What I learned from sitting in a car with Joe Torre for five minutes

BRIDGEWATER, N.J. — Joe Torre looked exhausted.

It was roughly 36 hours before World Series Game 3, 107 hours before the controversial Trea Turner interference call, and 109 hours before a Joe Torre press conference which drew the ire of some fans, and Torre was up on a dais at an event for the Somerset Patriots of the Atlantic League.

He spoke with his signature sleepy, warm drawl. But there was a certain level of palpable, foreign tiredness in his voice. Even with MLB’s association with the Atlantic League, being in Middle-of-Nowhere, N.J., at 11 a.m. was above and beyond for the 79-year-old Torre.

Torre has been through it all in baseball — player, manager, executive, great teams and bad teams, ups and downs. Being part of baseball for more than half a century, he’s seen changes and evolution most thought impossible. But Torre, larger than life baseball ockstar, was there in large part because he loves the game. He admires the Kalafer family — the owners of the Patriots — and their goal of “purity” of baseball at its fullest.

Torre had been introduced to the Kalafers through long-time bench sergeant Don Zimmer. He spoke of the simplicity of the game, about how the Patriots represented what baseball should be.

And hey, if Zimm liked someone, you knew they were good people.

After the event ended, staffers rushed Torre to his car. Not to get him away from the crowds — he stopped to take pictures with about a dozen or so people between his seat and the 150 feet to the exit — but to get him relaxed in the backseat before another long, long weekend ahead. But before leaving to catch a few winks, Torre was still more than willing to speak with me for about 10 minutes in the back of his personal car.

I waited in his car for about a minute or so as he said his final goodbyes to those who were thankful and happy he could make it out. A pretty popular guy, for sure.

Torre hadn’t slept for roughly 20 hours. He had been in Houston the night before for World Series Game 2, hopped on a plane to get to the event in New Jersey a day before he was scheduled to be in Washington for Game 3. He took off his jacket. He loosened his tie. He sat down and exchanged a handshake with me. We got to talking, like two people at a bar counter.

Torre and I spoke of electronic strike zones in baseball. He mentioned how he wasn’t a fan, but that wouldn’t deter his — and baseball’s — goal of getting it right, for the future of the sport. He understands that baseball, while an “imperfect sport,” could use some updates. We talked about experimental rules enacted in the Atlantic League.

“We’ve never really made any changes, which is a credit to our game,” Torre said. “But it doesn’t mean you stay the same.”

We talked George Brett’s hitting philosophy. We spoke of the 2007 ALDS and the attack of the midges in Cleveland.

By the way, for Yankee fans, Torre maintains that was the worst managing decision of his career.

He paused.

“That is the one thing I kick myself about,” Torre said with a hint of regret. “I didn’t go out with him. I wish I had, because it would have given me a sense of (wanting to pull him). That was the one thing I regretted.

“He (Joba Chamberlain) looked in to me and said, ‘I can’t see. I can’t see.’ Little did I know that when my trainer was going out spraying him that it would be chateaubriand for those midges.”

At that moment, it wasn’t sports journalist and subject. It wasn’t hard-nosed sportswriting or “gotcha” media. It was just two dudes talking ball. A 79-year-old goliath of baseball and a 28-year-old wannabe baseball writer, but lovers of the sport all the same.

So there I was, soaking in information from one of the most well-traveled, well-versed baseball minds around today, someone who I grew up watching win championships and holding Derek Jeter’s bat in the dugout. Two different fans from two entirely different walks of life, united solely in our love of the game.

I exited the car satisfied, not because I had a scoop or an exclusive, but because I learned something. I discovered that this is what we need to be as baseball fans.

I disagreed with much of what Torre said on the strike zone and umpires in general, but it was still a conversation. It was two people, not a writer and an MLB executive, learning about each other’s viewpoint. Torre, brought up in a different era of baseball, still has a classic outlook on the game: the less tech meddling, the better. As a younger fan, I want technology to help as much as possible to keep the game as close to perfect as possible.

The “war” between the older fan and the newer fan is getting ugly. Baseball must grow and evolve to survive and thrive; older and more traditional fans must recognize this. Younger fans must be willing to understand where they’re coming from, players and fans alike. Like anything else in society and culture, there will always be differing ideologies. But unlike society, for something as innocuous as baseball, there’s not “right” or “wrong” in how to approach the game.

As more than a baseball writer, but a baseball fan, I’d like to believe I’m near the forefront of those pushing baseball to observers my age and younger. My Twitter avatar is the logo of “MVP Baseball 2005,” a game most around my age associate with youthful excitement for the sport. As a Puerto Rican, I also love and appreciate the flair that Latin players bring to the game. There’s no one correct way to play or grow baseball. We all have our tastes and preferences. Let’s just be better at communicating them, at sharing them.

The 2019 season was a year of lows in many ways. The rumors of the juiced baseball. The Astros’ terrible mishandling of the Brandon Taubman incident and subsequent accusations of sign-stealing. Vitriol and outrage over the quality of MLB umpires. Players being treated unfairly in free agency. The mistreatment and underpay in the minor leagues. Simply put: 2019 was the first year in a long time when it seemed the baseball talk was focused on everything off the field, not what happened between the foul poles.

It would be silly to turn a blind out to that nonsense. We should all raise our voices as fans and focus on the betterment of the game. But to change that, it should start with us.

That’s the dream — be better fans for one another. Do we want to keep fighting a stupid war of tweets over baseball, wasting 200 characters on why the curmudgeons are wrong? Is this the kind of baseball fan we want to be? Passionate but irrational? Unwilling to cede points to the other side for fear of being on the “wrong side of history?” Do we want to point our fingers at the other side without wanting to understand their point of view?

There will, obviously, always be detractors. There will always be cranks. There will always be outspoken, brash fans. But we can all admit that, sometimes, baseball is really freakin’ stupid. Unwritten rules are a big part of it. Dictating how a player should play the game is another. Part of loving something is knowing when and how to critique it, not blindly following it to the ends of the Earth. 

As a younger fan, I have been just as guilty of pointing the finger at the traditionalists as anyone else. We can respect their opinions, but reject their conclusion. But we must see and understand where they’re coming from, why they think the way they do. We must also ask how we can help them understand our point of view better. The same can be said from the older fans to the young ones.

This is a pivotal moment for the sport, and it’s absolutely critical that we do better as fans. That includes the awful ones at stadiums, chanting disgusting things at players and acting like jerks to each other. It also includes the ones on Twitter, trolling others just for the hell of it.

As we look to 2020, remember: It’s baseball that unites us. As Jimmy Dugan said to Dottie Hinson in 1992’s “A League of Their Own,”  “Baseball is what gets inside you. It’s what lights you up.”

And for this offseason, I offer a plea: Be more understanding of one another. Be fair in your criticisms. Be kind to one another. But above all, remember, we’re all baseball fans, and we share the experience — the taste of Crackerjacks, the smell of hot dogs and the sound of the crack of the bat on long home runs.

That’s the greatest lesson.

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