Two Legendary Skippers, One Conversation

July 7, 2011 — Last week was an exciting time for everyone involved with the New York Yankees, and it was capped off by the organization’s 65th annual Old-Timers’ Day, which took place on Sunday June 26.

I was fortunate enough to attend the Yankees alumni yacht cruise around Manhattan on the eve of Old-Timers’ Day and even more lucky to get two of the greatest managers in this era to spend a half hour with me for a Q & A feature.

The interview, which will be published in the July issue of Yankees Magazine, took place on the deck of the boat, and it was as candid as any piece you’ll find in an official team publication.

While it was difficult to coordinate on the spot — for the first hour of the trip, it seemed that when Torre was available, Piniella was engaged and vise versa — I believe that my efforts to get the skippers together was well worth it. The interview would not have been what it was if I had spoken to each of the managers separately, as they fed off of each other’s energy and charisma, as well as their answers.

Below is the Q & A with two Yankees legends, who combined to manage major league teams for a total of 52 years and who each played in the big leagues for 18 years.

The July issue, which will be on sale this Thursday (July 7), will also include a 12 page photo essay from Old-Timers’ Day. Those pages will contain images of Torre and Piniella, as well as Bernie Williams, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Goose Gossage, Reggie Jackson, Ron Guidry, Jerry Coleman, Don Larsen and many more great Yankees of the past.

–Alfred Santasiere III

***

Yankees Magazine: What was the most challenging aspect of managing against Joe Torre?

Lou Piniella: We couldn’t beat the Yankees. I had some good teams in Seattle, but we just couldn’t get by Joe and the Yankees in the postseason. In 2001, we won 116 games. I remember the Yankees had lost the first two games of the American League Division Series to Oakland, and they were on the verge of being eliminated. I was pulling for the Yankees because I wanted another crack at them. Boy, were they the wrong team to root for. They sent us home in five games that year. Joe and his old lieutenant, Don Zimmer, did a heck of a job leading that ballclub. Those Yankees teams were as relaxed as any team I ever faced in postseason play.

YM: What was the most difficult part of managing against Lou Piniella?

Joe Torre: Lou and I are friends, but when we managed against each other, we had to hate each other for a time. Lou managed from his gut, and he used everything at his disposal. He’s a fighter, and those kinds of guys scare you. I always knew how passionate he was about the game, and he always knew how passionate I was about the game. That made for some great battles between our clubs.

YM: What was the best part of working for George Steinbrenner and the most challenging aspect of working for him?

JT: He gives you a chance to win, and he expects to win. That’s the best part and the toughest part. George was always accessible. I worked for Ted Turner and August Busch, who certainly wanted to win, but they weren’t around. I used to say to the media that you can’t pick and choose the part you want to keep and the part you don’t want about a person. George wanted to win, and I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to manage the New York Yankees.

LP: He gave us good ballclubs, and he was always very supportive. If we needed a player, he would go out and get him. He wasn’t very patient. I retired as a player on a Saturday in 1984 and was the team’s hitting coach the next day. In ’86, I was managing the Yankees without having any prior managerial experience. If it hadn’t been for Mr. Steinbrenner, I would have had to manage in the minor leagues for a while.

YM: When you look back on your careers, what separates the championship teams that you were a part of from all of the other teams?

LP: I managed the 1990 world champion Cincinnati Reds, and I can remember every one of those players as if I managed them yesterday. I’ve managed other places, and I don’t remember all of the guys on those teams. You never forget the guys you win with.

JT: There’s a certain cohesiveness, a certain level of unselfishness about the guys on championship teams. It’s the manager’s job to aim them in the right direction. One example of that took place a few hours a postseason game in 1996. I needed to decide whether I was going to DH Darryl Strawberry or Cecil Fielder. Their stats against that night’s pitcher were very similar. Darryl was the first guy I saw when I got to the ballpark, and I told him that I didn’t know if I was going to DH him or Cecil? He looked at me and said, “Play Cecil. I can handle sitting on the bench.” That gives you an indication of the unselfishness of that team.

YM: You each managed Alex Rodriguez. What is your opinion of how Alex’ career has developed?

LP: We brought him up to Seattle when he was 18 years old. We gave him a two little cups of coffee, as the saying goes. He played shortstop for about a month, and I talked to him about what he needed to do to get back to the majors. He came back the next year and won a batting title. He was a man among boys when he played for me, and I was really happy that he finally won a World Series in 2009.

JT: Alex has so much ability, and he also has a work ethic that you really don’t see in many guys. When a guy who gets paid as much as Alex does and has accomplished as much as Alex has is the first player to show up at the ballpark every day in spring training — which means he’s there by 7 in the morning — you know that he never took anything for granted. When he got to the Yankees, the expectations were so high that I think he put a great deal of pressure on himself. It’s really tough to satisfy people in New York, and as Lou said, I’m glad in 2009 he was able to not only win a World Series ring, but be largely responsible for it.

YM: You have both managed so many superstar players over the years. What is the biggest challenge in keeping a roster of All-Star-caliber players grounded and productive?

JT: The only thing I tried to get across was that they’re really obligated to each other. If somebody wasn’t in the lineup, I encouraged them not to be upset at that player who was playing their position because I was the person responsible for that decision. Once players get close to experiencing a championship, they become very selfless. As I have said many times before, they are great for a reason. People think it’s tough to manage guys with big egos, but unless players think they are good, they’re not going to be good.

LP: When I managed, I told my best players that the rest of the team is looking up to them, so try to help the manager and the coaching staff in areas where we needed help. I let them play and tried to stay out of their way.

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