Joe Torre and the Spirit of ’96: A Q&A with the Yankee skipper

By on August 14, 2016

Joe Torre’s arrival as Yankee manager was hardly trumpeted with the kind of fanfare his tenure would ultimately deserve. Criticism dogged the move when he was hired before the 1996 season, a baseball lifer who had never been to the World Series, never won a playoff game and had a managerial record that was 109 games under .500. He was hardly the man to restore the Yanks to past glory, the narrative went, even if he was a native New Yorker.

But, as a glance at recent pinstriped history shows us, Torre helped usher in another wonderful era of Yankee baseball. It all started in ’96, a remarkable, emotional season in which a gritty team considered by some as underdogs — sounds weird, the Yankees as underdogs — won the first Yankee championship since 1978.

Along the way, there was drama, heartbreak, indelible moments. David Cone had an aneurysm. Dwight Gooden threw a no-hitter. Tino Martinez replaced Don Mattingly. Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera bloomed. Jeffrey Maier reached over the wall. Darryl Strawberry showed up. Jim Leyritz hit a memorable home run. Andy Pettitte made his reputation as a big-game pitcher. John Wetteland saved four World Series games.

Torre had the best seat in the house for all of it. He went on to win three more titles and managed 12 seasons, which rates as an eternity in the George Steinbrenner Era. The Yankees never missed the playoffs under Torre, who is now Chief Baseball Officer for Major League Baseball.

‘96 Yankees reunite at Stadium to celebrate World Series title

With the club celebrating the 20th anniversary of the adored ’96 team over the weekend at the Stadium, the Daily News caught up with the Hall of Famer for a Q&A on his first season in pinstripes, the year that sparked a dynasty.

DN: That was your first year as Yankee manager, George Steinbrenner was at the height of his, shall we say, powers, and there was considerable pressure on you. What was the feeling like personally going into that season?

JT: To me, this was a motive. I had managed, but I really had run out of personal connections, where people had hired me. I had managed the teams I had played for. When the Yankees called, I know what the reaction was. I was just excited to have the opportunity.

My brother, Frank, said, “You’re crazy. Do you realize how many managers George has had?” I said, “I want to find out about this. You know damn well George is going to do what he can to put a winning club out there.” You’re judged by how the team does. Is it fair? Not necessarily, but what else would they use? I was excited by it. Even though there were rumors circulating, even into spring training, it never concerned me. When I went somewhere, I felt like I was going to manage forever. That’s just the way I looked at it. So this was exciting.

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DN: Looking at the players you had going in, how did you feel about the team and its potential? Could you foresee years of sustained success?

JT: The first spring, sitting there, watching David Cone, Jimmy Key go by. Even Doc Gooden, though he wasn’t the same, it was impressive. We had established pitchers. This is one area, if you look back, when teams have trouble winning, they usually can’t put enough pitching out there. I knew the pitching made us legitimate.

The first meeting I had, you know it’s important, the whole squad there. You knew what they had done the year before and the year before that, the strike year. We’d lost some people, like Mike Stanley. This was their first chance to see me as a manager. I remember pointing out that my coaching staff, every one had been to a World Series. I hadn’t. I said I don’t want to win just one. I want to win three in a row. I said that really based on the fact that I watched other sports and teams win and then just go away. Win, celebrate the hell out of it and then don’t get close to repeating.

I just wanted to make sure that we wouldn’t make it a fluke. We wanted to establish something. I had more than 4,000 games and had never been to one. I was getting greedy, but I wanted to plant that seed. We’re in it for the long haul. You never dream you’d win three in a row, but I felt strong about that meeting. Dick Williams (the former manager) was in the room and he said how much he enjoyed it and that meant a lot to me.

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DN: Describe the personality of that group.

JT: It was businesslike. The big news was, (Derek) Jeter was going to be the shortstop. Tony Fernandez was established and was going to be moved aside, be the second baseman. That’s never the popular thing, though he dealt with it with class. Then he got hurt and that was that. I was new, obviously. David Cone had come back. We signed Kenny Rogers. Even second base, we started the season with our utility guy as the second baseman, Mariano Duncan, and he wound up the regular. Watching spring training, I had a concern — Coney was just not throwing the ball. I mentioned it to Zim (bench coach Don Zimmer). He said, “If we have to worry about him, we’re screwed.” I hadn’t been around Coney, I thought it was a veteran was getting his work in. But obviously, Coney was developing a problem and thank God it was able to be taken care of.

Jeter didn’t have a very good spring, but the one thing impressive about him, he was the same guy coming to the park every day. There was a spirit to him. There was some talk late in spring training, we’re not sure if he’s ready. It was suggested we send him down to the minors and I just offered my opinion — it’s too late now. Let’s start the season and go from there. When the bell rang, he was the same guy, but with different results. I knew nothing about him, but I was impressed with him as a person right away.

We had done a fan fest and I had said he was going to be my shortstop and I turned on the news and he’s getting the same question and he said, “I’m going to get a chance to be the shortstop.” That impressed me. He said it like I should’ve said it.

