The Joe Torre Rule
So (since that’s what everyone starts with nowadays), we’re well into football season, our government is behaving like a spoiled anorexic teenager crying for attention, and it’s starting to get a little cooler out – yup, sounds like autumn. And of course, that also means its playoff time for baseball. Anyone remember baseball? It’s been awhile now, but it used to be a really popular game – before they started eating their own that is. But hey, at least they managed to inform us all of the shocking revelation that professional athletes take drugs to do their jobs better and make more money – something most of us find completely reprehensible. As any true American will tell you, in this country, we pay for our drugs – the more the better – and if they’re any good at all, they’re supposed to make us worse at our jobs, not better. Duh.
It’s a real shame too, because baseball was once unique in its ability to entertain and even unite with subtle lessons about things like the spirit of competition, sportsmanship and teamwork that often translated into everyday life in ways that other sports somehow never quite could. Whether it’s the rhythm, the details, or just the tradition woven with our collective history, certain baseball moments used to carry a cultural significance so special that they transcended the game – they were stories that had a moral, a lesson we could learn from and add meaning to our own lives.
Once such moment occurred exactly ten years ago, in 2003 during the Yankees-Red Sox ALCS. Back then the Curse of the Bambino was still alive, and the Yankees were the “Evil Empire” – a monster dynasty that went to six World Series’ in eight seasons, winning four – all under the unflappable management of Joe Torre. The Sawx, conversely, still had not won a title since 1918 – a number New Yorkers used to love to remind Boston fans of whenever possible. And after years of free agent arms-racing, both teams had ungodly payrolls, rosters that looked like All-Star teams, and fan bases that just plain didn’t like each other more than ever. In 2003, they were both the biggest kids on the block, and it only made sense that they should have to go through each other to get to the Series.
And this was definitely a series for the books – Hall of Famers all over the field, ridiculously great pitching duels, and of course, a Game 3 bench-clearer featuring portly 72-year-old Don Zimmer running/speedwalking/waddling through the melee to fight/poke/nag viciously Pedro Martinez over taunting and beanballs. Most people couldn’t believe what we were seeing, but Joe Torre always had that look of “yeah, well, whatevs…” And it wasn’t an act – after a life immersed professionally at the highest levels – he had literally seen it all and even warned the umps it was coming the inning before. A life of experience, all you’d ever want to know about baseball strategy, and a psych PhD’s deft touch in handling monumental egos, and what the Yankees had in Joe Torre was a bona-fide Baseball Expert.
Now, that incident alone was a great example of both Joe Torre’s expertise at handling a bizarre situation (the Yanks stayed cool and took Game 3 despite the hostile Fenway crowd), and of how baseball used to teach us something about life. Namely, if a crazy old man charges you violently, try to show some restraint. And perhaps more importantly, if you are the crazy old man, try to don’t go charging people violently – please. It’s foolish, undignified, and we’d really hate to have to clean up a big mess, ya know?
But that wasn’t even the Big Moral. Of course, the real story didn’t come until Game 7. One last game, in the Bronx, against your arch-rival to go the World Series, and it was the same Clemens-Pedro matchup that spurred the Game 3 beanball festivities. When I say the air was tense and electric in the House That Ruth Built, I mean it was something that you could actually feel – on your skin and in your bones. It was like everyone there knew we were in for something special – it was just a matter of when and how. Even the players themselves seemed in reverence of the moment, and were far too focused on their play to even consider making trouble. Makes sense… who wants to be the schmuck that got ejected from Game 7?
So as it went, Clemens got knocked around early, and Mussina comes in to stop the bleeding, but Pedro pitches one of his best games ever and handcuffs the mighty Yankee sluggers through seven innings to bring a 5-2 lead into the bottom of the eighth. Boston fans are waving Cowboy Up signs and making all kinds of noise. Then things got interesting. A Jeter double, a Bernie single, and Grady Little goes to the mound just to chat with Pedro before leaving him in to face the Yankee lefties. Next thing you know, Aura and Mystique start dancing around with the ghost of the Bambino and we’re all tied up after nine. Seems no one told Little that pitchers, like women, who claim to be “fine” are actually anything but.
