Torre remembers Boss as 'very special man'
Ex-Yanks manager yearned to make Steinbrenner proud
LOS ANGELES -- The manager who pioneered the Yankees and the owner who pioneered baseball spoke for the last time 10 days ago.
Joe Torre and George Steinbrenner didn't talk often after Torre left for Los Angeles, reserving calls for special occasion. Torre offered his congratulations to Steinbrenner in November after the Yankees won their 27th title, and their first since Torre's 12 years as manager. Torre, too, made birthday calls, and on July 4, Steinbrenner turned 80.
That call lasted only a minute or two, with a few personal words on both ends. The calls were always short. Torre knew Steinbrenner's health was failing, even if it was debated in the media, and he always made sure to tell Steinbrenner how much he wanted to make him proud. Not because he thought The Boss, who died Tuesday morning, was nearing his end, but because he had always wanted to make him proud.
"I don't think you ever thought of his passing, because you thought he was going to live forever," Torre said. "In some ways, he was always going to be there. I think we always felt that about strong people.
"The one thing I would say on a regular basis, the only thing I ever wanted -- it doesn't mean we got along all the time -- the only thing I ever wanted was to make him proud of what we did. I wasn't always able to do that, but I just wanted to let him know that it never got old to me. Or it never got to the point where I felt that I was anything more than someone who was working for him and trying to do a good job."
There was certainly acrimony. There was public embarrassment in 2004, when Steinbrenner, on his own, made the decision to send Jose Contreras to Class A after the manager had decided he'd be going to another level. There was acrimony in 2007, when Torre left the team because the Yankees wanted him to take an incentive-based contract, although Steinbrenner had already rescinded some control of the team to his sons.
"When I had that final meeting in Tampa, when I left the Yankees, I went over to him first and just thanked him for the opportunity," Torre said. "He was emotional, I was emotional, and left. The relationship remained."
It may have remained, but it was also strained by the immense success the Yankees had under Torre, a success he even labeled "ridiculous."
"I tried to make it clear to him that I never felt that I wasn't grateful for what he did for me," Torre said. "There was a time there they had given me so much credit, and I just wanted to let him know that wasn't coming from me. Media. The thing that George liked was control, and when that happened, it's like he wasn't in control ... It had to be in the back of his mind that I was getting too popular for him to control."
And there weren't ever any apologies, not directly anyway.
"You didn't work with him, you worked for him," Torre said. "I don't think there was any question, George liked being the boss. ... He was a tough man to work for, but the reason I never hesitated accepting the job was the fact that I wanted to win so badly. And having never been to the World Series myself, I knew it was my best shot at it."
After the Yankees were bounced from the playoffs on a walk-off the season before, Torre took over the Yankees in 1996 and guided them to their first World Series title since 1978.
"Winning in '96 was the best thing that could've happened to me, in more ways than one," Torre said. "The fact that my hometown won [with me] as manager of the New York Yankees. I won for George Steinbrenner, it's pretty tough to beat that feeling the first time."
It started a run of four World Series titles in five years -- nearly five in six if it weren't for a D-backs' comeback in the bottom of the ninth in Game 7 of the 2001 series.
"I remember in 2000, we beat the Mets, which to me was nirvana at that point," Torre said of his third straight title. "Even though we may not have been the best team, the fact that we had beat the Mets."
Nirvana or not, Steinbrenner and his football mentality were "constantly at the whip," Torre said, and always concerned about winning the next one. For nearly two months after beating the Mets, he threatened to withhold bonuses from Torre's coaches.
Torre won a sixth pennant in 2003 as the Yankees' payroll became inflated in dollars and ego. But that World Series, a six-game loss to a Marlins team with an inexpensive roster, and next year's American League Championship Series, which the Red Sox came back from 3-0 to win, put him on the hot seat.
"I think it was the next year [after 2005] where they didn't know if they wanted me to come back," Torre said. "My wife said, 'Why don't you get on a plane to go talk to him?' ... Not that I was going to walk away from that money, but we could've met halfway. I just said, 'I don't want to be here unless you want me manage.' I just put it to him like that. I was in that office for about a minute and a half, and he said 'Yeah, I want you to.' He was a very honest man, our relationship was very open."
As demanding and disciplined as he was, the Steinbrenner of Torre was not the Steinbrenner of Billy Martin, who was fired and re-hired an astonishing five times.
Part of that was Steinbrenner's age; he was already 65 when he hired Torre. Part of it also was Torre's early success, and part of it was that Steinbrenner had made a character for himself that didn't always show its kinder side.
When Torre was hired in November 1995, his wife was expecting, and he had a plane to catch the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, back home to Cincinnati.
"I said George, 'My wife is pregnant, just a reminder,'" Torre said. "He said, 'All right, I'll let you go this time. But after the baby's born, your [butt] is mine.'
"His relationship with kids, whether it be his kids or my daughter, he couldn't do enough for kids. He'd rant and rave and all that stuff, but there was a lot of fun involved in this stuff."
Torre's agent called him around 8:30 Tuesday morning to tell him of Steinbrenner's passing. Torre stayed home for the All-Star break, and spoke to reporters for almost 40 minutes in the lobby of the Dodger Stadium offices in a last-minute news conference.
"It was very sad, very sad," Torre said. "You know that over the last few years his health had been failing. Even though you know this day is going to come at some point, when it does, it's a huge loss. He was a very special man. He made an impact on everybody that was connected with baseball."
Evan Drellich is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.