Wednesday, July 21, 2010

McCarver Airbrushes Reality

  • Is it possible to "jump the shark" more than once?

Or twice?

Or three times?

Or ten times?

I'd had enough of Tim McCarver in the year 2000, but he's still somehow the number one analyst on the FOX Game of the Week; still accorded credibility for what he was rather than what he is----someone who's stayed around far too long and needs to be put out to pasture for his (and the viewing audience's) own good.

Whereas he once took to the offense in his commentary by using what was known as "first guessing" and suggesting what a manager or club should do before the fact----something that was innovative at the time----he's now crossed the boundary to being offensive.

It's not simply his stupid comparison of the Yankees treatment of Joe Torre to Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany that was ridiculous, but the suggestion that the Yankees hesitating to include images and mentions of Torre in the franchise's recent run of excellence was, in a way, worse because it's being twisted to suit McCarver's argument.

Tim McCarver is close friends with Joe Torre; he does have something of a leg to stand on when he suggests that the Yankees don't appreciate the work Torre did as much as they should; but to think that Torre and only Torre could have managed that team to the championships they won is ludicrous.

To say that a manager was helped along by the great players he managed is not in any way denigrating the work he did. Torre is on record as the manager of those teams----teams that won World Series titles in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000; but is it crazy to say that there are plenty of managers who could just as easily have gone along for the ride? Who would have won as well?

The Yankees of the late 1990s were not a creation of Joe Torre; if anyone deserves the credit for building that team, it's Gene Michael. How often is Michael mentioned by the casual fan as the catalyst for drafting, signing, acquiring and holding onto the foundation of those teams----Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Paul O'Neill, Bernie Williams, David Cone and Mariano Rivera?

Torre was always extremely calculating in subtly twisting his image from what it was before he donned pinstripes to what it was as his tenure wore on. He was a competent big league manager who'd made the playoffs once (and got swept in 1982 with the Braves); he knew how to handle the media; could control the clubhouse; and made the right player moves most of the time.

In short, he was a journeyman; a guy you could find relatively easily----and replace relatively easily. We're not talking Whitey Herzog, Billy Martin, Tony La Russa, Bobby Valentine in terms of being a strategist here; and this isn't a knock against Torre. Every manager has his strengths and weaknesses and there's no shame in that. But to suggest he's anything more than what he was then and is now is the real essence of airbrushing history.

That Yankees team had great players. Torre's teams didn't panic in the playoffs as many of the failed Braves teams did during their long run of dominance of the National League from 1991-2005. Was that a byproduct of Torre's outward calm? Probably. He deserves the credit for the 1996 title more than any other; he was able to keep George Steinbrenner at bay and seamlessly incorporate the players that were brought in mid-season. The Yankees had been too tightly wound under Buck Showalter because the manager was tightly wound; they were calm and cool under Torre because the manager was calm and cool.

He was the right man at the right time. Sometimes it breaks like that.

After that, once they were established and won year-after-year, it became a case of diminishing returns for the club and their manager. After the first title, which no one expected, the goal was the same every year----World Series or bust, and they pulled it off in three of the following four years and almost a won a fourth. Torre made himself very, very wealthy; added to his persona of the Sinatra of the baseball world; wrote books on his management style; became a sought-after and well-compensated public speaker; and achieved legendary status.

Could he have done that had he not gotten fired by the Cardinals in 1995? With a different team that wasn't going to provide him the talent that the Yankees did? I don't know any person with a baseline knowledge of baseball that would say yes.

As things wore on, it chafed everyone with the Yankees----even the Torre allies----that it was perceived that Torre and only Torre was the main impetus for the Yankees run. Steinbrenner was always agitated that he paid Torre so much money and it was conveniently forgotten that, in Steinbrenner's words, Torre was saved from the "scrapheap".

Steinbrenner was right.

Torre might not have gotten another managing job had it not been for the Yankees. Torre only reluctantly left the broadcast booth to take the Cardinals job in 1990 after Herzog resigned and it was partially because of his history with the Cardinals that he did it. It's very possible that had Torre returned to the broadcast booth in 1996, he might've turned his back on managing. He was an excellent broadcaster.

The reputation has fed into itself and yielded success even after he left the Yankees. "Torre will find a way to get us into the playoffs"----and he has. The Dodgers have made the playoffs in his three seasons after Torre reached the post-season every year he managed the Yankees. Was the Yankees annual failure in the years after the last title in 2000 the responsibility of Torre? Only if he gets credit for the wins. If they're put into context, he deserves a share of the credit and a share of the blame for everything, but not all of it.

Do the Yankees have a legitimate gripe with Torre after the split? It was at first mutual and friendly enough, but Torre must have been silently chortling at the growing pains of his Yankees successor, Joe Girardi, as he was marching his Dodgers into the playoffs in 2007; it must have validated him in some way to be able to say, "hey look, the first year without me, they didn't make the playoffs".

And he's not wrong.

But do the Yankees have a right to be annoyed that Torre had his name attached to The Yankees Years, written with Tom Verducci (mostly written by Tom Verducci)? That he aired dirty laundry from inside the clubhouse? Did Torre need the money? Did he need to get the last word in?

