NEW YORK -- With the New York Yankees struggling on a day-to-day basis to stay atop the AL East, a once-ludicrous thought, which turned into a passing curiosity, has become a semi-urgent question: Is Joe Torre finally within range of George Steinbrenner's long, cruel tentacles?
Yankee officials shake their heads at any such suggestion, as if to say: Don't even go there. The man who's brought the Yankees four world championships in seven years has nothing to worry about, club elders insist. But they concede Torre's relationship with Steinbrenner has been in decline ever since the Yankees were flattened by the Angels in last October's Division Series, and now the two men are barely organizational allies.
This doesn't mean Torre, whose $5 million a year contract runs through 2004, is in any short-term jeopardy. But his personal golden era has given way to a constant struggle to keep Steinbrenner from sabotaging the Yankees -- a battle Torre and GM Brian Cashman appear to be losing. One person inside the organization bluntly said, "George has turned against both of them."
In the early years, from 1996-2000, Torre's influence was so great, he could literally end a player's career in pinstripes with one phone call, doing just that when Ruben Sierra called the manager "a liar."
It didn't take Torre long to crush Sierra; within weeks he was traded to the Tigers, and in his book, "Chasing the Dream," Torre made sure the crime was publicly broadcast.
I think Joe Torre will finish this season, then retire.
As long as he wants.
I don't think Joe Torre, with his measure of success as the Yankees' manager, could do enough to ever get fired, and I don't think George Steinbrenner wants to upset the fans. Joe is a fan favorite as well as a player favorite. He's honest and fair, and as a former major leaguer I can tell you that there's no better person to play for than someone like Torre. I don't think I've ever heard a player complain about Joe. That in itself places him clearly among the top managers in the game today, and possibly among the top five of all-time. I really respect Joe and his check-your-ego-at-the-door policy. His players know he runs the show, and that's how the game is supposed to work.
I believe Joe Torre will finish out his contract, which runs through next season. Beyond that, I'd rather not speculate. I see him finishing his contract as manager of the Yankees.
"As much as I tried to talk to (Sierra) about the team concept of baseball, he just never did get it. Ruben has no clue what baseball is about. That was evident when we came back to New York after we traded him to Detroit. He thought he was ripping the Yankees when he said, 'All they care about over there is winning.' That told you everything you needed to know about Ruben Sierra."
But that was then, this is now. Last week Steinbrenner gave final approval to a deal that literally thrust Sierra in Torre's face -- in the Yankee dugout, as Torre's only bona-fide left-handed pinch-hitter. To be fair, Torre says he and Sierra ended their feud several years ago, and this time around, Sierra promises, "I understand things better."
Still, how could a player who insulted Torre be back in pinstripes -- especially, as Torre says, when no one consulted him? The answer is that the Yankees are now Steinbrenner's team again. Not Torre's. Not Cashman's. Not even Derek Jeter's, even though he was named captain last week.
Indeed, Jeter's promotion had more to do with the Steinbrenner-Torre tug of war than the shortstop. The Boss promoted Jeter on just two days' notice, and did so while the Yankees were in Cincinnati. Hence, there was no ceremonial crowning of the new captain -- nothing like the love-in a sold-out stadium on Old Timers' Day would have created. Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra could have been there, and Don Mattingly, the last captain, could have officially passed the legacy onto Jeter.
None of that took place, however. Instead, Jeter accepted his new title at a hastily arranged news conference last Tuesday beneath the Reds' Great American Ballpark. Steinbrenner didn't even bother to attend.
Instead, Cashman was dispatched from New York. The GM flew to Cincinnati that afternoon, delivered a brief speech, then caught a plane home that evening. Meanwhile, The Boss spoke to reporters by telephone, making sure to say, "I felt we needed Derek's leadership. I thought now was the right time."
Steinbrenner curiously forgot that only six months ago he was jabbing Jeter for his night life. And since then, the shortstop had spent most of the regular season on the disabled list, waiting for a separated shoulder to heal. Jeter seemed as taken aback as anyone, noting that Steinbrenner had instructed him to simply be himself. No need for speeches or more home runs. No changes.
During the news conference, Torre was properly respectful of Jeter, but the manager seemed to understand the implication of having a freshly minted captain in his dugout -- as if Steinbrenner was telling the world, the Yankees need another leader.
To this, Torre simply said, "I don't have to agree with that."
Trouble is, he's powerless to stop it. Torre's laid-back style of managing, which has worked since 1996, is suddenly driving Steinbrenner crazy this season. Being in first place doesn't seem to placate the Boss, either; all he knows is that the Yankees are underachieving, and somehow, it's Torre's fault.
Yankee employees can't explain it, but the reservoir of goodwill between Steinbrenner and Torre has dried up, as if the last seven years never happened. Instead, there's a sense of crisis around the team that reminds Bronx historians of the '70s and '80s, when the franchise's emotional state depended on whether the Yankees won or lost the night before.
It sure didn't help matters when the Bombers lost four of six to the Reds and Cubs last week, or when Torre guessed wrong on Saturday, summoning Juan Acevedo to preserve Roger Clemens' 1-0 lead over Kerry Wood in the seventh inning.
As a result, Steinbrenner flew to New York on Monday, gathering his entire staff for day-long meetings. Acevedo was released, Jose Contreras was placed on the disabled list, a possible trade for Texas' Ugueth Urbina was discussed. If the Yankees can't shake the Red Sox and Blue Jays, the next stop on the Steinbrenner panic road map, some insiders believe, will be to start firing coaches.
Anyone who knows Torre says that would be the dawn of the apocalypse. If Don Zimmer were ever dismissed, Torre would be faced with the greatest dilemma of his professional life:
Quit in protest -- in effect, accepting Steinbrenner's bait -- or hunker down for a long, ugly fight with the man who never loses?
Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.