But then “Wiffleball” Wakefield comes in and shuts down the side in the tenth, and his knuckler was so annoyingly unhittable that year it was like he was channeling Bugs Bunny’s legendarily perplexing Slow-ball. He basically won games 1 and 4 by himself and would have been MVP if Boston won the series. But of course, that’s not what happened next. Instead, Torre leaves Mariano in for a rare third inning, which he closes out, and Aaron (Bleeping) Boone walks out to the plate to lead off the bottom of the eleventh. I immediately grab my phone and dial cousin Joe, who’s sitting in another section, and ask him what the hell Torre’s doing leaving Boone in to hit. Except, before I can even finish the question, I hear this big roar and see everyone with their eyes and mouths wide open and necks craning toward the left field fence. I look over just in time to see the ball arc gracefully over the wall and gently drop to set off one of the loudest, most ecstatic explosions of joy you could ever ask to be around. I mean it was sheer electric jubilation and celebration and Holycrapdidyoujustseethatohmygodthisinunfreakinbelievable!!!
Wow. It was just…one of those moments…that you really, really feel lucky to be part of. Jumping up & down like kids on a bed, hearing Sinatra belt out “King of the Hill, Top of the Heap, A-Numberrrrr-Onnnneeeeee”, sprinkled of course, with countless chants of “19-18, 19…18!”, we all headed like cattle to cram into the 4-train that Yankee fans know all too well. Cold, grimy, still buzzed, and yet already a little hungover…totally exhausted and wishing we didn’t still have at least an hour before making it home still ahead of us, yet completely happy and at peace with all in the universe, cousin Joe and I stood crammed in that subway, hanging from the overhead bar, among the joyous masses and silent Sox fans with their two thousand yard stares, and the following ensued:
Joe: Wow, amazing, huh? Unbelievable the way they do this again and again.
Me: Yeah, really incredible. I think even better than the Tino & Brosius games of ‘01.
Joe: Hmmm, could be. So…hey, what was that you were asking me right before he hit it out?
Me: Oh, nuthin’… I was just uh…questioning… Joe Torre’s managerial decisions.
Joe: Oh, riiight. What was it you said again? Oh wait, I remember. You said, “What the hell is Torre doing leaving Boone in”, right?
Me: (Sheepishly) Yeah, I said that.
Joe: (Noticing the raised eyebrows and smirks around us, and kinda playing to the crowd a bit) Well…not fer nuthin’… but… we have seen plenty of great Yankee comebacks over the years, right?
Me: (Seeing where this is going) Yeah.
Joe: And…it’s always been Joe Torre making the roster moves…all along the way, right?
Me: (Just sticking my chin out now) Yeah, okay…
Joe: But now, in the 11th inning of Game 7 of the ALCS, you suddenly decided you somehow knew better than the manager of one of the greatest teams of all time, right?
Me: Right. That was what I decided. (Totally setting him up now) So you’re sayin…
Joe: Oh I dunno. Just that next time…maybe you give him the benefit of the doubt?
He could have easily slammed me much worse than that, and I’m sure the other riders were hoping he would, but it’s almost worse when someone just gives you just that little love-tap, ya know? Still this was one time where I was definitely happier to be happy than right. Boone was an already lousy hitter on a major cold-streak, and so I thought I knew better than Torre. But turns out, a crappy hitter was just what the doctor ordered against a junk-ball pitcher like Wakefield. And so finally, from this tale, we at long last have our story’s Big Moral – The Joe Torre Rule, which states:
“When a genuine, proven Expert says or does something that you don’t understand,
it’s probably not because the Expert’s an idiot.”
And there we have it – a genuine life lesson for us all. And a good one for these days when every fool has an opinion on everything – regardless of their actual knowledge and experience, or lack thereof. Participation trophies and awards for attendance are nice, but let’s don’t forget to recognize and respect the real experts – especially about the things that really matter.
So, maybe this particular moment didn’t make Boston fans feel any wiser or better, but at least their great moment of redemption would only have to wait one more season. Besides, everyone knows Sawx fans are only slightly less obnoxious and socially “special” than their not-so-distant cousin, the dreaded Philadelphia Eagle fan – a rabidly primitive species so genuinely unpleaseant as to require their own legal system. But that’s another story.
K. Steven Zimmerman is an Expert Fool who likes his entertainment rare and with a side of meaning.