NEW YORK -- It's never too late to do the right thing, and nearly seven years after he officially wore the pinstripes as their manager for the last time, the Yankees are retiring Joe Torre's No. 6 on Saturday at Yankee Stadium.
"I feel lucky that we're here and I get to see it," said White Sox manager Robin Ventura, who played 89 games for the Yankees in 2003 and was on the Mets team that lost the 2000 World Series in five games to Torre's Yanks. "I admire him. I enjoyed my time playing for him. I think he's a great person and very deserving of this. It could have happened a while ago, too."
The ceremony includes a Monument Park plaque for Torre and will be attended by a bevy of players, coaches and executives who were part of the organization from 1996-2007 when Torre led the Yankees to four World Series titles, six American League pennants and a playoff berth in every one of his 12 seasons. The Yankees are keeping the guest list close to the vest, a club official said on Friday night.
It's been quite a summer for Torre, Major League Baseball's executive vice president of baseball operations, who was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on July 27 along with fellow managers Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa, plus 300-game winners Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine and slugger Frank Thomas.
In the wake of Torre's unanimous election to the Hall by the Expansion Committee, the Yankees decided to finally retire his number. There's no denying that Torre is among the top managers in Yankees history. His 1,173 regular-season wins are the second most behind Joe McCarthy's 1,460 and just ahead of Casey Stengel's 1,149. Add a record 84 postseason wins, 76 of them with the Yankees and 21 in the World Series. Those numbers and the fact that the Yanks won the World Series four times in five seasons from 1996-2000 speaks volumes.
"It's absolutely incredible," said Joe Girardi, who played and coached under Torre with the Yankees and followed him in 2008 as manager. "Teams just don't have those runs now. You think about what he was able to do. We see a lot of good teams one year. The next year they slip up and don't make the playoffs. People are shocked, and the next year they're back in it. To be able to do it 12 years in a row is a credit to him and the guys who were putting on the uniform."
Girardi knows well enough how tough it is. Barring a spirited run the last five weeks of the season, the Yankees are on the brink of missing the postseason for the third time in the eight seasons since Girardi took over the team from Torre. The Yanks haven't missed the playoffs two years in a row in the era of the three-tiered playoff system, which began with the strike-torn 1994 season.
Prior to that, the Yankees failed to make the playoffs every year from 1982-1993 and Torre had been dismissed from his three other big league managing jobs with the Mets, Braves and Cardinals. In a twist of fate, Torre played and managed for all three of those teams, winning the National League batting title for the Cards in 1971 with a .352 average. He finished his 29-year managing career with the Dodgers in 2010 after extending his personal postseason streak to 14 seasons in row with losses to the Phillies in both the 2008 and '09 NL Championship Series.
Of course, timing is everything and Girardi's reign began just as the Core Four of Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera were beginning to fade. It's been a struggle since the quartet -- with a big dose of help from Hideki Matsui -- led the Yankees to a six-game victory over Philadelphia in the 2009 World Series.
Torre's tenure began just as those guys -- and Bernie Williams -- burst out of the system on the big stage of the old Yankee Stadium across 161st Street in the south Bronx. Like Torre, Jeter and Rivera -- the all-time leader with 652 saves and a record 42 more in the postseason -- are destined for the Hall of Fame. Pettitte and Posada are certainly candidates.
"The core guys were important, but in the early years when those guys were young -- Paul O'Neill and Tino Martinez and David Cone -- really helped out," Girardi said. "It was a great group that really responded to Joe."
There was good reason, said Girardi, who played for Torre from 1996-99 and has three World Series rings to prove it.
Torre was unflappable.
"I've always said I think that one of Joe's greatest qualities was that he had the ability in that room to make us feel that everything would be all right if we just stuck together and did our jobs," Girardi said. "He was good at keeping the noise out and letting us focus on our jobs. You think about a lot of the things that we went through. You can talk about 1996 when we had a 12-game lead [on July 12]. It got down to 2 1/2 games on Sept. 10 and Joe said everything was going to be all right. We were down [to the Braves] 2-0 in the World Series and just got crushed in the first game. Joe said, 'Let's just go to Atlanta and win one game and not embarrass ourselves.' That turned into two [wins] and three and four.
"We had many coaches and players and players' parents go through serious illness, some of them passing during the course of the season and Joe helped us handle all that. He was the guy, one time, who was going through it. He had the ability to make us feel that everything was going to be OK."
That was during Spring Training of 1999. Torre was diagnosed with prostate cancer just after the Yankees had run through a record 125 wins between the regular season and postseason, finishing off '98 with a sweep of the Padres in the World Series. They would win three World Series in a row from 1998-2000 under Torre with a 12-1 record. Torre's blood work had come up positive during a routine physical exam and when those results were confirmed, Torre asked Girardi and O'Neill to break the news to some of the players.
"We had a split-squad game and had two buses going in different directions," Girardi recalled. "He put Paul and I in charge in one of them to tell the guys, 'Joe's going to be OK. He'll be back, but he's going to be gone for a while.' Paul and I looked at each other and we said, 'How are we supposed to do that?' But Joe just said, 'Everything is going to be fine. I'll be back.' That was the ability he had. We learned a lot from him."
Torre is now a longtime cancer survivor and just turned 74 on July 18. For all these reasons and so many more, it is a fine time for the Yankees to honor how much he meant to the franchise and retire his number.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less