Thursday, October 25, 2007


So the debate rages on: Will the Yankees benefit from Joe Torre's departure or will King George's Court come to regret the rift they either orchestrated or otherwise invited?

Let's leave aside, for a moment, whether the King's Court intended to discharge Joe or not. Let's leave aside how little the Boss and his courtiers, evidently, understand the respect, gratitude, and kudos due a succesful 12-year employee, even if his performance of late, for whatever reason, hasn't matched his earlier triumphs: better yet, how one ensures that when his 12-year tenure ends, he departs gracefully and without carrying a trail of rancor or acrimony in his wake. [1]

Let's leave all aside all the arguments about how the Yankees handled Torre's departure. Alas, it is now a fait accomplis. So the question remaining is whether the change in leadership will benefit them.

Of course, change doesn't occur in a vaccum. The alternatives must be measured against the deposed incumbent.

Girardi is perhaps the only candidate the Yankees could hire who might excel Torre in media savvy. Neither Pena nor Mattingly, in contrast, come close to matching Torre.

Indeed, neither Girardi's intelligence nor his verbal dexterity can be gainsaid. Girardi owns an engineering degree from Northwestern Univerity. A background reflected in the meticulous statistical archive he keeps on players and utlilizes during games and outside the diamond, in the fastidious precision with which he chooses his words. Which, perhaps, explains why his delivery so often lacks the sincere, forthright, and paternal warmness Torre exuded. Girardi's skillful use of evasion, indirection, and platitude rather suggests the lawyer or politican. Coupled with his austere demeanor, Girardi, more accurately, evokes the military man. The crew-cut, the fixation with details, the immaculate grooming bespeak the repressed, controlling martinet. Think Rumsfeld or Wolfowitz: the Pentagon engineer overly awed by the numbers; the smug expert overly impressed with his technical skill; the thin-skinned autocrat utterly intolerant of criticism. One part Buck Showalter, Two parts William C. Westmoreland.

More problematic still, I can't imagine the Yankees current roster of veterans, superstars, icons, and future Hall-of-Famers wouldn't chafe at receiving criticism and instruction from a 41-year-old contemporary-- one Jeter, Posada, Rivera, and Pettitte played with as late 1999. What's more, Bergen Record columnist, Bob Klapisch, has speculated that A-Rod, in particular, may recoil from playing from Girardi because he reminds A-Rod so much of Showalter. Meanwhile, some of Posada's friends intimated to the NJ Star-Ledger (10/26/07), the Yankees catcher harbors similar misgivings about Girardi. Either, if true, in itself, should disqualify Girardi from further consideration.

On the diametric opposite end of the personality spectrum sits the man who best could match Torre's role as clubhouse paterfamilias-- Tony Pena. By all accounts, Pena is affable, modest, lighthearted, and inspires affection in all who know him. Pena has developed a close rapport with the team's two young Latino player, Melky and Cano. Further commending him, Pena has transformed Posada from a below-average catcher to an average to above-average one over the last two seasons. Indeed, both Posada and Torre have credited Pena with markedly improving the percentage with which the Yankees' catcher has thrown runners out. And like Girardi Pena not only has managerial experience, he boasts a manager of the year award, besides (2003, with The Royals)

Still, to most Yankee fans, Pena is a cipher. Part of it, I suspect, is that as first-base coach, he has avoided the spotlight; the other part, I supect, is the language barrier. Although Pena speaks English without difficulty, he seems to lack the full command and fluency Latin American players like Bernie and Posada possess. And in a city where the media feeding frenzy leads reporters to parse manager's syntax every day, Pena may not be at his most confident or at his best.

Perhaps, the only candidate capable of combining both of Torre's best qualities-- the loyalty and affection he inspired in the clubhouse and the honor he imparted to the manager' chair outside it-- is, of course, Don Mattingly. The salient difference between them, of course, is that Torre had about 15 years of managerial experience before he became the Yankee manager. Mattingly hasn't been a coach for half as long.

Now, like many a Yankee fan, Don Mattingly was about the only reason I watched the team through the late 80's and early 90's. And during Mattingly's prime, few compared in talent, work ethic, consistency, gravitas or stature. Which is precisely what gives me great pause about him managing the Yankees now, at this juncture. The impetus seems driven by sentimentality. The sentimentality of the Yankees' most influential fan-- the Boss. About the aging monarch's recent penchant for the lachrymose, I quote James Baldwin, "Sentimentality is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to expereience, his fear of life, his arid heart."

King George, evidently, wants to see Mattingly manager, he says, before he dies. A reason I can understand but with which I don't necessarily sympathize.

I'd hoped, rather, that the Yankees would renew Torre's contract for two years with the stipulation that he groom his heir-apparent. Because if the organization envisioned Mattingly as their manager one-day, it seemed to me, that the Boss' favorite son needed a little more seasoning. Not only has Mattingly not overseen a pitching staff in a managerial role, but unlike many former catchers like Torre, Girardi, and Pena, who often transition seamlessly into managers, Mattingly hasn't handled a pitching staff as player either.

One can only hope Mattingly is a quick study.

In short, all of the above managerial alternatives suffer from one or more glaring shortcomings. Which, to my mind, had commended Torre as manager-caretaker for another two years, until Mattingly had ripened fully enough to assume the mantle.

Nonetheless, I wish to do justice to the case that the Yankees needed a managerial change. And in doing so, I will cite no less than the universally respected authority, Newsday's national baseball columnist, Ken Davidoff. Ken, recently, was generous enough to mention this obscure, little blog on his ("There are still games going on?", October 23, 2007) and I wish to repay the compliment.

