"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Calmer than You

This year for Christmas, my secret Santa (my step-sister’s husband) got me a 1996 World Series baseball autographed by Joe Torre. How cool is that? I don’t care much about autographs but this one I like. It’s the perfect gift to get from a secret Santa. Thoughtful.

One of the things I’m most excited about 2008 is the release of The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordan, a book I edited, with help from Gabe Fried at Persea books and Pat himself. As I’ve mentioned on the Banter previously, Jordan played with Torre in the Braves’ minor league system in the early ’60s.

In 1996, Pat did a piece on Joe Torre for the New York Times magazine in the middle of the summer as the team was surging then slumping. It wasn’t a long profile or a particularly memorable one. By Jordan’s own admission, it is a minor piece. The story did not make the cut for our collection; in fact, it didn’t make the B-list. However, I have a couple of drafts of the story, one called “The Patience of Joe,” and another one, completely restructured, called “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” that have some good stuff in ’em.

Here is the begining and end of Pat’s working draft of “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”

Joe Torre, the New York Yankees’ manager, is sitting behind his desk in his office off the clubhouse in Yankee Stadium, talking to Rick Cerrone, the team’s director of media relations, while making out today’s line-up card.

Torre is a big, dark, sinister-looking man of 55. He has the blocky build of a professional wrestler, The Villain, recently gone on a diet. He has dark, olive-colored skin, black stubble of beard, and bushy black eyebrows that hand low over his threatening, black eyes. He does look villainous…a Mexican bandito about to pillage a town of peasants…a vengeful Saracan warrior about to sack the camp of a hated enemy.

A sportswriter barges in, unannounced. He starts haranguing Cerrone over his late-arriving press credentials which caused him to be an hour late for his interview with Torre. The sportswriter’s face is flushed with anger. Torre’s threatening eyes shift up, only the whites showing. Torre stands, a dark, threatening presence. He raises his hands, palms out, as if to fend off heat.

“Calm down,” he says, almost pleading. “Calm down. I’ll give you all the time you need. Have some coffee. Someone get him some coffee. Please!”

When Torre was a pudgy, 20-year-old catcher in the Milwaukee Braves’ minor league farm system in 1960, he looked every bit as old and dark and threatening as he does now. He always looked like an old man playing a young man’s game. At 20, Torre would waddle out to the pitcher’s mound in his catching gear to confront his baby-faced pitcher, red-faced, furious, kicking the dirt, making a spectacle of himself, embarrassing himself and his teammates because of their latest error. (Torre never embarrasses his players, he says, because, “I hit .360 one year, and .240 another, and I know I tired just as hard both years.” When Yankees’ rookie shortstop, Derek Jeter, made a crucial error that lost a game in August, Torre said, “He’s played his tail off for us and has won a lot of games. More than the error, that’s what to keep in mind.” Which is why, Wade Boggs, the Yanks’ veteran third baseman calls Torre, “A player’s manager.”)

Even at 20, Torre knew not to embarrass his teammates, and when he saw his young pitcher doing it, thrashing around the mound, he would stop ten feet from his raging pitcher, raises his hands, palms out, and say, in the same, pleading voice he uses today, “Calm down. Relax. We’ll get ’em for you. Don’t worry.”

After Torre has calmed the sportswriter, he says, “I have a temper, I just don’t vent it. (He also has stomach troubles.) Maybe it’s more healthy to show emotion. I don’t know. I’m a patient person.”

Torre always played the game with the patience of an older man. Even at 20, he had what was called “a professional attitude.” Which meant he approached the game unemotionally, diligently, doggedly, the only way possible if a player is to fashion a long career over 100-plus games a year. Each season, each game, each inning even, can be a lifetime of emotional highs and lows. Young players, furious pitchers, caught up in those emotional high and lows don’t last long in the game. Torre lasted 17 years. He finished his playing career with a lifetime .297 batting average and is the only player to be voted the National League’s Most Valuable Player, in 1971, when he led the league in both batting, .363 and runs batted in, 137, and the National League’s Manager of the Year, in 1982, when he led the Atlanta Braves to a division title. This is Torre’s 15th season as a manager (New York Mets, Atlanta, St. Louis Cardinals) and his first with the Yankees, who are leading the American League East with the third best record in baseball, and are considered one of three teams with the best chance at winning the World Series, the last of which the Yankees won in 1978.

