Joe Torre fondly reflects on his early Yankees dynasty
"After you get fired three times, you start to question yourself and how you do things; you think you're sort of doing what you felt you should, but coming over here and having it validated was big," Torre said of 1996 on Saturday. "I thought about changing my ways, but I was reading one of Bill Parcells' management books, and he wrote that if you believe in what you're doing stay with it. I closed the book, and it just hit."
It hadn't been an easy 1996 for Torre, who admitted that he knows he wasn't George Steinbrenner's first choice to replace Buck Showalter, but he ended up being exactly the right one.
"When I was first hired, the controversy never bothered me; it was going to be an opportunity for however long it was going to be, but I was going to manage for an owner who had a commitment to the city about winning, and I knew I was going to find out if I could do it or not," he said.
And a lot of that, he said, had to do with the players, a number of whom came back to Yankee Stadium Saturday to celebrate their skipper as he had his No. 6 retired into Monument Park.
"I had a unique group; I don't think you could've plucked any 25 guys out and did what we did," Torre said of his early Yankees. "I had a group that left their egos at the door and didn't have to show everybody their inner conceit. The group I had, no one cared who went to the All-Star Game or got the headlines, it was all about rolling up their sleeves and letting me decide the direction. I wasn't always right, but they always respected the fact that it was my decision."
And that, he says, never changed, no matter who came into the clubhouse as the dynasty rolled on.
"When somebody would walk into our clubhouse, even someone with a high profile, they didn't come in saying 'here I am,' they came in saying 'what do you want me to do?' and that made a huge difference," Torre said. "I don't think any one person could have come in and disrupted that, because there was too much quality among the players. If someone came in beating their chest, they would've taken care of it…I mean, when I first came on board they told me Paul O'Neill was selfish, and when I looked, I realized it was because he wanted to get a hit every time up. That was okay with me!"
Six years into his tenure, those players had made Torre a legend no matter what happened the rest of the way. By the end of 2001, the Yankees had six playoff berth, five World Series appearances, and four World Championships in the first half-dozen seasons of the Torre era, and once again, he credits their focus as making his job that much easier.
"It was magical when we won the first year; I never dreamed we'd win four World Series in five years, but it kept happening," he said, "and (by 2001) we were three outs away from winning four in a row. When you think about that…it was unreal, and the guys became relentless. To have these guys not admire what we had already accomplished because they still had more to accomplish was very unique."
And, Torre says, even the one year they "failed" - 1997, when Cleveland eliminated the Yankees in the ALDS - set the stage for greatness.
"We lost to Cleveland in that ALDS, but somewhere in there, Mariano Rivera learned how to be a closer," he said. "He could've gone one way or the other, but he hitched up his belt and became the best of all-time."
Of course, the next four years brought a three-peat and a chance for a fourth straight crown, and while it may have looked easy, it wasn't - but the Yankees never gave an inch.
"My club played well under pressure, and even when they were tense, they never gave anything away," Torre said. "In 1998, we started out shabbily, and went on to win 125 games. The next year we went and swept the Braves again, and we were off to the races, but in 2000, none of us looked forward to playing the Mets; even though the Mets were good, we were the Yankees and we were supposed to win, and thankfully we were able to do that."
When that run ended with a heartbreaking Game 7 loss to Arizona in 2001, it was a sad day for Torre; no one knew it was the end of the dynasty years, but they did know it was the end of Paul O'Neill's career and soon found out it was the end of the line in pinstripes for Tino Martinez, Scott Brosius, and fan-favorite Luis Sojo, among others.
"After Game 7 in Arizona, it was a sad night; we really hugged a lot of guys goodbye that night, and it was hard to say goodbye," he said. "It wasn't even that we lost; had we won, we would've said goodbye to them too."
Although the second half of Torre's Yankees tenure brought 591 more wins and five AL East titles, the Yankees only reached one more World Series (a 2003 loss to the Marlins) before he was gone.
But, as noted earlier, even just those first six years made him a Yankees legend, as evidenced by his enshrinement in Monument Park Saturday.
And only then, finally, did Joe Torre let himself look back on just what he had done in pinstripes.
"When you finally allow yourself to look back, it's great. And to get recognition like this? The Hall of Fame no question is the top of the hill, but the New York Yankees, whether you love them or hate them, are respected for what they represent…and when you know the neighborhood you're in out there (in Monument Park), it's pretty cool, and it's unbelievable."