Those of who you who already read him know that Ken's commentary is always intelligent, trenchant, and cogent. More rare in a sports columnist, his tone is gracious, his conclusions are judicious, and rarer still, he is often witty and endearing. (See his Blog Post, Trading Places, 10/25/07) However, with Randy Levine's conflict of interest police on full watch, I should disclose that Ken and I went to JP Stevens High School together, which may explain why I not only admire his work but also like him personally. But I doubt it. In fact, considering my, shall I say, ambivalence, about Edison, New Jersey, it's probably an even greater credit to him.

Ken's case appears in "Time Has Come for Classy Joe To Go",0,5326998.column

As I read it, Ken arguments are as follows,
(1) Torre is a bit of an anachronism, a throw-back to the old-school baseball traditionalists who rely on gut and instinct for their decisions.
(2) Wheras baseball's future belongs to managers who are extensions of front-offices steeped in sabermetrics and who as a consequence, don't command salaries as high as Torre's was.
(3) To this end, Cashman and the rest of the Yankees brass prefer "cheap, young, durable youngsters" whereas Torre demonstrates a marked prejudice toward aging veterans.

Ken cites two vivid examples of this last shortcoming of Torre's in his overuse of Proctor and Vizcaino-- to which we could add, from past years, Karsay, Quantril, Sturtze, and Gordon-- and his neglect of Edward Ramirez. And Torre's similar consignment of Shelly Duncan to a bench player, at most.

All weaknesses of Torre that I can't dispute. (Although the GM's office bears its share of responsibility for neglecting Duncan as well. They didn't even invite him to training camp and instead, used their Rule 5 pick on Josh Phelphs.) Indeed, I'd love to see the new Yankees' manager award Duncan a chance to perfect his skills at 1B and to win a full-time job.

And Lord knows, Torre's management of his middle-reliever leaves something to be desired. However, once again, it's important neither to overlook his personnel nor to forget who Torre, in overusing certain relievers, had as his alternatives. Until Cashman's youthful movement bore fruit this year, it wasn't as though Torre has this reservoir of young hard-throwing relievers he had, but refused to tap. Since the middle relief heyday of Mendoza, Nelson, and Stanton, Torre has been hard-pressed to find a jewel amid the dross of Felix Heredia, Felix Rodriguez, Gabe White, Buddy Groom, Chris Hammond, Juan Acevedo, Antonio Osuna, etc.

There has been considerable speculation that Cashman's support for Torre was tepid, at best, not only because of the shortcomings Ken enumerates above. But also, Cashman, apparently, as designs on placing his own stamp on the organization. SI's Tom Verducci suggests that Cashman imagines himself a baseball intellectual in the mold of Theo Epstein and Billy Beane and has aspired, for some time, to transform the Yankees into some Moneyball epigone. But Torre's traditionalist management-style blocked Cashman's way.

Is this true? God, I hope not. To be sure, Cashman deserves kudos for replenishing the Yankees' farm-system and re-asserting its overall strategic importance to the Yankees future. However, many of Cashman's personnel decisions, in particular, about major league pitchers are responsible for the playoff defeats that cost Torre his job. Here's just a few of Cashman's noteworthy follies.

  • Trading Ted Lilly for Jeff Weaver
  • Trading Jeff Weaver for Kevin Brown
  • Trading Juan Rivera and Nick Johnson for Javier Vasquez
  • Trading Javier Vasquez for a 41-yr old Randy Johnson
  • Jose Contreras
  • Carl Pavano
  • Jared Wright (forsaking Derek Lowe, for $1 million more per year)
  • Kyle Farnsworth
  • Kei Igawa
  • Andy Pettitte? (George was more responsible ignoring Pettite in '03 however)

And since Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS, Yankee starters, in their last 17 post-season games, have gone 2-8 with a 6.36 ERA. In elimination games, they're 0-4 with 12.22 ERA, averaging 2.8 innings per start.

I quote an astute observation of a loyal contributor to Ken's blog, Peter Ciccone,

"In the Yankees last 15 postseason games--going back to Game 6 of the '04 ALCS--Yankees hitters have reached their first at bat in the 4th inning down 3 runs or more 9 times. 9 TIMES!!! Including three times this month against Cleveland. In those same 15 games, the Yankees took their first at bat in the 7th inning trailing 10 times, with starters providing a quality start in only 2 of those 10 games (Chacon Game 4 '05 ALDS, Mussina Game 2 '06 ALDS)."

Is this because Cashman relied too heavily on sabermetrics in acquiring these starters? Or does this reliance, in turn, discredit Cashman's sabermetrical model? No, not necessarily

However, it does suggest that there's no substitute for that quality that Torre had in abundance-- baseball instinct. We often forget how often Torre would make a decision, contrary to what the numbers would imply, and turn out right in the end. I can recall countless occasions over the last 12 years, where I would wring my hands and shout at the heavens over Torre's decision to play Minky or Cairo or Enrique Wilson or Charlie Hayes, or to pitch Graeme Lloyd or Jim Mecir or Holmes or Grimsley or Vizcaino in some situation, during a period in which his players were strugging, and the player nonetheless responded. And Torre's faith in him would reward him and the team.

It's because Torre often relied on that primal level of human knowledge-- intuiton-- part innate, part experiential-- that no sabermetrician can duplicate and for which rational intelligence cannot substitute.

I only hope that the Yankees don't soon regret their decision to minimize the simple importance of "JOE KNOWS". He marshalled, an often inconsistent level of talent, to 12 straight post-seasons for a reason. His critics ignore that accomplishment at their peril.

[1] According to YES Network's Michael Kay, Torre professes insult because he just loves acting the martyr. I wonder whether Kay ever paused to ask why almost every Yankees manager to leave King George's employ in the last 30 years, then, harbors lingering bitterness and shuns the organization for years afterward.

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