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Future not set, Torre revisits big stage

Future not set, Torre revisits big stage

CLEVELAND -- Sitting at one of those old familiar postseason podiums, Joe Torre was asked to reflect on his first postseason as a manager. The question couldn't have been posed to a more prepared person.

Without missing a beat, the Yankees skipper rattled around in his bag of stories and procured a tale about the '82 Braves and a game in which knuckleballer Phil Niekro served as a starting pitcher. Certainly, it's been a long run.

It was just last week that Torre was at the center of yet one more raucous clubhouse celebration, clutching a half-full flute of champagne and a soggy towel as tears welled in his eyes.

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Managing to state only that he couldn't say enough about the passion of his players, it seemed impossible at that moment to comprehend that Torre could be heading into his final postseason, a stage he once spent decades yearning for before seemingly punching a lifetime pass with New York.

"I've been very fortunate, for a guy who, during his whole playing career, never got to a postseason," Torre said. "But to experience what I've experienced here over the last 12 years, all of a sudden, I'm a veteran of this thing and I never picked up a bat."

For an organization so deep and rich in history and achievements of years past, there is still a measure of what-have-you-done-lately concerning Torre, as the luster of his once-invincible four World Series titles in five seasons continues to stagnate.

More than any other club, a playoff entry is not enough for the Yankees. If the Canyon of Heroes is dark again, that would make seven straight Octobers without the currency that runs the Yankees' universe, and their manager remains but one of several key figures who are not sure bets to return in 2008.

"People ask me all the time if this is Joe's best year, and I don't think that's fair to the other years," said Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. "I think every year, he has been consistent and done the same job. He's obviously very good at what he does. Ultimately, whatever we do and however we do it, it's all done together."

The American League Division Series, which starts on Thursday behind staff ace Chien-Ming Wang, is also not the ideal time to ponder it. Alex Rodriguez has the most celebrated opt-out clause, naturally, but Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera have also agreed to stifle any talk about extensions on their Yankees careers until the club is done playing this season. Torre is but one in that crowded boat.

"We've been very exact about that situation, which is, we will talk about it whenever our season's over," Cashman said. "We made the decision on Joe, along with the other guys, that we will wait until the wintertime and then we will address the direction that this will club will take.

"Obviously, I'll sit down with ownership and with all parties involved and we'll map out a strategy then. Hopefully, all that will wait until November, but we'll see."

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Just as Rodriguez has told reporters inquiring about his much-speculated status, anybody thinking a year ahead doesn't have their eyes set on the prize. Still, there are those trusted personalities who cannot imagine reporting for a Torre-less Spring Training.

"Everyone wanted to put the blame on [Torre] early in the season," Yankees captain Derek Jeter said recently. "He's not the one who's out there playing. He puts the best players on the field and gives us an opportunity to win. It's kind of hard to say this is his best year, because he's done a great job for 12 years. But you can argue it."

Now 67, Torre has said numerous times that he is enjoying what he is doing, while not openly campaigning for any contract negotiations to take place. One early September dugout conversation at Yankee Stadium morphed from a discussion of Torre's satisfaction into a headline writer's delight, painting Torre as pining for an extension.

It sold newspaper copies, perhaps, but the connotation wasn't entirely accurate. Cashman said that Torre and ownership mutually agreed to ice any such talks until the winter, which does not exactly present a foreboding picture, but it's not necessarily an indication of an imminent deal, either.

Torre's best asset may be his verbiage, but patience and coolness aren't far behind as a virtue. Torre's attitude regarding his contract seems to be much the same as his view on the AL Division Series; take it as it comes.

"I don't feel any more pressure in doing what we're going to try to do now in the month of October," Torre said. "I felt more pressure the last week of trying to get to the postseason than I'm going to in this series."

Since the Yankees' turning-point series with the Blue Jays in late May, it has been difficult to imagine that Torre could have done anything to hurt his prospects toward returning. Weathering the worst that the injured and maligned Yankees could offer, Torre took to plugging his rotation with fresh-faced rookies, making a Major League record 517 pitching changes.

He had to bite the bullet while informing Johnny Damon that his legs were no longer fresh enough to patrol center field, then later when telling Mike Mussina that his right arm wasn't effective enough to record Major League outs -- a message that the Yankees have been happy to go back on in recent weeks.

"The only thing that we were fortunate [about] was that our dry spell in the first part gave us time to recover," Torre said. "We had talent, like any other ballclub. You have to lick your wounds, and you hurt a little bit and you have to find your personality."

The Yankees have found that inner voice, and it still sounds a lot like Torre. Will it continue to after this postseason? Like everyone else, Torre and the Yankees will wait and see.

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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