For Torre, Going to the Mets Would Really Be Clueless

Joe Torre’s streak of nine straight seasons in which his team made the post-season but did not win the World Series, will come to an end this year because the Dodgers will not make the playoffs. While Torre enjoyed tremendous postseason success from 1996 through the 2001 ALCS, a period where his team went 14-1 in postseason series. He has been far less successful in the playoffs since that time, winning only five of his next fourteen postseason series. Moreover, during the first fifteen years of his managerial career, Torre only made the post-season once.

It is not unprecedented for managers to have periods of success and failure over their careers. Casey Stengel won 10 pennants and seven World Series between 1949-1960, while never finishing above fifth place with only one season of .500 or better in the nine seasons before or four seasons following his stint with the Yankees. Torre and Stengel both benefited from moving to the Yankees after years with poorer and weaker teams, but while this explanation is appealing, it is somewhat reductive.

As time passes, it is easy to claim that Torre and Stengel were not great managers, but had great teams. This is also something of an oversimplification. Stengel had three great players, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, but worked hard to build the supporting players around those three into a winning combination. The Yankees clearly had the best nucleus in the league, but that would not have been enough to dominate that decade the way the Yankees did. One of the ways this is clear is the way the Yankees were able to consistently win the World Series against teams that were in many cases better than they were.

Stengel’s 7-3 record in the World Series record is even more impressive given how much better, at least on paper his opponents, primarily the Boys of Summer Dodgers and the Aaron, Mathews Braves, on which coincidentally Joe Torre’s brother Frank played, were. By most measures the National League was also the stronger league at the time. Torre won one World Series, 1998, with a sublimely balanced and superior Yankee team, but managed two other substantially weaker teams, the 1996 and 2000 Yankees to titles as well.

Stengel and Torre both won with the Yankees both because they had good players and were well suited for those teams. Stengel’s innovation and experimentation worked well for filling out a team and getting the most out of role players, veterans and the like. Similarly Torre’s maturity, calmness and media savvy and was a necessary ballast for a Yankee franchise that was still traumatized the by the late 1980s and early 1990s when the late George Steinbrenner was at his most meddling and destructive stage. Both Stengel and Torre also knew how to recognize truly superior talent and let those players, notably Berra, Mantle, Ford, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada, just play.

All of this is relevant because Torre is now at an interesting decision point with regard to his career. At stake is both his overall legacy as well as potentially his Hall of Fame chances. When Torre retired as a player most fans and writers would have described him as a very good player who fell a little short of the Hall of Fame. This was reflected in his Hall of Fame support which stayed in the 5-15% range, with a slight bump in 1997 his last year on the ballot, presumably because of his work during his first year as the manager of the Yankees. During these years, Torre’s work as a manager helped keep him in the news, but did not help him get any votes because he was a mediocre manager with no championships.

By 2001, all this had changed. Torre had become one of the most successful managers in baseball history joining Casey Stengel, Joe McCarthy, Connie Mack and Walter Alston, as the only managers ever to win four or more World Series. At that time Torre’s Hall of Fame election was sealed and his legacy was clear. He was no longer “Clueless Joe”, but was the wise man of New York baseball, the man who had tamed George Steinbrenner, won over the New York media and proven himself on the field again.

During the last ten years, despite significant underachievement, particularly in the post-season, Torre’s reputation has not suffered. This seems to be a product of Torre’s media skills, likability and decency rather than a reflection of his managerial skill for most of the last decade. If Torre retires now, this legacy will be intact; Cooperstown will welcome him with open arms; and his place in baseball history will be what he wants.

This is why Torre’s decision not to go to the Mets is a sound one. For Torre taking over a franchise that might generously be described as being in transition would be a big mistake. Several years of losing, which is almost certainly what would happen if Torre went to the Mets, especially in New York could begin to reframe the Torre narrative so that 1996-2000 would like the aberration that it may, in fact, have been and potentially weaken his Hall of Fame support. Four dreadful years with the Mets did not, of course, affect Stengel’s legacy, but those Mets teams were so bad and expectations were so low that Stengel’s work there seemed more about showmanship than managing. For Torre getting out after one rough season was a good decision, remaining out may be an even better one.