NY1’s Budd Mishkin continues his series, “One On 1,” with a profile of a man who has one of the most pressurized jobs in the city: New York Yankees manager Joe Torre.
Joe Torre probably has to answer more questions from people who are not his boss than anyone else in New York. But no matter how difficult the situation, or important the game, there are no questions Torre can be asked that are more painful than the ones he had to ask himself for much of his adult life. Questions like: "Why I had certain fears, even as an adult? Why I felt I was a failure even though I was a successful person?"
For many years it was a private battle, but two years ago, Joe Torre started talking publicly about the root of these fears - a childhood spent in a household where his father abused his mother.
“My mom was everything to me in terms of protecting and insulating me from a lot of the stuff that went on, and never would even hint that anything was going wrong even though she had some bruises on her face from time to time," he says.
Joe Torre started speaking about his experience, and created the Safe at Home Foundation to educate about domestic violence.
“The most positive thing - if there is a positive twist to witnessing domestic violence - is getting people to talk about it and acknowledge it,” he says. “When I was growing up it was a very secret thing. We kept it inside our walls, behind our doors.”
Safe at Home has raised more than $$2.5 million through dinners and private and corporate contributions, and a recent celebrity golf outing Torre co-hosted with his wife, Ali.
“When he first told me and chose this domestic violence as something that he wanted to make a difference in the community with, it was very emotional for me to look in his eyes and see the pain that he still carried with him," Ali says.
For Torre, that pain began at home in Brooklyn. He remembers his father, Joseph Torre, a New York City Police detective, hitting his mother.
“When I used to come home from school and saw my dad’s car in front of the house I used to go off to a friend's house until he left for work,” he says. “I felt I was safe to go home."
Torre says he was never hit by his father, but some of his memories of what happened in his Brooklyn home more than 50 years ago stay with him. He remembers his older sister arguing with their father, and she was holding a knife. The father reached for his gun in the drawer. Joe Torre, not even a teenager, defused the situation by taking the knife and putting it on the table.
To get away from scenes like this one, Torre took to the field.
“Playing different sports, yeah, it gave you a chance to hide out from reality,” he says. “You were playing games, and that's the way you wanted it to be.”
Torre would eventually leave home and begin an 18-year major league career in 1960, highlighted by an MVP season with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1971.
His father died the same year, but his effect on his youngest child would linger.
“When I hit into a double play to break up a rally or my hit or not getting a hit kept us from winning a ballgame, I'd live there, I'd drown there,” he says. “And maybe it was my upbringing where I didn't feel l had a lot of success or I didn’t handle pressure situations very well. Maybe I thought it was just me. I didn't really find out why I had a reaction to loud noises or crashing of something or a bell ringing until about nine years ago.”
That's when Torre and his wife attended a life seminar in Cincinnati, just after he'd been named manager of the Yankees.
“I'm standing there in front of perfect strangers and I'm crying because I'm finding out why I have had certain feelings about the fears I had growing up, and fears I still had as an adult,” he says. “And I realized it traced back to my dad's abuse and his presence in the house, and I was afraid all the time in that house."
It had been more than 20 years since his mother died, but the memories of what she endured starting flooding back.
“I called my sister Marguerite, who is a nun, and I asked, ÎHow much of that went on? Did dad hit mom?’” he says. “She said, ÎOh yeah, he punched her and did all that stuff,’ and she was crying on the phone, and I was crying on the phone because all of a sudden I had this realization where all this fear was coming from.”
Since creating Safe at Home, Torre has told his story at schools.
"I look out there and see a smattering of heads [nodding yes], like they sort of related to this,” he says. “It choked me up somewhat, but you understand that it's going on all over the place."
Joe Torre and George Steinbrenner have been together since 1996, much longer than the owner's relationship with any other manager. And now they've appeared together in a commercial, no small feat considering their contentious relationship last season, when Torre initially thought that Steinbrenner was working to get him to quit.
“Once I found that out, that it was more George than any kind of preconceived plan, then I can pretty much [say it was] water off a duck's back, because that's the kind of emotional guy he is,” he says. “But after what went on last year it would have been hard for me to fathom that I'd be [doing a commercial with him].”
Throughout his nine seasons with the Yankees, the primary praise for Torre has been his ability to handle the heat from the Boss while making marquis millionaire players buy into the “team first” concept.
“Personally, I always felt very close to the players,” he says. “I always felt compassion for their problems and understanding them and understanding how they had to fight through certain things.”
Torre's close relationship with his players was never more evident than near the emotional end of the 1999 season, when three players lost their fathers.
"Paul O'Neill was very unique because when his dad died it was right before Game Four of the World Series in 1999," he says. “When we recorded the last out of that ballgame, I remember on the mound I put my arms around him and he's crying on my shoulder. I come to find out later that I was sort of a father image to him. I was very sincere and feeling for them because it was something I didn't experience.”
When Torre was hired in November of 1995, the Daily News greeted him with the headline “Clueless Joe.” His first season as Yankees manager was an emotional rollercoaster for Torre: His brother Rocco died, and then all of New York watched as his brother Frank received a heart transplant.
The big city seemed like a small town. And then after losing the first two games, the Yankees came back to win their first world series in 18 years. Torre became the toast of the town.
“The first time it hit me was lighting the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center in December of 1996, and then walking from the show to the car, the people, looking at their faces, New Yorkers and visitors, and how I'm received. It was like I'm something extra special,” he says.
In nine seasons as Yankees manager, Joe Torre has earned the respect of players, coaches, opponents, fans, and yes, maybe even George. We see him handling situations calmly, winning and losing, his boss' occasional outbursts, and a 1999 battle with prostate cancer.
“I was scared to death when you hear the word Îcancer,’ and there I am sitting in the dugout in Toronto and Bernie Williams is hitting with the bases loaded and I'm ready to sell my soul for a base hit at this point,” he says. “So the emotion comes back to you.”
Torre came here after unremarkable stints managing the Mets, Braves and Cardinals. But his success in pinstripes may one day get him inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame.
But Torre says he has always been the same person, perhaps more confident now. His fame as Yankees manager has given him a large forum. People listen when he talks about domestic abuse, about prostate cancer, about the Red Sox.
“Baseball saved me,” he says. “Baseball was the only life I ever wanted to lead. My brother Frank was certainly a role model for me. He started playing pro ball when I was 10-years-old, and it was a lifestyle I wanted, never dreaming of my brother frank as a big league player and I was going to follow and be a big league player too. But I've been blessed."
- Budd Mishkin