Things have been going too well for the Yankees. They've been playing terrific ball, despite missing their two biggest stars, Jeter and Rivera. And in spite of the fact that the Red Sox are keeping pace with them in the AL East. Maybe George Steinbrenner is bored. He reared his ugly head again this weekend.
In an uncharacteristic display of emotion, Joe Torre publicly criticized Yankee owner George Steinbrenner before he won his 700th game as manager of the Bombers, over the organizations decision to send struggling pitcher Jose Contreras to see George's pitching guru in Tampa (Billy Conners), after Torre had told Contreras that he would be headed for Triple A Columbus. It is the angriest Torre has been in his eight years as Yankee skipper.
"I know my place and I know my job," Torre said today. "But don't ask me to make a decision and tell me it's my decision and not have it be that way."
..."If he wanted to send me a message, he could have told me on the phone the other day," Torre said. "He certainly doesn't have to send me a message that he's the Boss. We all know that."
..."I suggested we want Billy to come up here," said Torre, who is not close to Connors and could have been speaking sarcastically. "This way we could all benefit from his knowledge."
I was out at Shea Stadium early yesterday morning to conduct an interview with New York Times writer Buster Olney. Olney covered the Mets in 1997, and then worked the Yankee beat from '98 through 2001 (he now covers the New York football Giants, and is currently writing a book about the Yanks). We spoke for about 40 minutes in the chilly Shea Stadium parking lot before he went to work---Olney spells the regular beat writers on the weekend (I hope to transcribe the interview and have it posted later in the week). We had no idea about the impending Contreras/Torre controversy, but here is how Olney characterized the Yankees' manager:
Joe never blew up an issue. You know when Steinbrenner would say something inflammatory---he'd rip a player, [and] rather than roll his eyes, or give a response that would escalate the situation, Joe would just put it in place: Mr. Steinbrenner is the boss, and blah, blah, blah. One thing that is really important to players now is they want to hear from the manager first, rather than reporters, what an impending move, or their standing [is] and Joe uniformly, talked to the players before they talked to us. And that wasn't always great for us, I mean we wanted to get the information, but it was a tremendous way for Joe to maintain respect among the players.
...Joe suppresses a lot. I've heard about meetings between him and Steinbrenner where he basically picks and chooses his spots.
Yesterday, Torre picked his spot:
"I sat in my room yesterday with the young man and told him where he was going, and it turns out that I'm the liar here," Torre said. "That's the sad part. I always pride myself to be as honest as I can possibly be. When that gets questioned, especially when you're dealing with a communication problem, then I have a problem."
Everything that has happened since the start of spring training makes me believe this is Torre's last season, one way or the other.
...Is this a calamity? It is not. The Yankees are too rich and too good. They put all controversies behind them the way they put all the bad teams in the American League East behind them, and will eventually put the Red Sox behind them.
...Torre and Steinbrenner will get past this, the Yankees will get past this. Neither man will forget, whatever they say from here. This is a big deal, even when the Yankees keep winning. The manager made it a big deal.
Expect George to fire back. Torre accomplished what he set out to do: maintain his authority and respect level in the clubhouse, with his players. He's willing to take the hit with Steinbrenner in the papers in order for his players to know where they stand with him. Maybe Lupica is right. What if Torre walks away, regardless if the Yanks win the championship or not? What will George have to say for himself then?