The players have Torre's back
NEW YORK - Maybe George Steinbrenner knew the effect of issuing a threat to the manager. Win the American League Division Series against Cleveland or lose your job. His words have fired up the Yankee clubhouse, particularly Johnny Damon.
Damon spoke passionately about Joe Torre last night following the Yankees' 8-4 win over the Indians, a game in which he served as a catalyst by launching a three-run home run in the fifth inning. The Yankee mantra right now is "Save Torre's job."
Damon said firing Torre would not go over well in the clubhouse. Damon didn't elaborate, but the message appears to be that cutting ties with Torre might make it difficult to re-sign key players such as Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada, and might anger captain Derek Jeter and other veterans loyal to a manager who has won four World Series in 12 seasons.
"There's a lot on the line," Damon said. "We're playing for the manager we love and for fans that we love. We'd like to prolong the season as long as we can. Somebody mentioned [Steinbrenner's comments in The Bergen Record] in the clubhouse. What we have to understand is that Mr. Steinbrenner is the boss. He gets to make the decisions here. What we can do as players is go out and play as hard as we have to. We've battled through adversity all through this season and right now is another time.
"We all love Joe Torre," added Damon. "We would love for him to win another championship. I think Joe Torre commands a lot of respect. He's meant so much to the Yankee organization. We get to play for him at least another day and hopefully longer."
Damon made sure of that by collecting three hits and four RBIs. Damon knows all about seizing the moment at Yankee Stadium. He provided heroics for the Red Sox in Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS when he belted two homers, including a grand slam, as the Red Sox completed their historic comeback against the Yankees.
"You know, it felt great," said Damon of his home run. "I know the Red Sox are waiting for the next team and hopefully that next team is us. But I enjoy playing here at Yankee Stadium. I enjoy being with these teammates. I enjoy doing it for the Yankees. I know we're going to be coming with our best game. So we hope to go back to Cleveland. We hope to keep playing for Joe."
Damon has been playing hurt all season.
Early this season, he couldn't get his swing down because of back, shoulder, and leg injuries. He lost his spot in center field to Melky Cabrera and has spent time at DH and in left field, where he started last night. He started getting his stroke back and started this series with a leadoff homer against C.C. Sabathia but struggled with the rest of the Yankees, who hit .121 in the first two games.
He's been around long enough to understand the angst and the culture that comes with being a Yankee. Nothing short of a World Series championship is acceptable.
Yankee players desperately wanted to avoid being swept by the Indians, which would have really irritated Steinbrenner. Don't forget Steinbrenner is from Cleveland and short of losing to Boston, or the cross-town Mets, the last thing he wants is to lose to his hometown team.
In recent months, reporters have stayed away from Steinbrenner, 77, in respect for the owner's declining health. But his ultimatum may have awoken a team of sleeping giants.
"I think one win can do a lot for us," Damon said. "It seemed like other guys started feeling a little more comfortable, with our backs up against the wall. I think we're moving in the right direction. Hopefully, [today] is a great game for us."
Yankee players are well aware of Torre's status this season. It was part of what drove them late in the season to make a run and eventually win the wild card. It was shocking when they came out flat in the first two games of the playoffs.
While many Yankees could share the blame, the easiest thing Steinbrenner could do is to cut ties with Torre and bring in a disciplinarian such as Joe Girardi, who could light a fire under players who are too comfortable or set in their ways under Torre.
While Steinbrenner may have placed unwanted pressure on the team, and Torre in particular, the players were doing everything in their power to protect their manager.
Last season, Steinbrenner had to be talked out of firing Torre after the Tigers eliminated the Bombers in the ALDS. If Torre loses this series, he will be gone and this time nobody will be able to save him.
Which is why the players are trying to save him now. Last night, Damon did what Roger Clemens couldn't. In the days leading up to his start, Clemens, who acknowledges Torre is the main reason he came back, wanted to make a statement on the mound.
But Clemens, who said he was OK physically and that he would pitch on will and desire, fell victim to a balky hamstring that forced him out after 2 1/3 innings. Torre patted Clemens on the face as the pitcher limped off, perhaps for the final time in his career. With it appeared to go the hopes of Torre keeping his job.
Damon, understanding the dire situation, helped save that. For at least another game.
Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.