Wednesday, October 15, 2008


We're all familiar with the phenomenon of celebrity seduction. The pubic figure who insinuates herself into our hearts and implicates herself in our lives. The public figure we've never met but with whom we imagine, and as such forge, an intimacy.

Some quality-- his life story, his triumphs and adversity, her talent or her beauty, the intimates she recalls and corrects perhaps-- seduces us and we fall in love with the idealized image we've projected out of our own unfullfilled need.

A bond then forms every bit as fast and deep and enduring as those we enjoy with friends, family, and loved one. Indeed, sometimes a purer and more potent bond because it remains untainted by the human failings that mark all our relationships with conscious or unconscious conflict and ambivalence.

I can't recall when I adopted Joe Torre for this role, or perhaps, more accurately, when I imagined Joe Torre adopted me for mine. I only know that when the Yankees scapegoated and then disposed of him in such a spiteful, petty, and undignified fashion last year, I felt the fury and indignation my own father would have aroused had the Yankees humiliated him, instead of a man I'd never met and never knew. (See my blog post, "The Golden Age of Joe," October 9, 2007)

A further irony is that Joe Torre probably recovered more quickly than I did. He'd secured a job in LA within the month. It took much longer for my anger to subside. But it did. As the year passed and Joe Torre receded from my TV screen and a new season began, I barely thought about him. Sure, on occasion, as the 2008 Yankees foundered and their new manager made a colossal ass of himself by acting the role of autocratic martinet, some momentary wave of nostaglic yearning would overcome me. I missed the other Joe on those occasions.

Yet through most of 2008, my plan to adopt the Dodgers as my surrogate team never really unfolded. Old allegiances die hard. They also are slow to be born. Sure I checked their place in the standings every once in a while. But the 3-hr time difference coupled with the new league inhibited much more than that. My heart wasn't into it. The vagaries of the Yankees' fate left no room for rival lovers.

Now that Joe Torre has returned to his familiar place in the post-season and I've seen more of him, I'm grateful to him because it has stirred some of the old fondness. There was the comforting Joe I watched after every traumatic loss, every bit as possessed of the old reliable power to console me.

Sure, I'm rooting for the Dodgers to succeed, if only to see Joe revel in a little malicious pleasure and retrospective vindication at Cashman, the Steinbrenners', and Randy Levine's expense. I hope to hell the press reports are accurate and it pains them to see Torre in the NLCS. That it should bother them only dramatizes just how small they really seem.

But that rooting interest only takes me so far. For the passion the Yankees summon, as it turns out, there is no substitute, however abject their front-office. Seeing the Dodgers win, turns out to be little more satisfying the seeing the Red Sox lose. It's a transitory pleasure, but hardly a satisfying one. In the end, unless, it's the Yankees, I'm just not invested, Joe or no.

And Torre himself now begets far more the detached fondness and residual sentiment I might feel for an ex-wife or girlfriend than a filial love or allegiance. Which of course has led me to wonder what it was about Joe Torre exactly that had inspired my devotion in the first place.

I think I now understand it. But to explain, if you'll forgive the digression, I only can relate a bit of my own story.

Dissolve 2008. Cue "Take a Chance on Me" by Abba. Cut to the North Edison Little League Field, a brilliant Spring afternoon in Central Jersey. The camera fixes on a dejected nine-year-old boy, sitting at the far end of the dugout, by himself sulking. He slides a pack of Pop Rocks from his back pocket, but he tosses them to the ground, inconsolable. After striking out for the twentieth time that season, he actually considers entertaining his teammates' fondest wishes and quitting.

However passionate my love for baseball as a kid, few things vexed me more than the gap between the player I was and the player I so desperately wanted to be. (In retrospect, it was probably through the game that I first attained the bitter wisdom that much as Americans love to pretend otherwise, you cannot be whatever you want to be.) So after four years of little league and shedding, for as long, copious tears of frustration, I hung up my cleats and called it a career.

Still, I enjoyed one season of near glory.

It wasn't the first season I allude to above; that one was disastrous. As an August baby, I didn't reach the age minimum until one year after most of my classmates. By third grade, they were entering their second year in the Piedmont League, I, my first. Although, for some reason, a friend of mine's father drafted me for his team, the Reds, notwithstanding. Perhaps, a team of nice, obedient Jewish boys he could manage mattered more to him than winning.

Mr. Bosco, let's call him, was a patient and forbearing manager, but he quickly discerned that I wasn't going to be much help to him either at the plate or in the field. I don't know what terrified me more, striking out or getting struck. Either way, I did a lot of both. Mr Bosco, as a consequence, batted me 14th or 15th on a team of 16 players, in accordance with the league rule that every team member had to bat. And in the few games, he had to cast an extra for deep, deep, deep right-field, I watched the game from a spot in outfield 250 ft. removed from home plate and where no ball, I suspect, ever landed.

At season one's end, my batting statistical line read something like this, .000/.100/.000. That is, I didn't earn a hit all season, and the few times I made it to 1st base was because the pitcher walked me or hit me with the ball. With the cruel blunt candor of nine-year-olds, my teammates delivered their estimation of my talent. "You suck," they told me often that season. And I believed them. Without a hit to my name, how could I imagine otherwise?

