When the Mets were in Southern California for a weekend series and Torre was working an Angels game in the East -- it often happened that way -- I made sure to catch as much of his work as possible before leaving for the park. I equated his ability to bring out the best in Reggie Jackson to Tim McCarver's bringing out the best in Ralph Kiner.
Even before Torre took the mic, I was tempted to check the box next to his name when I gained the right to vote in 1984, but I forced myself to look past the hours I had spent in his office in his 4 1/2 seasons as Mets manager, all I had learned about the game from him and the laughs we shared. None of those made him a better hitter or fielder. And Lords knows, they didn't make him a faster runner.
Moreover, Torre's sense that his career had fallen short of Hall of Fame standards -- a sense he expressed -- supported my decision to withhold my vote. He had too much respect for the game and the genuine greats who have played it to put himself in the Hall or on the threshold. By the final years of his on-the-ballot eligibility, I was convinced he had enough support from other voters to remain eligible for the full 15 years. I didn't vote for him then either.
To me, remaining on the ballot for 15 years was a form of recognition for the good, not great. I didn't and don't endorse voting for "almosts," but, in an admitted contradiction, I was pleased to see Torre go 15. The same for Vada Pinson, my favorite player when I was a kid -- second to Mickey Mantle, of course -- Jim Kaat and Tommy John.
Long before his Yankees and Dodgers teams produced 14 successive postseason appearances, Torre produced five seasons of 100 RBIs, two of 200 hits and five in which he batted .300. He had a magnificent National League MVP season in 1971.
And catcher Torre called a smart game; not that his wisdom was needed when he caught Warren Spahn and Bob Gibson. On those days, he learned what he later applied in his managerial moments.
Over the years, Torre occasionally has tested my objectivity. I enjoyed covering him as much as any player/manager, and more than most. In his time with the Mets, I often would sit in his office and learn, until minutes before home games. He learned to trust me, and I appreciated that. His insights opened the eyes of a 29-year-old reporter in 1977 after he assumed the Mets manager responsibilities.
His manner -- call it gentle when it could be -- was a lesson his players appreciated. In most cases, he found a way to be candid without being harsh.
The Mets traded Tom Seaver before Torre was done with three weeks as player-manager. After the trade, the rookie manager provided an honest appraisal of Seaver's impact in the 2 1/2 months of the season that had passed. "Tom was a leader here," Torre said. "But lately it's been leadership in reverse."
The Mets teams he managed were dreadful, hopeless and worse. He never denied they were. But he focused on what his players had done well and what they might have learned in their many losses. If their performance was without a positive aspect, he didn't create one. Instead he would recall a personal experience as bad or worse and explain how he handled or didn't handle it.
The classic Torre quote came while he still was playing. He had grounded into a record four double plays in one game. Afterwards, he smirked and blamed Felix Millan for being on first base each time he had come to bat. Those who played with the Cardinals teams of the late 60s and early 70s -- he, McCarver, Gibson, Mike Shannon, Lou Brock, Dal Maxvill -- had that wonderful gallows humor. They achieved what Torre tried to impress on his players in subsequent seasons -- the need to be intense without being tense.
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Covering poor teams for successive seasons can drain a reporter to a degree. Sets of seasons seemed seamless. Individual games could be tests of ingenuity. It's not easy to find a compelling topic when game No. 120 so closely resembles games No. 114-119, and many of the first 113. So often we'd leave the pressbox for the clubhouse asking each other "Is there a story here?" and "What is there to write about this?"
Torre had a sense of what we faced. After a particularly grotesque loss in 1980, he acknowledged "My job wasn't much fun tonight." And I said "How'd you like to do what I have to do when I get upstairs [to the press box]. I've got to find something interesting to write about. I've got to make this sound fresh."
He paused and said, "At least my job is done. I can go home now." And he admitted "Your job is tougher than mine today."
Beginning the following night, one of us would acknowledge -- after he had managed and before I would write -- who faced the more challenging assignment, who had the less rewarding job that day. Occasionally, there were draws. But he often won. When I did win, I won big.
We played that silly game in subsequent seasons, even into his time with the Dodgers. I recall telling him he had the better job the nights the Yankees won the World Series in 1996 and 2000. He agreed each time.
Joe Torre won't be "on the job" when he moves from the sidewalk to the threshold and through the doors of the Hall of Fame. So on that summer Sunday, my job will be better than his and not at all challenging.