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It's a new script as Joe Torre takes over Dodgers and ends up in playoffs again


Saturday, September 27th 2008, 12:22 PM

Joe Torre has let Manny be Manny as the slugger has hit 17 home runs since joining the Dodgers. Ramirez is one of the main reasons L.A. is playoff-bound ... Dunn/Getty

Joe Torre has let Manny be Manny as the slugger has hit 17 home runs since joining the Dodgers. Ramirez is one of the main reasons L.A. is playoff-bound ...

... which excites fans like actress Nicolette Sheridan. Moloshok/AP

... which excites fans like actress Nicolette Sheridan.

LOS ANGELES - Minutes after the Yankees clinched the American League wild card last season, Joe Torre stood in the visitors’ locker room at Tampa Bay’s Tropicana Field, trying to answer a reporter’s questions, his young players interrupting him at every turn. They snuck up behind their manager with bottles of champagne and beer in hand, shaking the bubbling contents before unleashing them on Torre’s head.

Robinson Cano, Melky Cabrera and Joba Chamberlain were among those surrounding Torre, jumping up and down and chanting “En-er-gy! En-er-gy!,” the manager’s mantra all season. Torre began to cry.

“This one means a lot to me,” he said. The emotional connection between Torre and his team was clear.

But that was 2007. A year later, Torre is on a different coast, in a different league, starting over at 68 with new players. The Dodgers lost Thursday, but clinched the National League West when Arizona fell to San Diego.

The players soaked their manager with champagne this time, too, having won baseball’s weakest division on the strength of Manny Ramirez’s hitting and Torre’s deft management of the superstar. But despite the celebration, the year has been difficult at times for both Torre and his younger players, and the emotional connection — always his specialty with the Yankees - remains a work in progress.

“It has been a rocky road,” Torre admits.

Larry Bowa, the third-base coach who followed Torre from New York to L.A., is more blunt about the challenges. “Joe tells me that this is the hardest team to read he’s ever had,” Bowa says in a hallway next to the Dodger locker room, out of earshot from the players. “He’s trying to share his experiences, and some of these guys are just looking into space.”


Before Game 5 of the 1996 World Series between the Yankees and the Braves, Torre decided to bench the struggling Paul O’Neill in favor of Tim Raines. When Torre informed the sensitive right fielder of his decision, he noticed how deflated O’Neill became, and changed his mind. “Paul’s body language ... told me that by not playing him, I might have lost him completely,” Torre wrote in his book, “Chasing the Dream.”

As the Yankee manager for 12 seasons, Torre’s interpersonal skills earned him more praise than his tactical decisions. Though he worked relief pitchers to exhaustion and made decisions based more on hunches than data - “you want to do what feels good at the time,” he says - he was known as an exceptional communicator.

“Joe knows what it takes to lead different kinds of players,” says Scott Proctor, the Dodger reliever who also played for Torre in New York - where he pitched in a league-leading 83 games in 2006. “That’s what makes him so successful. How he handles each player is different. He’s a great motivator.”

“He has a way about him, that he gets people,” says Bowa. The coach adds that Torre has held frequent individual meetings with many Dodgers this season, especially with the young players. Bowa says he delegates authority to his coaches more effectively than any manager he has worked for.

“He let me have Robby (Cano) last year, and I got on Robby unmercifully. But I got to him,” Bowa says, noting that he does not feel as close to any of the young Dodgers this season.

After the 2007 season, Torre was eager to escape the World Series-or-else culture of the Yankees. “I was personally relieved to get away from there,” he says. “It became something that I felt was unfair to the players to have to feel (pressure to win a championship every year).”

But Torre wandered into a new set of issues in Los Angeles, and his renowned leadership skills have been tested. He inherited a team that had been traumatized by veteran-rookie friction in 2007 under then-manager Grady Little.

“I don’t know why they don’t get it,” second baseman Jeff Kent said of the younger Dodgers a year ago. “Professionalism. How to manufacture a run. How to keep your emotions in it.”

The last point of Kent’s criticism - controlling emotions - has been Torre’s primary struggle with several younger Dodgers, particularly the talented outfielders Andre Ethier, 26, and Matt Kemp, 25.

“The thing I’ve tried to get across to both of these guys is to let the bad stuff go,” Torre says. “You don’t want a bad at-bat to get you so frustrated that you let it carry over.”

He admits that many players were not immediately receptive to his message in spring training. “The respect factor was there,” Torre says. “I’m not saying the trust was there yet.”

It was a more challenging beginning than Torre’s first season with the Yankees. “In ’96, you felt like they were responding to what you were saying,” he says.

“These young kids don’t really know about Joe Torre on the West Coast,” Bowa says. “You’re sheltered from the fishbowl of New York. ... In New York, you better have mental toughness even to exist. Here you can do without the mental toughness ... (the fans) come after the first inning, leave in the seventh. Joe tries to tell them, ‘it’s not about your individual statistics, it’s not about arbitration, it’s not about the umpire screwed you on a call, it’s about focus.’”

Kemp, slumped in a chair in front of his locker, shrugs off a question about Torre. “He’s a good manager,” he says flatly. “He has a lot of knowledge about the game.”