I said at the time of Torre's departure from the Yankees that he played his hand perfectly. He got out of an unwinnable situation with the Yankees; he got another job immediately in a great situation with a baseball-loving town and star-studded crowd that would treat him as a conquering hero; and he made a lot of money with his managing contract and endorsements. Did he have to write the book too and stain his legacy by angering the Yankees hierarchy? Was it necessary?

Joe Torre, for all his charm and crafted likability, is very smooth----smooth to the point of being slick and bordering on sleazy. McCarver glosses over these facts about his friend; ignores the notion that the Yankees do have reason to be upset at their former manager for his actions after the fact; that they were the ones who helped him achieve his current status and Hall of Fame future. So if McCarver stands by his opinion while apologizing for his analogy, he's still being slanted "in his view" (one of his favorite and most irritating sayings).

In a way, that's worse than the analogy itself because it's not even close to being true when examined by an objective observer, which McCarver certainly is not.

  • Speaking of managers...

Lou Piniella announced that he's retiring after the season in the first step of the rebuilding of the Cubs. It's hard to believe he would've been back anyway no matter what happened. If the Cubs pull off a miracle (although it wouldn't be that much of a miracle if they somehow climbed into playoff position in the horrific National League), he'll still depart after the year.

With Piniella, I don't get the impression that he's leaving the Cubs and will be willing to listen to another offer if it comes along. I think he's had enough.

So what's his legacy?

Piniella was a good manager whose players respected him and, for the most part, played the game the right way. Dealing with George Steinbrenner in the late 80s as a manager and GM, he cut his managerial teeth in an impossible atmosphere. Winning a World Series with a pretty good, but not great Reds team, he proved himself; he helped save baseball in Seattle with the Mariners and had that club in contention almost every year he was there. After spending three lost and financially lucrative years with the Devil Rays, he took over the Cubs seriously underestimating the number of things that go wrong for the Cubs regardless of the payroll and talent level.

Are the Cubs in better shape now than when Piniella took over?

No.

Had they won that elusive championship or a pennant, their current straits might be palatable; but they didn't. Saddled with immobile contracts for the likes of Carlos Zambrano and Alfonso Soriano, whoever the new manager (and presumably new GM) are, they've got a lot of work to do. Piniella led the Cubs to the playoffs in his first two years at the helm and didn't win a playoff game in either year. Part of that was due to strategic mistakes on his part (yanking Carlos Zambrano in game 1 of the NLDS in 2007; starting Ryan Dempster in game 1 of the NLDS in 2008); then things fell apart in 2009 and led to their current nightmare.

One thing I have to wonder regarding Piniella is whether he regrets taking the Devil Rays and Cubs job in the first place; if he looks back and thinks he should've sat out and held out, waiting for the Yankees job to open up. He would've been the obvious choice to replace Torre every year he was managing in Tampa; and by the time Torre was relieved of his duties, Steinbrenner wasn't at his decisive, bloviating best to overrule his baseball people and hire Piniella.

The more cautious and Machiavellian Yankees GM Brian Cashman knew what his life would've been like with Piniella as manager----that he would've been marginalized and easily lost any power struggle or public debate with the popular manager. He didn't want Piniella and with good reason. But Piniella presumably still would've been able to angle his way into the job if he really wanted to.

We'll never know what would've happened.

One has to believe that Piniella now understands what it's like to manage the Cubs; and that it would've been easier and he would've been more successful wearing Yankee pinstripes to end his career than presiding over the Cubs and sullying his reputation as he has in the past2010BaseballGuideCover.gif 3 1/2 years.

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4 comments:

Jeff said...

I'm not sure about Piniella. In fact, I think he'll be as retired as Valentine and Showalter.... just waiting for the next offer he can't refuse.

As for Torre, he didn't do anything special as the Redbirds skipper in the early 90s. In fact, those were some of the worst years of baseball I've ever seen in the 'Lou.

She-Fan said...

Now the question is...will Torre manage the Cubs next season?

Brooklyn Trolley Blogger said...

Ryne Sandberg seems to be the popular choice right now for Cubs skipper even though here in NY Girardi's name got thrown in. I say Sweet Lou, Torre, Showalter and Valentine are all managing next year. Question is where? Jerry Manuel will probably be unemployed in 2011. Is Sweet Lou in a NY state of mind? It really is time for Mets fans to start thinking who they want their 2011 manager to be. Torre and the Cubs would be weird.

Lisa Swan said...

Good piece. I agree with most everything in it.

One minor quibble. You write:

"He would've been the obvious choice to replace Torre every year he was managing in Tampa; and by the time Torre was relieved of his duties, Steinbrenner wasn't at his decisive, bloviating best to overrule his baseball people and hire Piniella."

IIRC, The Boss had had enough of Torre in the fall of 2006 and wanted Piniella. Lou supposedly turned it down, because Torre was still the manager. Or at least that's the story as has been reported.

By the time Torre was gone, Lou was already under contract with Chicago.

Anyhow, I hadn't read your blog before this. Will have to bookmark it!

Lisa
Subway Squawkers