greats recall Joe Torre's inspiring comeback from cancer diagnosis 25 years ago

NEW YORK – The pitching matchup on that mild Tuesday night at Fenway Park, 25 years ago, was about as good as it gets.

Future Hall-of-Famer Pedro Martinez, the Boston Red Sox’s ace, took a 1.81 ERA to the mound against the Yankees’ David Cone, sporting an even better 1.33 ERA.

Plus, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was in a box seat, and Roger Clemens – Boston’s fabled, former ace – was in the visiting dugout, in his first year as a Yankee.

But the loudest reaction on May 18, 1999, was for Joe Torre, about to manage his first game since undergoing surgery for prostate cancer two months earlier.

Cone was warming up when Torre walked out for the lineup exchange and the crowd’s cheers began - a two-minute Fenway standing ovation for the Yankees’ manager, amidst an intense baseball civil war.

“Those are the kind of moments,’’ said Cone, “when you realize things are so much bigger than the rivalry, or the game.’’

Joe Torre's choice to make a personal situation public

Apr 3, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; MLB chief baseball officer Joe Torre in attendance as the Pittsburgh Pirates host the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2016 opening Day baseball game at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 3, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; MLB chief baseball officer Joe Torre in attendance as the Pittsburgh Pirates host the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2016 opening Day baseball game at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

A quarter century later, during an appearance at Yankees spring training, Torre said he still gets chills recalling the Red Sox fans' ovation that night in Boston.

“I remember my wife saying to me, ‘You realize if we had retired last year, nobody would know about this?’ ’’ Torre said.

“Then you come to realize it’s good that people did know about it because that’s the one cancer that early detection saves your life,’’ Torre said. “And if I had anything to do with people getting checked, I’m happy for that.’’

Like old times: Joe Torre walks out to the mound for Yankees to make a pitching change

At the time, baseball TV and radio personality Ed Randall felt that Torre had “performed a great public service by going forward and announcing his diagnosis and treatment,’’ though it was “a deeply personal situation.’’

Months after Torre’s diagnosis, Randall, then 47, was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

“A week after I was operated on, I was in spring training, and the first person I went to see was Torre,’’ said Randall, who founded Fans for the Cure, fostering prostate cancer education and awareness.

Randall’s foundation will host a free screening at ballparks again this year, including Yankee Stadium and Citi Field.

“Prostate cancer in its earliest stages has no symptoms,’’ said Randall, advocating a yearly PSA blood test. “There’s an almost 99 percent cure rate if detected early.’’

Torre’s prostate cancer was uncovered by a blood test, during a routine spring training physical exam.

Finding their way in Joe Torre's absence

Jul 28, 2018; Cooperstown, NY, USA; Hall of Famer Joe Torre leads a discussion on the 1968 the year of the pitcher during the awards presentation at Doubleday Field. Mandatory Credit: Gregory J. Fisher-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 28, 2018; Cooperstown, NY, USA; Hall of Famer Joe Torre leads a discussion on the 1968 the year of the pitcher during the awards presentation at Doubleday Field. Mandatory Credit: Gregory J. Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

On March 10, 1999, the Yankees played two Florida exhibition split squad games.

That morning, Torre summoned Cone, Joe Girardi and Paul O’Neill separately in his office about his diagnosis.

Girardi was instructed to inform the players headed to Fort Myers, O’Neill was to tell the Bradenton squad and Cone would speak to those staying back in Tampa.

Bench coach Don Zimmer filled in for Torre, but the baseball lifer refused to sit at the manager’s office desk or in the first seat on the team charters.

“We just walked through so much stuff together with that group of guys, and I’ve said this over and over, Joe was almost like a second dad to you,’’ said Andy Pettitte, who pitched on five Yankees world championship teams.

“You came in and it wasn’t always, if I was struggling, let’s talk about baseball. It was, ‘How are things going? How’s the family? How are you?’ ’’

About to begin his fourth season as Yankees manager, already with two World Series rings, Torre’s absence was “something we felt every step through March, April into May,’’ GM Brian Cashman recalled during spring training.

“I felt like we were a mess until we could get Joe back.’’

Clinging to a half-game lead over Boston, the Yankees had lost five of their previous six games when Torre felt well enough to return.

“Our faithful leader was back,’’ said Pettitte. “And what a lift.’’

The long road to back to normalcy

Jun 14, 2021; New York City, New York, USA; MLB special assistant to the commissioner Joe Torre on the field to promote prostate cancer awareness before a game between the New York Mets and the Chicago Cubs at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 14, 2021; New York City, New York, USA; MLB special assistant to the commissioner Joe Torre on the field to promote prostate cancer awareness before a game between the New York Mets and the Chicago Cubs at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

“When he came back, I just remember there was tremendous relief in the room,’’ said Cone. “Including Zim, because Zim was so wound up, so tight – it was thrown on him to be the manager,’’ which meant dealing with Steinbrenner’s wrath directly.

“So, it was just like the clouds parted when (Torre) came back for good.’’

On the night of Torre’s return, the Yankees lost, 6-3. But they moved back into first place on June 9, and never looked back – going 11-1 in postseason, including a four-game World Series sweep of the Braves.

And yet, “it took me time to get to the point where baseball was as important as it always has been,’’ Torre said of his diagnosis, at age 58, with a 3-year-old daughter at the time.

“I remember it was a game in Toronto (when) Bernie Williams came up to hit, and that sort of got me over the line,’’ said Torre.

“All of a sudden the bases are loaded and you’re losing the game and here you’re willing to sell your soul for a base hit, and he hit a grand slam.’’

'99 Yankees "definitely on a mission''

Jun 18, 2022; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Joe Torre, Special Assistant to the Commissioner, MLB, speaks during the unveiling ceremony of a brand new Koufax commemorative statue at the Centerfield Plaza at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 18, 2022; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Joe Torre, Special Assistant to the Commissioner, MLB, speaks during the unveiling ceremony of a brand new Koufax commemorative statue at the Centerfield Plaza at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees won that September game, and “I think that got me back into the normal feeling as a manager,’’ said Torre. “But ’99, it was a blue-collar club. We just kept grinding away.’’

As a team, the 1999 Yankees “were definitely on a mission,’’ said Williams. “And everybody had this collective attitude of, ‘Let’s do it for Joe.’ It was really inspirational at the time.’’

A year earlier, the club had rallied around Darryl Strawberry, following his diagnosis of colon cancer, and Torre’s situation would be another challenge they’d fight together.

Plus, there was the pressure to repeat as champs following ’98, an all-time Yankee team that won 125 total games.

“We were expected to win,’’ said Williams, in a year that Torre dubbed “a tester for all of us.’’

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: How Joe Torre returned from cancer diagnosis to lead 1999 Yankees