Only I didn't suck, not entirely anyway. I just didn't know it yet.

During the off-season that year, I still believed anything was possible and I was determined to improve. Only I didn't now where to begin.

Most kids of course turn to their father. But my father, in this case, didn't have the resources to help much, however greatly he tried. He grew up poor in Manhattan's Lower East Side housing projects where kids aren't exactly encouraged to play baseball. And while he could probably identify the parts of a car engine with his eyes closed, to this day, he'd probably be hard-pressed to explain a balk or the infield fly-rule. He rooted for the Yankees, sure, but he never had the luxury of thinking all that much about the game, still less had anyone guided him on how to master it.

Fortunately, a genuine, real live, accomplished athlete existed among my parent's friends. Let's call him Joe Santos. Imagine a more introverted, more conciliatory Mario Cuomo. A star athlete in baseball and basketball in high-school, Joe might have played professional, low-A baseball one day. But his parents, like my father's, were immigrants and they envisioned a more practical and financial secure future for their son. So Joe filled prescriptions for a living and satisfied his love for the diamond, by teaching his sons the game and coaching little league in South Jersey.

That summer our families spent a few Saturdays together as they did every year. And after explaining my predicament to Santos, he took me out to the field and offered his sage instruction. He re-configured my batting stance, taught me how to plant the back foot and how to step with the front foot, how to take outside pitches to the opposite field and how to pull those inside. And for some inexplicable reason, perhaps sensing some untapped, unappreciated talent, he sent me to the mound to pitch to him.

"Do you know you have a natural curve?" he asked. Me? Me! A natural curve? "Yes," he said, "You're a natural pitcher. Next year tell your manager you can pitch." After which, he dispensed a veritable reservoir of tips on the art of pitching-- and of breathing.

And come next season, that's precisely what I told my next manager when asked my position. Pitcher, I said. The success followed from there. I swear, by season's end, I'd experienced the most dramatic improvement in North Edison Piedmont League history. I'd even registered my first official hit in the very first game-- a little blooper over Joey Gordon's head at 2b. And from that game on I never hit lower than 6th or 7th in the lineup and even hit 2nd and 3rd on a few occasions.

But my first taste of the exaltation athletic competition can bring the anointed came on the mound. I was a "natural" pitcher of sorts. I had two pitches in my repertoire-- a ball and a strike. I have no idea whether the ball curved on its own, but when I could throw strikes, only the Piedmont League's best hitters would tag me. When I was erratic, on the other hand, well...

Still, by season's end, I'd compiled a winning record and the manager chose me as an alternate to the Piedmont League's Eastern Division All-Star team. Alas, my brief baseball career peaked at 10. It was pretty much downhill from there.

Now, I'd like to tell you the adjustments Joe Santos made to my stance along with the pitching advice he imparted that summer account for the great transformation. However, I suspect, in truth, something more precious and less esoteric explains why I flourished that second year-- an explanation which, perhaps, brings us back to Mr. Torre.

Sure, I received an invaluable lesson in baseball mechanics. But Joe Santos taught me something more important. He taught me I didn't suck, after all. He put his arm on my shoulder and explained that great truth every baseball player, some day, discovers: that the very best in the game, fail more often than not. And he instilled in me, more importantly, the confidence that with every new at-bat and every forthcoming pitch, I had sufficient ability to overcome the last one.

In so many words the message rang, "It's a tough game and you WILL fail, but my arm will never leave your shoulder. My faith in you is boundless, unconditional and enduring."

In the superb film, "Searching For Bobby Fisher"-- adapted by Steven Zallian from the book Innocent Moves Fred Waitzkin wrote about his chess prodigy son, Joshua-- Fred Waitzkin (Joe Mantegna) and his wife Bonnie Waitzkin (Joan Allen), in a climactic moment, clash about the costs competition has exacted on their son. Bonnie has always bridled at it. However, she's indulged her vicariously competitive husband. (For a living, Fred Waitzkin, as it happens, covers the New York Yankees for one of the local newspapers.)

Josh has just suffered through a devastating losing streak and his father has been riding him hard, and in their dramatic scene, Bonnie, worried about the continued consequences for her increasingly sullen and withdrawn son, explodes.

"He's not afraid of losing," she cries, "He's afraid of losing your love. How many ball players grow up afraid of losing their father's love everytime they come up to the plate?" She asks him. "How many?"

"All of them," Fred shouts. All of them? All?

Look, I don't know if Joe Torre would ever qualify as the diamond's managerial equivalent of a chess prodigy. Lord know, his management of the bullpen left much to be desired in his years as Yankees manager, and as he was nostalgic enough to remind us the other night in Game 4 of the 2008 NLCS.

But I do know what Derek Jeter has said about him ever since the Yankees and Torre parted ways. It has resonated with me ever since.

"Joe Torre was like a second father to me," Jeter said.

A second father, perhaps, whose love he never could squander; a second father whose unequivocal and infinite faith he could never lose. A second father to him, A second father to us.

How many Yankees grow up afraid of losing their second father's love?

For twelve years, none of them.

And for twelve years, through them, none of us.

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