Torre has blended a team of youthful players and grizzled veterans, born again Christians and recovering substance abusers, into arguably one of the most well-balanced teams in baseball. The present-day Yankees play an unremarkably adept game Torre calls “a National League game. We grind it out, one run at a time.” The Yankees pick away at their opponents, a single, a stolen base, a sacrifice bunt, a sacrifice fly ball, and a run, in a way that makes every player feel he’s contributing to their success.

The body of the story consists of Jordan gathering quotes from around the clubhouse. Nothing especially exciting. The usual. But I like the ending:

I don’t expect to be here in five years,” Torre says. He’s sitting in the dugout, watching his team take batting practice prior to an early August game. He’s surrounded by sportswriters. “When I asked George if I should buy or rent a house, he said, ‘Rent.'” (Always the optimist, Torre and his wife and baby daughter are now looking to buy a house in the leafy Westchester suburbs, a long way from Torre’s childhood on the streets of Brooklyn.)

Torre admits that when he was asked to manage the Yankees by [general manager, Bob] Watson, “the first thing that came to mind was George. But I thought, I’ll take my chances. Someone asked what I’d do when George calls me in the middle of the night. I said, I don’t know. But I’ll handle it. And I sure as hell won’t be waiting for the call. I wanted no information on dealing with George when I came here so I could respond my way.”

One of the sportswriters, the venerable, and ancient, Jerome Holtzman from Chicago, asks Torre if he expects to be fired by Steinbrenner eventually. This is a strange question to ask a manger of a team that is nine games in first place at the time, but, considering Holtzman’s years of dealing with Steinbrenner, an astute one, although surely not one any sportswriter would ask of any other manager in such a position.

Torre doesn’t seem annoyed by the question. In fact, he seems to have expected it. He says, “Well, I’ve already been fired three times as a manager. Once you get over the first firing you handle it. That was in Atlanta (after he was named Manager of the Year). I remember the day I got fired I went to a grocery store I usually frequented. The guy behind the counter said, ‘What are you doing here? I said, ‘Heh, I’ve got to be somewhere. I was only fired, not run out of town.’ I mean, what else can George do to me, but fire me? He can’t shoot me, can he?”

And here is nugget from “The Patience of Joe” version, which covers the late-season slump:

Billy Crystal, the comic actor, enters the clubhouse. He stands in the middle of the room for awhile until everyone notices him, then he goes to the locker and dresses into a Yankee uniform. He is a tiny man with a big head. He is also a lifelong Yankee fan. Joe Torre was so impressed with a speech Crytal gave at a Mickey Mantle memorial service that he invited him to take batting practice with the team. A nice gesture on Torre’s part, but a strange one, too, with his team crumbling before his eyes. Torre has the ability to concentrate on many things at once, but it may not be a talent his players have.

Crystal takes batting practice with the Yankee substitutues. He has the moves of a big leaguer. He carres his batting glove just so in his back pocket. He streches his neck to loosen up before he swings. He looks down at himself, apprising his stance, as the pitcher windsw up. He hits a dribbling ground ball towards third base. The grass stops it before it reaches the infield dirt. Cystal assumes his stance again, like a Little League player who’s curiously aged.

When Crystal steps out of the cage, Bernie Williams, the centerfielder, steps in. He hits his last pitch into the right field bleachers and turns back to see if Crystal noticed. A few feet away, one sportswriter says to another, “Every actor wants to be a baseball player and every baseball players wants to be an actor.”

“What do writers want to be?” says the other sportswriter.


[Darryl] Strawberry steps in to hit. Reggie Jackson begins jabbering at him from behind the cage. Do this, do that, do the other. Strawberry tries not to listen. Jackson is a notorious game-player, the kind of man who assumes roles and attitudes for no other reason than to throw people off stride. He tries to throw Strawberry off his loosey-goosey, yet tightly-coiled swing. “You didn’t keep your shoulder in,” says Jackson, after Strawberry hits a ball into the upper deck in right field.