Ethier, though, admits to growing pains in the relationship. “I’m not saying it’s been hard, but every time you get a new manager you have new rules and a new mentality,” he says.

“It’s just certain situations, like whether to move runners over or be aggressive and drive the runs in yourself, learning what he wants you to do. I still have a lot to prove, and I think we have a few years here to get to know each other.”

“They’re better,” Torre says. “They’re more consistent. It isn’t that it’s 100 percent, but it’s getting there.”


On Sept. 23, the Dodgers are two games ahead of Arizona in the National League West with six to play. At 4:30 in the afternoon, two and a half hours before game time, Torre is fielding questions from reporters in the Dodger dugout.

After about 10 minutes, someone asks him if he is thinking about the Yankees’ futile playoff drive. At the time, Boston’s magic number to clinch the wild card is one.

Torre leans forward, his mood brightening when he realizes that New York stands a mathematical chance. “You know,” he says with a smile, “(The Red Sox) gotta win one of these two games, or else then they’ve gotta face the Yankees.”

A reporter notes that Torre seems to care a bit too much about the AL East. “You asked me!” he says. It is the most lively exchange of a 20-minute press conference.

Later, he says that he takes no pleasure in the Yankees’ struggles: “I have too much of a closeness with those guys to think that.”

Asked if he was offended by his exclusion from the ceremony before the final game at Yankee Stadium last week, he takes a long pause and shrugs. He says that he watched the first few minutes, but then turned off the television to eat with his family. “We don’t watch TV during dinner,” he says. “I didn’t know my name wasn’t mentioned until someone mentioned it to me.”

At 5:30, the Diamondbacks are losing in St. Louis. The game is on television in the clubhouse, but only a few players glimpse at the screen. Ramirez is watching the Red Sox play Cleveland on a TV facing in the other direction.

Torre calls a team meeting, and the players march into a room that is off-limits to the media. The Dodgers have just lost two of three at home to fourth-place San Francisco, and Torre wants to make sure they do not take the pennant race for granted, according to someone present at the meeting.

“I didn’t get into the postseason as a player,” he tells the team, according to the source. “I didn’t even get close. Don’t think it’s a sure thing that you’ll get another chance.”

Later, he lightens the mood by turning to Ramirez. The Dodgers had never allowed music in the clubhouse, but Ramirez popped in a CD soon after arriving on July 31, and Torre decided to let it go. Manny’s tunes have been blaring ever since.

“Manny,” Torre says in the meeting. “It has been a long year and I’m putting up with your music. But to relax everybody, keep doing it, Manny.”

Torre’s hands-off approach with Ramirez is a contrast to the frequent meetings with Kemp, Ethier and catcher Russell Martin. That is an example of how his individualized management style has helped the Dodgers, Bowa says: “Terry Francona is great, but Joe really knows how to handle Manny.”

“Manny has brought a lot of fun to this ballclub,” says Torre. “He’s taught the young players that you can play this game and have fun.”

The day after the meeting, Ramirez is in a typical pregame position, lounging on a black leather couch in the middle of the clubhouse. “You’re not going to believe it,” he says. “One time, like five years ago, I was talking to Ruben Sierra. He told me, ‘You could never play for Joe Torre.’”

But when Ramirez arrived in L.A. on Aug. 1, he immediately appreciated Torre’s simple approach. “He told me, ‘You got two rules - play hard and be on time,’” he says, smiling broadly. Since that day, Manny has hit .393 with 17 home runs, 53 RBI and a .749 slugging percentage, and the Dodgers have gone 29-21.

The left fielder has even developed a running joke with the manager based on Ramirez’s reputation as a sometimes unmotivated player. Every game in the seventh or eighth inning, Ramirez makes a throat-slitting motion with his index finger and pretends to leave the dugout.

“I’m out,” he yells to Torre. “Defense.” Then he laughs and trots to the outfield.


Ramirez has provided many light moments and key hits, but the culture of the team remains up-and-down, the emotional engagement a work-in-progress, and the manager still working to connect with his players.

The Dodgers score six runs in the first inning after their meeting, and rout the Padres 10-1, reducing their magic number to four. After the game, the clubhouse is quiet save for a few players speaking to reporters.

Some teams would hang around to celebrate such a significant victory, but Ramirez and his music bolted out the door minutes after the final pitch, and few others linger. A visitor who had not seen the game might assume that the team had lost.

Torre takes questions in his office for several minutes. The room is less crowded than his Yankee Stadium office ever was after a game. When the television cameramen leave, Torre hangs around to talk baseball with several veteran writers, enjoying the company of his fellow old-timers.

Twenty minutes later, he emerges in the dim hallway behind his office. He is wearing a striped shirt tucked into blue jeans, carrying a leather brief case, and walking with his familiar lurching gait. Another day of work in this new city has ended, without old friends named Jeter and Posada and Rivera to say goodbye to, without kids like Cano and Chamberlain to be proud of.

“This has been a roller-coaster ride,” he would say the next day. “Hopefully, we can do something special.”



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