Baseball: Bowing to a real ball-park figure

Ronald Atkin visits Yankee Stadium where Joe Torre is eclipsing the legends of a glorious past

AS MARK McGwire and Sammy Sosa continue to hammer the baseball higher and further in their record-shattering home-run duel, Joe Torre is a happy man - because neither plays for the team he manages, the New York Yankees. It is good news for the sport that McGwire and Sosa have left the previous mark of 61 in their wake, even better news for the Yankees as far as Torre is concerned.

"It has taken the attention off us," he said, holding court in the dug- out at Yankee Stadium, the NY cap set to the back of his head. "When you are trying to put together your best season, something like McGwire-Sosa has distracted from what we're doing."

What Torre's team have just done, by winning their 112th game of the season, is to make themselves the best damn Yankees of all time. Better than the 1927 "Murderer's Row" squad of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, who won 110, better than Joe DiMaggio's 1939 team (106 wins) and better than the 1961 M & M sensations starring Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.

Baseball's record of 116 wins in a season, by the 1906 Chicago Cubs, remains out of reach but being in charge of the winningest Yankees is what counts most for Torre, a 58-year-old whose dark hair has not been greyed by the cares of his job. The first native New Yorker to manage the club, he is a happy man: "Pretty impressive, to be the best of all time here."

Now for the play-offs, starting on Tuesday, to produce the American League champion to face the National League pennant winner in the World Series. When, in his first year, Torre took the 1996 Yankees to World Series victory over the Atlanta Braves, they won a mere 92 games in the regular season. So the omens are good. But their abrasive owner, George Steinbrenner, growls, "We haven't won a damn thing yet." Perhaps not in terms of pennants and World Series, but no club will march more confidently into the post- season conflicts than the team bearing Torre's imprint. Having lost four of their first five games, the Yankees bounced back so impressively that they took over the lead in the American League East, on 21 April and have been there ever since.

It is a team without stars or egos, a team built on the d'Artagnan ethic of all for one, one for all. "People here don't have egos," said Derek Jeter, the shortstop whose derring-do in the field makes him baseball's Jonty Rhodes. "If you come into this clubhouse with a big ego you'll find quickly that you're the odd man out."

There is certainly a former ego or two around, like Darryl Strawberry, the one-time New York Mets batting superstar who skidded into a full hand of disaster - drug abuse, alcohol abuse, spousal abuse - but has ignited a fresh love affair with New York baseball followers. "I don't want to go someplace where the burden is all on my shoulders," he said. "Here, it's a collection of good players who take losing personally."

No one takes losing more personally than Paul O'Neill, a .300-plus hitter for five straight seasons whose intensity can be witnessed pre-game in the clubhouse as he sits wielding a pair of drumsticks, beating out a rhythm on his bare knees. "There's a bond here that's hard to explain," he said. "We're more than team-mates, we're friends. There is no one in this clubhouse I wouldn't want to have lunch with." O'Neill's contract was due to expire at the end of the season but he has signed a one-year extension worth in excess of pounds 4m. Eat your heart out, Alan Shearer. Being paid that amount for doing what he loves is more than OK by O'Neill: "I get to go out and play right field in Yankee Stadium. I have stood where Babe Ruth stood. I've met Joe DiMaggio. It doesn't get any better than that."

David Wells, a tattooed, reformed California rowdy who this season pitched that rarity, a perfect game, retiring 27 batters in a row, insists: "Personal goals ain't nothing to me. The big picture is where it's at."

Such is the Torre impact on his ball club. "Winning is the only stat we concern ourselves with," said the manager. "It takes the pressure off the individual." Torre has honed his craft through 38 years in baseball. Brooklyn-born of Italian stock, Joe has a sister who is a nun and a brother whose heart transplant coincided with the Yankees' 1996 World Series win in Joe's first season there.

A catcher, Torre played for Milwaukee, Atlanta, St Louis and the Mets. He was manager with the Mets through their years as the worst club in baseball, as well as Atlanta and St Louis before, surprisingly, landing the Yankees job. In between managing Atlanta and St Louis he spent six years as a TV broadcaster for the California Angels, which accounts for an approachable media attitude from which the likes of Kenny Dalglish and Glenn Hoddle could learn much.

The media sessions are a delight as he freewheels opinions of his players. On his Japanese pitcher, Hideki Irabu: "Great in practice but when he gets on the mound you can't get that ball out of his hand with a pair of pliers." On another pitcher, Andy Pettitte: "Last time out he was God- awful." On his most prolific hitter, Bernie Williams: "I never know what I'm getting. Sometimes it's spectacular, other times you just scratch your head."

On the 75th anniversary of the opening of Yankee Stadium the team that Joe Torre assembled are poised to march on their next honour, a place in the World Series. With not an ego in sight.

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