NEW YORK — Joe Torre sat quietly in his favorite spot on the bench, stomach churning, eyes fixed low under that navy blue New York Yankees cap.
He’s probably headed to the Hall of Fame, Monument Park, every baseball pantheon there is.
Today, though, Torre might be a man without a job.
After 12 playoff appearances in 12 seasons, Torre may have managed his final game for the Yankees when they were knocked out of the playoffs in a 6-4 loss to the Cleveland Indians on Monday night.
Reverting to his blustering ways, demanding owner George Steinbrenner said he probably wouldn’t bring Torre back unless New York rallied from an 0-2 deficit to win the best-of-five series.
“His job is on the line,” Steinbrenner was quoted in Sunday’s editions of The Record of New Jersey. “I think we’re paying him a lot of money. He’s the highest-paid manager in baseball, so I don’t think we’d take him back if we don’t win this series.”
The Yankees saved their season — and perhaps Torre’s job — by overcoming a three-run deficit Sunday to win Game 3.
They couldn’t do it again in Game 4, eliminated in the first round for the third straight season despite a $215 million payroll.
Now, it feels like the end of an era in New York.
“This has been a great 12 years, whatever the hell happens from here on out,” Torre said after the loss. “I’ll look back on these 12 years with great pleasures based on the fact I’m a kid who had never been to the World Series … to have been in six World Series, I can tell you it never gets old.”
“The 12 years just felt like they were 10 minutes long, to be honest with you,” he said.
With Steinbrenner in attendance, a cheering crowd chanted “Joe Torre! Joe Torre!” as the manager went to the mound twice in the eighth inning.
He made one final pitching change in a season full of uncertainty in that department, handing the ball to star closer Mariano Rivera before making that slow, familiar walk back to the dugout.
Torre’s head stayed down, he never acknowledged the crowd. Maybe he just couldn’t bear to do it.
Second to Joe McCarthy on the club’s career list with 1,173 wins as a manager, Torre was almost always loyal, turning to his most trusted players in crucial situations.
Those players might have just gotten him fired.
Earning $7.5 million this year in the final season of his contract, the 67-year-old Torre hasn’t decided whether he would want to return. But he seemed open to it in recent weeks.
Looks as though he won’t get that chance.
New York’s three consecutive first-round exits from the playoffs followed an unprecedented collapse in the 2004 AL Championship Series against rival Boston.
Still, would dismissing Torre after such success be fair? Or even wise?
Why bother? High expectations come with the territory in the Bronx, and nobody knows that better than Torre, who led the Yankees to four World Series titles from 1996-2000 in his first five years as manager.
After Steinbrenner’s comments were reported, Torre matter-of-factly said he was used to the scrutiny. He said focusing on the game at hand was most important. He wanted to keep his players from being distracted, something he’s been a master at, perhaps his greatest strength.
The Yankees were the only first-round playoff loser that wasn’t swept. Think that’s any consolation to Steinbrenner?
Don’t bet on it.
Joe Girardi and Don Mattingly have been mentioned as potential replacements.
Girardi, a former Yankees catcher, spent a season as Torre’s bench coach before winning 2006 NL Manager of the Year for keeping the rookie-laden Florida Marlins in contention most of the season.
Mattingly, a fan favorite and ex-Yankees captain, was Torre’s bench coach this year after previously serving as the team’s hitting instructor.
Always intrigued by big names and other people’s trophies, Steinbrenner might even be interested in Tony La Russa, a proven winner whose contract is up in St. Louis.
Torre’s last fateful decision could end up being the choice to pitch Chien-Ming Wang on three days’ rest in Game 4 after he was roughed up in the opener following a longer-than-normal layoff.
With extra rest, Wang’s sinker didn’t sink in Cleveland. On short rest, his sinker didn’t sink in the Bronx.
Now, the Yankees are sunk — and maybe Torre, too.
“Let’s see what happens in the next few days,” he said. “Whatever comes next, if I have some options, I’ll look at it. I’m not ready to move somewhere and not do anything.”
With the season on the line, Wang gave up Grady Sizemore’s leadoff homer and never recovered. He got only three outs in the shortest start of his career, allowing four runs and five hits.
Torre tried to stop the siege with a quick hook, yanking Wang with the bases loaded and nobody out in the second inning for Mike Mussina, whom Torre pulled from the rotation in September and passed over for the Game 4 start.
But Mussina couldn’t keep it close enough, and the Yankees went out with a whimper.
Mussina was one of several Yankees who backed Torre to the end.
“He’s the guy who took me out of the rotation and I still think very highly of him. … Pretty smart guy,” the thoughtful pitcher said before Game 3.
“I don’t think you can ask any more from somebody who’s dealt with every circumstance that has come up, from injuries to people not playing up to their abilities or scrutiny or everything, and he’s stood tall and got us in the postseason every year.”
Even that might not be enough.