I realized tonight: it’s a little strange that I have, literally, dozens of happy memories associated with watching a 60-something year old man weep openly on national television. That man, of course, is Joe Torre, and the occasion tonight was the Yankees’ 12-4 win and newly clinched playoff spot – in a year where, as you may have heard, they were at one point just a teensy bit back in the standings. You may hate Joe Torre’s managing style, you may think he should be fired at the end of the season, but it’s still hard to be unmoved by such a great example of a classic American type: the crusty, tough old outer-borough New Yorker with a sentimental streak a mile wide. Nobody in sports cries like Joe Torre.
Under the circumstances, you couldn’t ask for a much better hand of cards than Chien-Ming Wang vs. J.P. Howell at the Trop. In the days since they’ve dropped the “Devil” from their logo and uniforms, the Rays have attracted an enormous and enthusiastic crowd of devoted Christian fans, who -- … okay, not really. The place was maybe half full, and by the sound of it, the crowd was at least 80% pro-Yankee.
Wang wasn’t at his best tonight, and struggled a bit with his control, but he kept the damage to a minimum. Despite allowing seven hits and three walks in six innings, he only allowed two runs. Meanwhile, the Yankees couldn’t do much against Howell their first time through the order (if they lost I was going to say the offense was a “Howelling abyss”, so be grateful they pulled this one out), but in the fourth inning they took a 2-1 lead on a Jeter solo shot and an error, walk, and series of groundouts. In the fifth, Howell lost it completely, and his bullpen relief didn’t do much better: the Yankees batted around and scored seven runs, with the big blows a bases-loaded Jorge Posada single, and Robinson Cano’s subsequent three-run home run.
For all intents and purposes the game was over, though New York did tack on three more in the next inning against Jeff Ridgway, proud owner of a 189.00 ERA. (But did I mention that they’ve removed the “Devil” from their uniforms? Come on down!). I don’t think anyone was paying much attention to the last four innings, including, judging by their defense, the Rays. And Jorge Posada was apparently so surprised to see Jay Witasick still alive and pitching in the majors that he did a violent double-take, and appeared to tweak his neck (that’s my theory, anyway), but stayed in the game. Joba Chamberlain got through a scoreless inning with help from an excellent Melky Cabrera catch; Jose Vizcaino ran into trouble in the eighth and gave up two runs; Mariano Rivera came on for the ninth, not because he was needed, but because Torre wanted his stalwarts in the game when they clinched.
Which they did, finally, when Greg Norton popped out to Robinson Cano. Torre, as he has so many times before under similar circumstances, had already begun to tear up when the ball hit the mitt. It was a relatively subdued celebration on the mound – lots of smiles and warm hugs, a little jumping around, but not too much craziness. That didn't last once the team reached the clubhouse, however: most of the bullpen ganged up on Roger Clemens, who was at the receiving end of at least five spraying bottles at once, and was so blinded Jorge Posada had to lead him to safety. Mariano Rivera got it just as bad. Derek Jeter, on the other hand, stayed mostly dry – “I know where to hide,” he explained later, when it was safe (I don’t think Jeter really starts celebrating until the ALCS).
A sopping wet Joba Chamberlain was asked by Kim Jones if he even feels nervous on the mound anymore: “I play it off pretty good, don’t I?” he asked with a grin. "With the playoffs coming we’ve got a chance to do some special things and THAT’S REALLY COLD,” he added, as Edwar Ramirez doused him in beer. (You’ve gotta love the part of the celebration where they run out of champagne and just switch to Bud). Later, a tag team of Ramirez, Cano and Chamberlain succeeded in completely and utterly distracting Abreu from his YES interview, leaving him laughing helplessly in the middle of a lost thought, as Ramirez gently toweled him off.
The emotional highlight, though, was as always Joe Torre. He was already looking dangerously sniffly when the interview began; when Cano and Cabrera dumped two entire bottles of champagne on his head, he choked up. “You love them,” he said. “I mean, I can’t help it.” When Kim Jones told him the vets had been praising his leadership and resilience, the real waterworks began.
Torre's status for next year is up in the air, and if the Yankees go down in the Division Series again, this could very well be his last emotional, booze-soaked moment of triumph with the Yankees. He took a lot of criticism this year, some of it very valid, but there's no doubt he'll be missed when he's gone; maybe he can manage a bullpen better or maybe not, but will Joe Girardi ever be as moved by a couple of giddy kids bouncing around with champagne?