But Wait…There’s More

We put a nice, meaty Q&A in the back of the book–including a last-minute Clemens-Mitchell report exchange (a 2001 profile of Clemens, is the lead story in the collection). What’s there are the choicest bits from an interview that was over four hours long. Naturally, we had to do a lot of cutting. But that doesn’t mean we threw away any of the stuff we cut. So here’s a couple of few bits and pieces from my chat with Pat.

Pat Jordan: I wrote “A False Spring” which was well-received critically, but didn’t make any money. I thought I was going to be a famous niche book writer but that didn’t happen so I stuck with magazine stories. I eventually left Sports Illustrated in the late seventies. Ray Cave had left, a whole new group of people came in, and suddenly I was persona non grata. When Ray left to become the managing editor of Time, they literally hatchet-jobbed all of his old writers and I was one of them. Since I didn’t work in New York, I didn’t understand it. See, I had thought that the magazine hires you, but I had forgotten—it’s your editor that hires you. Your editor is your rabbi. When Ray left, I had no more rabbi and they cut me loose.

By that time, other people knew me. This magazine Geo calls up. I had never heard of them. Geo was a magazine trying to be National Geographic, only bigger and glossier. It was the size of Life, but with very heavy pages, almost like a book. Really quality stuff, like those European coffee table magazines. At the time I was getting $2,500 a pop from SI, I think Geo gave me $5,000. They said, “We want you to go to a steel mill town in Pennsylvannia and do a story on a high school football team.” The premise of the story was either the kids get a football scholarship to Pitt, or they work in the steel mill for the next forty years.

So I went, and stayed for like three or four weeks. Spent a lot of money. I went with a famous photographer, Bill Epperidge—I think he took the picture of Bobby Kennedy when he was lying dead in that kitchen in L.A., took some very famous Vietnam pictures. We got close, living in a miserable hotel for three weeks. That’s when I grew my beard. The steel mill guys would go into the mill at midnight and get out of work at six. They would drink their way up a hill. The town was built on a hill and they’d go from bar-to-bar-to-bar on their way home. I’d be there at midnight with the steelworkers, interviewing them in the mill, then I’d go out with them drinking at six in the morning. I didn’t shave. After about seven or eight days, I looked like one of them. I met some wonderful people.

Nobody read the story. But eventually two guys called me up. One guy was a Hollywood guy. Another guy was a music promoter out of Pittsburgh. He wanted to make a hard-bitten, gritty movie about the story and use some Pittsburgh Rock guys. He wanted to use the movie as a vehicle to promote this rock band. But he couldn’t come up with any money. So the Hollywood people bought it. Gary Morton, Lucille Ball’s husband, bought it for $2,500, and would pay me $35,000 if they made the movie. So I got the $2,500, and sort of forgot about it. But I kept in touch with the Pittsburgh guy who really wanted to make the movie. One day he calls and says, “Pat, I don’t want to scare you but they are making a movie in Duquesne, Pennsylvania and it sounds an awful lot like your movie.” So I had my agent Sterling Lord call them. They were going to try and make the movie without paying me. So within three days they mailed my agent $35,000 and that was the only score I ever made. I’ve had a lot of stuff optioned, but never made.

They made the movie and called it “All the Right Moves,” and it stared Tom Cruise. I got to meet Tom Cruise before he was Tom Cruise. And Leah Thompson. I saw the movie and saw the nude scene where she had this great body and I couldn’t wait to meet her. What I didn’t realize is that they used a body double. I met this little girl, she looked like she was fourteen years old, this tiny, skinny thing.

I wanted to use one all-encompassing minor league story, because Pat’s done so many of them. I really liked his original version of a piece on the St. Paul Saints, something that eventually appeared in Men’s Journal. We used the published piece in the first draft of The Best of…, but took it out, and replaced it with a strange little story called “The Fan,” about a guy who organizes a summer baseball league in Connecitcut, a better story. (Pat did another piece on Mike Veeck, that was touching, but too tangentially about sports to be included.)

