Yankees Magazine: Man at the top

In 1996, a supposed retread in the manager's chair became one of the most beloved leaders in Yankees history

Yankees Magazine: Man at the top

Twenty years ago, as the most recent Bronx dynasty dawned, Yankees history meant giants such as Babe Ruth. Lou Gehrig. Joe DiMaggio. Mickey Mantle. It's hard to believe, with the book beginning to close on this season celebrating the 1996 team's 20th anniversary, but the guys on that team -- the Jeters, the Riveras, the Pettittes, the Williamses -- are now as much a part of the team's lore as the legends with standing monuments in center field. To a 10-year-old fan in 2016, Bernie Williams isn't all that different than Thurman Munson would have been to a teenager in 1996.

Joe Torre, before managing that '96 team to a World Series championship in his first year leading the Yankees (and then following it up in '98, '99 and 2000), was a contemporary of Mantle's. He's in the Hall of Fame already. But Torre, who now serves as the chief baseball officer for Major League Baseball, knows what got him there, a fickle baseball god that finally smiled on him at the most opportune time. He knows that if the Yankees beat Seattle in the 1995 American League Division Series, he may never have gotten the chance; who knows if he would have gotten any chance anywhere?

Earlier this season, Torre reflected on the 1996 season.

Let's start in June of 1995, when the Cardinals let you go. At that point, what did you expect from your future? What did you think was next?

I had no clue, based on the fact that I had played for three teams, managed those three teams, and now I was fired by those three teams. And I really didn't know what my future was. I knew that I could go back to broadcasting, although, to me, that was not something that I wanted to be my option. I didn't see anything else that was going to come my way.

I had interviewed for two other managing jobs -- one was Pittsburgh and one was Minnesota -- and obviously they made the wrong decisions hiring Tom Kelly and Jimmy Leyland. But I really didn't know where else it was going to come from.

Then I got a call from Gene Michael, who was the general manager of the Yankees, and was going to step aside. He asked if I'd be interested in interviewing for the GM spot. I said, "Sure," because when you get fired, when somebody says they're interested in you, you jump at it.

Some weeks later, I got a call from Arthur Richman, one of George Steinbrenner's consultants, who I knew because we were with the Mets together. He asked if I'd be interested in managing the Yankees. I said, "Certainly!" He said that there's a short list of potential managers -- Davey Johnson, Tony La Russa and Sparky [Anderson] were on it -- and I said that I would be happy to. Looking at that list, I thought I was probably at the bottom of it, and that didn't hurt my feelings. Let's admit it -- Davey had the success with the Mets, La Russa had the success with Oakland, and Sparky was Sparky. But as it turned out, I got the call saying I was the guy. That pretty much changed my professional life forever, which I was happy about.

Put yourself, if you can, back in the moment of trying to sell yourself for that role. What were you saying that made you uniquely suited to be manager of the Yankees?

I thought that I was learning all the time -- I think that we should always learn, no matter what line of business we're in. I thought I did a good job managing other clubs, I know the results didn't show that, besides for the Division Series in 1982 with the Braves. But that's the way we're judged, on the bottom line. And I didn't know what my attributes were and if they'd fit into where I was going to get an opportunity to manage. But I knew one thing -- it was an opportunity that I didn't think was going to come my way, and I was just excited about it.

The only thing that comes to my mind is Sparky retired, Davey Johnson was with the Orioles, and Tony La Russa was going to take over the job that I was fired from. So they were sort of stuck with me. I was just happy they did stick with me. Because once I got to New York, people kept reminding me about all the bad publicity, and all the questions that you would normally ask with somebody whose managing record was 100 games under .500.

But again, it was weird, because I'm sensitive like the next guy, but I think my mindset going in was, "I'm going to do what I do and hope it's good enough." That helped me be excited about it, instead of saying, "Oh my god, what am I doing?" I was just anxious and excited to get the opportunity.

Are there things you can isolate that you did better as manager of the Yankees than you did at your previous stops?

It was interesting because I went into my first Spring Training in '96 -- this is not a secret, I've said this before -- but I went into Spring Training thinking, "What are the criticisms of me?" The criticisms had been that I was a players' manager, which you come to find out is a positive when you win and a negative when you lose. So was I supposed to be tougher? Was I supposed to be this or that? I'm picking up different books, and I picked up Bill Parcells' book. It was a management-coaching book. And this was before Spring Training started. I was down there early. And I was in the exercise room on the StairMaster, and I remember thumbing my way through the book. One chapter said, "If you believe in what you're doing, stay with it." With that, I closed the book and exhaled because I felt that I could only be who I am.

So in May, Doc Gooden throws the no-hitter--

And that wasn't easy, either, because his dad was in the hospital, and there was a question about whether he was going to start or go home. So that was quite an emotional night.

Definitely. When you add that to things like the division clinch, the playoff wins, the Girardi triple and then the World Series celebration, are they separate in your mind? Twenty years later, do those moments run together?

Little things come to mind for me. Transitioning our club from what we were in the first half to what we became in the second half. In the first half, I remember George [Steinbrenner] saying that we were doing it with mirrors -- he didn't know how we were doing it. George liked these big boppers, and we weren't that team.

When we lost David Cone to injury, to me, you never want to have anybody smell blood in the water. You just have to find a way to get it done without him. I wasn't going to dwell on what we didn't have at that time. But our transition, in re-signing Darryl Strawberry and then trading [Ruben] Sierra and getting Cecil Fielder, those two were real key moves for us. And we transitioned a hit-and-run-type, squeeze-type ballclub into a little more of an offensive force.

One thing I had to deal with as manager was Tony Fernandez, because he was the shortstop, the experienced guy, the All-Star, and he was going to have to move over to second base. He made my job easy by saying, "OK. I don't like it, but I'm going to do it." He was a real pro about it. Then he got hurt in Spring Training, and Pat Kelly, too -- they were the two candidates for second base. And who winds up being our regular second baseman? Mariano Duncan, who was going to be our utility guy. And he did a great job for us.

It's kind of hard to remember, but the 1996 Yankees really weren't yet what they became later in the decade, or even now. It had been a long time since the team had won anything. They still had that scrappy underdog mentality. Were you guys able to have any fun late in that season, when you were fighting at the end? Or was it all just stress?

I had made up my mind that I wasn't going to read a newspaper or listen to a call-in show on the radio.

Smart.

Well, smart, but I guess it's just something that you accumulate over the years. I can go back to the spring of '96; we played an intrasquad game, and we had Doc Gooden pitching against Jimmy Key. I remember one of the writers suggested that I stacked the lineup of one of the teams to make Gooden look good. And I'm scratching my head, thinking, "My god, what am I in for here?" I gave him some sarcastic, angry response. But then I realized that if that's the way people are thinking, then I'd better not read a paper, or get anyone else's opinion here. I'd rather decide it in the clubhouse and have these guys get my opinions firsthand.

But when you have two sisters that are living in New York, living and dying with us, and I call one of them and they're hemming and hawing -- you know somebody wrote a bad article or something -- I couldn't totally insulate myself from it. To me, this was a bonus job, and I had an opportunity to be a part of something special. My first meeting with the whole team in Spring Training, I said, "I don't want to win one championship -- I want to win three in a row."

Yankees win pennant

In 1996, you were pushed so hard by the Orioles, and meanwhile, you had so much happening off the field. How did you keep everything together?

When we started the second half, we were going into Baltimore and playing a four- or five-game series, and I remember a writer asking me, "Are you going to talk to the team about going into this series?" I said, "When they get off the bus, they're going to know where they are. I don't think I have to say anything. If I have to tell them what this series means, then I have the wrong group." We went in and swept that series. Then again, it looked like they were coming at us. I remember we were in Detroit, and I sat with the ballclub, and I said, "Look, we're going to win this thing. Just understand that. Just believe that I believe that. And just go out and play." And again, we won a big series against Baltimore coming home, and then that was pretty much it, as far as our winning the division.

The one thing that concerned me was having to play Baltimore again in the postseason. I said, "My god, how many times can we beat these guys?" We beat them four out of five to go to the World Series. I was really relaxed in the World Series. I think it was the fact that I got there. All these years, I had never been in that position. I just enjoyed it, even though we got our butts kicked the first game.

Of course, the bonus for me in that whole week was that my brother Frank -- on the off-day between Games 5 and 6 -- gets a heart transplant. Talk about an emotional roller coaster. My brother Rocco passed away between games of a doubleheader in Cleveland in June, and then that happening with Frank in October. So how do you concentrate? Well, it gives you a place to hide out from reality when you're in the dugout, near the diamond. It's something to distract you.

Late in Game 6 of the World Series, just how helpless did you feel on the bench?

It was brutal. And that was really the only time, since that game was the only lead we had. I told Reggie Jackson when he came into my office before the game, "I'm jumpy." He said, "What do you mean?" Because Reggie didn't know what nervousness was. But I said, "I'm jumpy. I'm anxious. It's the first time in the Series that I'm anxious. Here we are. You can sort of reach out and touch it."

It was a feeling unlike anything I had ever experienced in the game. You wonder what it's going to be like, and it certainly surpassed any kind of emotion you thought you were going to have. It lived up to what you hoped it would be.

In that moment, when it's all over, are you thinking about the thousands of games? Are you thinking about the 25 guys on the team, the coaching staff, the families?

I was thinking about my family. I was thinking about -- and I'm getting choked up now talking about it -- all the people who had been pulling for me. It was quite emotional for me. A good number of them were in my office in the clubhouse after the game. When it came time to go home, I had a couple of friends of mine take me because I think my wife took my car home. My wife was having a party with our family after the game at our house. I never even took my uniform off. I went home in my uniform. It was quite a night.

And then that parade has to be such a surreal experience …

Yeah, it's your hometown. You've seen astronauts get ticker tape parades, and you think, "Wow, that's pretty cool." All of a sudden, people are throwing it at you. It was just an out-of-body experience, something I will never forget. And then to do it three more times was nuts.

But you mentioned everything that was going on with Frank. How quickly does life snap back to reality?

I remember my brother called me the next day. "Congratulations, brother. I couldn't have been more proud of you." Of course, I went to see him, but then I had to go to the Stadium, because they were taking pictures and some stuff with the trophy. I don't know if I ever slept. But it was an emotional roller coaster. Happiness, sadness. My brother Rocco had passed away, missing this great celebration. And of course, my mom. There was a lot going on.

Then all of a sudden you get the phone calls about how people are happy for you. One of the first telegrams I had on my desk before the series started was from Sandy Koufax, and Sandy congratulated me on getting into the World Series. For never having played together, but playing against each other, we have a mutual respect for each other that, I'm happy to say, is a relationship that I treasure.

You mention that Spring Training statement: "Let's not win one, let's win three." When you actually win one, does that turn into, "Hey, not so fast, let's enjoy this!'

You know, it's interesting, my wife had to slap me back to reality after getting fired in Atlanta in 1984. She said, "What are you thinking about?" I said, "I'm thinking about not realizing my dreams." She said, "What are you, dead?" So after we won, she said, "Well, you finally accomplished what you needed, in your mind, to accomplish to be successful. Let's go start a flower farm in Hawaii." And I said, "Let's see if we can do it again."

You feel an obligation. I couldn't walk away. I had players that left their hearts out on the field. I couldn't walk away from that. I was just curious. Let's see what we have. Because you have changes. Our MVP in that Series, John Wetteland, he leaves. So in '97, we came close, and then of course, '98, '99 and 2000 were crazy. In the middle of that, I get diagnosed with prostate cancer. Baseball's filled with a lot of emotion that you have to deal with. Life's realities. But it's unbelievable. It really is. I go back and I think about it, and just talking to you about it, it's really emotional for me.

It's hard to believe in a lot of ways that it's been two decades. But you walk around the Stadium now, and those photos, those memories, they fit in next to the Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio photos. A couple of years from now when you're up in Cooperstown and you're surrounded by guys like Derek and Mo, will that be the ultimate reward? For time to pass and for you to see these people and these moments rise to iconic status in this franchise's history?

It keeps conjuring up great memories. The fact that they're going to be inducted is going to give me more time to enjoy what happened. I was a part of it in my career. I remember Paul O'Neill, I think it was last Old-Timers' game, we were standing in the clubhouse, and he said, "You know, Skip, every time we get together, it always feels like something more than just that we were on a team, that we played together at the same time." I think that characterized it for me. It's a relationship that never goes away. I'm forever grateful for the opportunity George Steinbrenner gave me. It's great to have the memories and to have them go beyond the baseball stuff. The relationships are very special.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Jon Schwartz is the managing editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the September issue of Yankees Magazine. Get this article and more delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription at yankees.com/publications.