Size doesn't matter.

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By Terry Golway with Nick Paumgarten
from THE NEW YORK OBSERVER, October 26, 1998, Volume 12, Number 40, Page 1


Amid the wreckage of our illusions, there is Joe Torre, bearing the scars of victory over midlife crisis, an irresistible combination of l990's sensitivity and 1940's integrity. He weeps when he wins pennants. He is placid under pressure. He does not debate the meaning of the word "defeat" when it comes his way; he accepts the awful burden of his own honor with strength and grace.

These are not the qualities we will associate with the 1990's when some taste maker or trendsetter declares them to be over. We will remember that a President promised us the most ethical Administration in history and wound up in the dock himself -- figuratively speaking, although that may change. We will remember that a portly Congressman from Illinois with great white hair and a grandfatherly bearing was supposed to be the soul of political valor, and it was he who released a quasi-pornographic tape to the viewing public.

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Not for the first time, we placed our faith in economic charlatans who said they had repealed the business cycle -- this time, however, we will remember that we gleefully handed our pension money to them. We will remember this campaign season for its bellicose banality.

New York in the fall of 1998 is a city in waiting for the disaster many say is coming. The confidence and swagger of a year ago has been replaced by economic anxiety. Thc real estate market may go so far south the lobby of every West Side co-op will smell of pork rinds. From their cell phones inside their sport-utility vehicles, today's baby masters and mistresses of the universe talk gravely of the lousy bets they have made.

And then there is Joe Torre, the authentic, substantive man who has won more games this year than any other manager in major league history, and who has done so with the understated style of a hero from the black-and-white era. "He is totally upfront," said author Kenneth T. Jackson, an historian at Columbia University and editorof The Encyclopedia of New YorkCity. "What you see is what you get. He's one of the reasons why the Yankees are so popular now. He began to turn around the Yankees in 1996, when he began projecting a whole different style and image."

Mr. Torre's World Series victory of 1996 -- the Yankees' first since 1978 was memorable, but this year has been unforgettable. The team's 114 regular-season wins were an Amencan League record, and if you tag on the three playoff wins over the Texas Rangers, the four over the Cleveland Indians and the... [four] World Series games won you have a manager with 125 victories,... a season for the ages.

It is equally easy to appreciate his style, so out of sync with the age of tawdry self-absorption and of spinelessness posing as empathy. He has achieved without kicking and screaming, without back-page controversies, and, most of all, without calling attention to himself. Oh, there's the occasional commercial endorsement -- sausages! -- and, of course, that tape-recorded plea to buckle up in the back of a cab. But even the voice in the cab speaks of old-fashioned neighborhood intimacy rather than New Age self-promotion and gimmickry.

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Mario Cuomo, who knows something about baseball and indeed played against Mr. Torre's brother, Frank Torre, in Brooklyn's Parade Grounds decades ago, sees a team of Joe Torres when he watches these record-setting Yankees. "I think that the effect of Joe torre and his Yankees, and the way they conduct themselves ... [will] send a message to America," Mr. Cuomo said. They win because they have cooperation, because they have a sense of mutuality, because they give themselves up and because they won't quit. These are virtues which we're pleading for in our society -- or at least I am -- instead of macho individualism and dog-eat-dog. They're doing it with grace and they're doing it without losing their cool. All of this reflects Torre."
The Yankees have long been the team that America loves to hate. But under Mr. Torre's light touch, they have been transformed into a lovable, hard-working band of professionals. David Wells flourished under Mr. Torre. He forgave Chuck Knoblauch and allowed Tino Martinez to get his groove back. He gave apple-cheeked rookie Shane Spencer his hig break, then when he de-Naturalized, Mr. Torre put rookie No. 2, Ricky Ledee, in left field. There may be no one in the league who is as supple with a lineup card.

Three years ago, in Tampa, during his first February in pinstripes, he sat in the dugout in a pair of wraparound shades, watching batting practice with then-general manager Bob Watson and scouting director Gene Michael. In his deadpan voice, he told them stories of players who had, in days of yore, batted while drunk. The gist of the stories was that some players fell over, some didn't. Meanwhile, a young Derek Jeter was in the cage, swinging away. "We got a nice stroke here, boys," Mr. Torre said.

Little did he know that three years later, he'd be on the verge of his second Series win, that Derek Jeter would be one of the hottest young stars in baseball, and that he would manage to keep not only his job but his cool, too.

...Mr. Torre has performed the remarkable achievement of putting a new finish on a legacy that had been tarnished by one man's tackiness, that man being George Steinbrerner.

Mr. Cuomo said the 1998 Yankees would not be the team they are "if Torre was a tempestuous, undisciplined wild man who was constantly running out to the mound and kicking up dirt and throwing his hat down." Now, Mr. Cuomo didn't say this, but it is impossible to ignore the image of a certain undisciplined wild man lurking in Yankee Stadium. And, having conjured this familiar image, it is impossible to note that Mr. Torre's tenure has coincided with a mellower and calmer George Steinbrenner. Sure, the Yankees' principal owner is an older and presumably wiser man than he was back in Billy Martin's days. But the aging process alone cannot fully explain the yellow and orange hue of Mr. Steinbrenner's autumn. Mr. Torre has managed to soften even the Boss himself. And that is not simply a function of collecting pennants. In the past, remember, winning did not ensure contentment in the Yankee front office. This time, somebody is doing something right, right enough to outlast the rush of the moment. Joe Torre is our antidote to the frauds, liars and self-promoters who have defined the decade.

"He doesn't pretend there are no problems when somebody has just had a lousy day," said Professor Jackson. "I'm hoping that the success of the Yankees this year will make people a little more nostalgic for tradition."

It already has.


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