Pat Jordan: I did the St. Paul Saints in the mid-nineties. That was my idea. Mike Veeck always interested me, partly because his father—whom I had never met—wrote in one of his books that “A False Spring” was the best book about baseball ever written. So I wanted to do the St. Paul Saints, heard funny things about them. I love minor league stories because nobody wants to do them. Mike wanted to meet me. So I go out there, get my press pass and I never went to see Mike, I just hung around the Stadium that first night ’cause I didn’t want a guided tour. I wanted to see what was going on myself. So I hung around, sat in different sections, talked to people, and then the next day I went to Mike. He said, “Pat, where were you I was looking for you?” ‘Cause he didn’t know what I looked like. I said, “Oh, I just wanted to check it out myself.” He said, “You’re the only guy who ever came and did that. They all come to me, ask me 20 questions and then leave.” I said, “Well, the story is not only about you it’s about what’s going on here.”

So I’m still writing the story a few months later. I had to call up Veeck to check a couple of facts and I see in the paper, in The Miami Herald, that Veeck has invited Charlie Sheen, the actor, to pitch for him. I call Veeck up and kiddingly, I said to him, “What’s the story, you invite that fucking actor to pitch for you? I’ll get in shape and I’ll pitch for you.” He said, “Okay, get in shape, I’ll pitch you.” So I hang up and Susan says, “What’s wrong? Your face looks white.” I said, “I just told Veeck I was going to pitch for him next summer.” She says, “You put your foot in your mouth, but it’s not my business.”

I was 56-years old. I hadn’t thrown a baseball in thirty-thirty-five years. Oh, I had a catch here and there with my ten-year old son, but I mean THROW a baseball. So I go to the park. I’m standing on the mound and the first pitch I throw, I fall down. I couldn’t even stand upright. So I had to get closer to the plate, start with lobbing the ball. To make a long story short, it took me six months to get in pitching shape. By the time I was ready to pitch for Veeck, he had hired a girl to pitch for him. I called him up and told him I was ready to pitch and he said, “I can’t. I’ve got a girl pitching for me. If I have an old man too, it’ll be a freak show.” It was a freak show anyway, but I guess a woman and an old man was over the top even for him.

So he sends me to Miles Wolff of the Northern League. Great guy. Real baseball fan. Miles hooked me up with another team in Waterbury, Connecticut and I went and pitched an inning for them. Did well, and wrote a book about it called “A Nice Tuesday.” All because of my involvement with Mike Veeck.

Along the way, I find out that Mike’s daughter, Rebecca, has a degenerative eye disease and she’s going blind. Young girl. So I sell the idea of that story to Good Housekeeping. Problem is Good Housekeeping likes upbeat stories. There’s not much that’s upbeat about a little girl who is going blind. I go to St. Petersburg ’cause Veeck is now working for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Now Mike and his wife, Libby, were in conflict. Mike wanted to trot his daughter around the country as a symbol of this disease so that they can raise money for research. Mike’s wife wanted to keep their life private and small so that the daughter would have an ordinary life in school and everything and not be a celebrity. Both arguments were valid but they were clashing over this when I showed up. Naturally, Good Housekeeping abandoned that part of the story, but it’s in the original that we’ve printed here. The thing I remember the most is that Mike had told his daughter about me. So we’re in his small apartment waiting for her to get home from school and when she gets home, she runs through the hall and throws her arms around me and says, “Uncle Patty, I’ve been waiting for you.” She was the sweetest little girl. Just an angel. Beautiful blonde hair. I ended up talking to her a lot. The last scene in the story, man, it always makes me cry. We took a long walk down the pier as Mike was fishing. She Agrabbed my hand, walked with me and closed her eyes. I asked her what she was doing. “I’m practicing,” she said. It was the most chilling thing that ever happened to me doing a story. She was practicing to be blind. It was devastating.

The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordan is due out at the end of February.

More to come…

Happy New Year!

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver