The Joe Torre Subtext: Winning the American Way

I’m not a die-hard sports fan.  I went to Mets games with my Father, and I flipped a few baseball cards in the schoolyard.  When my son became interested in the game, I got back into the groove…this time following the Yankees.  I know my share of what’s up on the diamond, but it’s not a matter of life and death.  Maybe that’s why I was surprised to find myself riveted to Mike and the Mad Dog last week, as they deconstructed the Joe Torre situation.  The more I listened, the more I realized that the scenario was not just about baseball.  In the week between the final loss to Cleveland and Friday’s denouement, the subtext became clear to me.

So my thoughts aren’t an examination of statistics, wins or losses, salaries, or who should have been pitching the last game.  I’m contemplating the values that we teach our children, the style of leadership we admire, money vs. allegiance, and that old adage, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”

Watching and listening to Torre at his press conference, the issues could not have been clearer than if a screenwriter had penned the closing act.  The themes, the nuances, and the context were all there.  Cue up a background with a country weary of a macho president that has led the nation into a war “he” knows is right, and headline news about corporate greed and corruption.  Bring on a real life drama presenting two protagonists who are polar opposites.

George Steinbrenner (albeit a watered down version from his Billy Martin days) is the “Boss,” the bully, the Father you can never please.  Joe Torre is the man shaped by his experiences as a child living in a home overshadowed by domestic violence.  On his Joe Torre Safe at Home Foundation website he says, “The way to treat people is the way you want to be treated.”  That was the example that he set in his career as a manger, and what he referenced repeatedly in his comments on Friday.

“The game is very personal.  You’re dealing with people,” he said.  Torre was the guy who made himself emotionally available, telling his players, “If there is anything I can do for you…even if it’s not game related.”  His philosophy embraced not just winning, but having each person get the most out of their abilities.  And that didn’t jive with the Yankee brass, or as Torre acknowledged, “How important winning is in this organization.”  Several times Torre articulated how the game has “become more business than baseball.” When asked how he perceived the Florida meeting he replied, “I saw business people,” and “they had a business to run.”

Consequently, the nurturing model didn’t win out. Torre was talking “commitment and trust.”  The Yankees were channeling Michael Corleone with “It’s not personal, it’s strictly business.”

It’s not surprising that Joe Torre, who spoke like a Zen Master before the press corps about “staying in the moment” and “trying to control the things that I could,” decided not to take management’s proposal in “the way it was offered.”  The ex-manager, whose advice to his replacement was “just be yourself,” gave a lesson to baseball fans, youngsters, and citizens-at-large.  Torre knows from his personal history that “There is no worse emotion than fear.”  The American public was privileged to learn from him, as he took the time to express “the person that I am, and what I try to represent.”

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