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Joe Torre Signs with the Dodgers
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Joe Torre Signs with the Dodgers
by Asher B. Chancey,
November 1, 2007

The age old conundrum persists regardless of the sport. What is the importance of one player, or one manager, to a team? How can you tell if a player is truly great or is a product of the system? How do you determine who a player truly is, out of the context in which he has succeeded?

Was Pat Riley really a great coach, or does he have Magic and Kareem to thank for this record?

Was Joe Montana a great quarterback, or did he have Roger Craig and Jerry Rice to thank for his success?

Would Todd Helton be a great hitter away from Coors Field?

Was Mario Lemieux really one of the all time greats, or did it take Jaromir Jagr to finally make Lemieux a great one?

Rarely do we have these questions answered for us. When Michael Jordan left the Chicago Bulls in the mid-1990s, we got to see exactly how good Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson were without him, and when he came back, and the Bulls started winning again, we had even more proof.

When Vinny Castilla left Colorado after the 1999 season, and promptly sucked for four seasons, we got to truly experience the effect of Coors Field. When Castilla returned in 2004 and ripped the league up again, we had even more proof.

Of the many unanswered questions related to performance and context in sports history, it appears that there will be one less unanswered question in 2008.

Joe Torre has just been named the manager for the 2008 Los Angeles Dodgers.

Torre, you may recall, recently ended his tenure with the New York Yankees. During this tenure, the Yankees went to the playoffs every year for eleven years, winning four World Series. Joe Torre has been lauded for these accomplishments, but even the most ardent Torre fan can not ignore the age old issue of context.

Torre went 1173-767 with the Yankees, good for a .605 winning percentage. But with the Atlanta Braves, New York Mets, and St. Louis Cardinals before that, he managed a record of only 894-1003, for a .471 winning percentage. So did Joe Torre magically figure things out in 1996, or was his success a matter of context?

Torre inherited a very good team from Buck Showalter, and took that team to a World Series championship his first year with the club. Showalter would also hand Bob Brenly all the tools he needed to win a championship in Arizona in 2001.

Torre also came into the Yankees organization at a time when the farm system was bearing some real fruit – home grown products Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera figured prominently in the success of that 1996 team, and, with Jorge Posada, served as the core of Torre’s successful teams.

Further, the Yankees enjoyed the largest payroll in baseball during Torre’s tenure, and were able to acquire the likes of Tino Martinez, Wade Boggs, Darryl Strawberry, Paul O’Neill, David Wells, Mike Stanton, Mike Mussina, Alfonso Soriano, Hideki Matsui, Jason Giambi, Alex Rodriguez, Orlando Hernandez, Roger Clemens, Gary Sheffield, and Randy Johnson, while suffering seemingly no consequences whatsoever for simply burning money on Kevin Brown, Carl Pavano, Jaret Wright, Jeff Weaver, Chuck Knoblauch, and Raul Mondesi.

Now, Torre heads to Los Angeles. The Dodgers are no small market team, and Torre will enjoy the advantages of being able to acquire players in Los Angeles. But the Yankees weren’t merely “big market.” Their payroll was large enough to absorb $100 million busts, and very few (if any) other teams can absord as much damage as the Yankees can.

Grady Little isn’t exactly handing Torre the keys to a franchise in great shape here, either. The Dodgers are coming off of a season in which the offense was absolutely anemic, and the pitching staff had a few bright spots but also quite a few issues. Torre takes over a team that, last season, relied heavily on the bats of two 39 year olds (Jeff Kent and Luis Gonzalez), both of whom still have pop but neither of whom can carry a team any longer; and a 33 year old (Nomar Garciaparra) who hits like a 43 year old and has been played out of the only defensive position in which he is still valuable (first base) by the future of the franchise. The Dodgers' best overall offensive player last season was Russ Martin, the catcher, and his season wasn’t even very good. And the Dodgers also feature prominently not one but two of the most overrated, empty average, speedy out-machines in all of baseball in Rafael Furcal and Juan Pierre.

The bright spot for Torre’s new team is his pitching. Brad Penny, Derek Lowe, and youngster Chad Billingsley look like they can tangle with anyone, and the bullpen was solids all around. But what about oft-injured Randy Wolf, who only pitched 100 innings last season? Or big named free agent acquisition Jason Schmidt, who was dead on arrival?

The 2008 Dodgers are not the 1996 Yankees, and the Dodgers don’t appear to have the young, up and coming franchise players, veteran talent, or payroll room that the Yankees of the late 1990s had. So what does it all mean?

In 2008, we will get to see the real Joe Torre. Can Torre manage a team that isn’t terribly good, and doesn’t have the money to acquire the best talent in the league overnight? Can Torre bring together a team of young up-and-comers and has-beens, and make them a winner? Or is he simply a front runner, capable of managing good teams to the success they could have achieved under any other manager anyway?

For at least one season, Joe Torre has to stand out in front of everyone and say, “This is the type of manager I have always been, this is what I am capable, this is who I truly am.”

Joe Torre will be able to either prove that all of his accolades in New York were well earned, or he will melt under the spotlight and be exposed for what he really is – the recipient of all the benefits that come from managing a team in the largest sports market in the world that is willing to spend more money than some teams make in a decade to bring the best players in baseball to town.

I personally can’t wait, because in my mind, we know what kind of manager Joe Torre is, and after the 2008 season, we'll have even more proof.

Questions? Concerns? Comments? Asher lives in Philadelphia, PA, and can be reached at

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