‘96 Yankees reunite at Stadium to celebrate World Series title

DN: Your brother, Rocco, died during the season. Frank had a heart transplant. With all that you were trying to accomplish that year and all that as a backdrop, what was the emotional grind like for you?

JT: I vividly remember my brother Frank having health issues. He had had a heart attack back in ’84. We went to play in Cleveland (in June) and we had a day-night doubleheader. Between games, I get a call from my wife and she said, “I’ve got bad news.” I thought Frank had died. But it was Rocco. He’d had a heart attack in his living room. It stunned me.

At the funeral, I had the lineup card from the second game of the doubleheader and I snuck it in the coffin. That was the game he had missed.

Later that season, Frank came to New York because he needed the transplant. There was a lot going on. The baseball part gave me a place to go hide and not have to think about it, though you can’t help it. My daughter (Andrea) was only six months old. My life was at an interesting point.

DN: It’s a very famous moment now, of course. All these years later, how big of an impact on the playoffs was the Jeffrey Maier play? (Maier was the 12-year-old fan who reached over the fence to grab Jeter’s drive that was ruled a home run, helping turn Game 1 of the ALCS against Baltimore).

JT: It was a good break for us. We were good. By this time, even though we were underdogs to a lot of the teams we played against, we were very resilient. But who knows? We won that game, lost the next one. Then we swept in Baltimore. We had beaten up Baltimore all year (the Yanks were 10-3 against the Orioles). So we had confidence. But to be honest, here you are playing them again, four out of seven, and you’re wondering when it’s going to run out.

DN: What happened during the now-famous visit from Steinbrenner in your office after the Braves had taken the lead in the World Series?

JT: He came in and said, “This is a must win” before Game 2. I was relaxed. I’m at the World Series, man! It doesn’t mean you don’t want to win, but I was just so thrilled to be there. We got rained out of the first game, so we hadn’t played much after clinching against Baltimore. We were flat. You saw the opener, Pettitte. We got killed. So George comes in. I said, “We’re facing (Greg) Maddux. We may even lose tonight.” Then I got giddy, I guess. I said, “But don’t worry about it. We’re going to Atlanta, that’s my town. We’ll win three there and come back and win Saturday night. He looked at me cross-eyed. I was kidding, but I had a straight face. He didn’t believe me. I didn’t believe me. He just stared at me. I didn’t crack a smile or anything. He really didn’t know me at that point in time.

Then the magic happened. I made a couple decisions that were a little unusual in the postseason and the World Series. Pitching David in Game 3, I wanted someone who had pitched there before. He wouldn’t get bent out of shape the way the ball flies out of that ballpark and he was fine with it. He obviously stopped the bleeding in Game 3 (with six innings of one-run ball). Then the high-scoring win in Game 4 and Pettitte’s gem in Game 5. In Game 5 when the normal thing without a DH is to play all your left-handers against (John) Smoltz, but I didn’t do that. I played (Charlie) Hayes and Cecil (Fielder). It wasn’t a lot of fun when I called Tino and Boggsie (Wade Boggs) to tell them (they) wouldn’t play. I did it originally with (Paul) O’Neill, too. When he left the office, Zim said, “He’s played on one leg all year, you know.” I called him back in and said, “I changed my mind. Executive privilege. You play.”

Cecil knocked in the only run. I wanted Hayes at third base because Pettitte was pitching and (Hayes) was a little better defensively, had a little more range than Boggsie at the time.

DN: You’ve said that when you wear a World Series ring, you always wear the 1996 ring. Why? And where do you go while sporting a World Series ring?

JT: I’ve been wearing it lately. Initially, I was wearing it all the time and then I thought it was showing off, so I stopped wearing it. The reason I wear that one is, it’s the first one. It took me such a long time to be in the position to do. To do it with the New York Yankees, in my hometown, it’s special. The first one will always be special. We had a very special group of players. They taught me a lot, too. They showed me what character is all about. They never stopped to admire what they accomplished, they just felt they had to do it again.

DN: What are some other moments that stick out about that year?

JT: Jeter’s homer and catch with his back to the infield in the first game he played (in Cleveland). Baltimore after the All-Star break, because we had a different look. We had Cecil Fielder. We had gotten Darryl Strawberry. Baltimore came together (the Orioles had whittled a 12-game deficit to 2.5 games in September). We had a meeting in Detroit and I said, “We’re going to win this thing.” That’s all I said. “Whatever’s happened, happened. Don’t look at recently, look at what you’ve accomplished.”

Those are the things that come to mind when I think about ’96. It was like everyone came to work, every day. It was a very blue-collar club. You realized what Jeter was going to turn into — veterans on the club were waiting for him to do something. Even though he was a rookie, guys were expecting good things to happen.

Paul O’Neill said to me a while ago, “You know, Skip, we won a lot. But it was more than that. We had a special group of guys. It was more than being teammates.” I always felt that way and it was good to hear from one of the players. It was special. No one cared who was the hero. They all had egos, but nobody needed to get the attention. That’s what I loved about it. 

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