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FEARLESS LEADER
THROUGH 10 SEASONS AND FOUR WORLD SERIES TITLES, TORRE KEEPS YANKEES' SHIP STEADY

How long would you have given him from the day he took the job? Two seasons? One season? A month? A week? How long would it be before Joe Torre exhausted the patience of his temperamental boss and joined the heaping helping of New York Yankee managers cast onto the scrap pile?

It was never as if winning bred security. It was never like that at all. The Yankees had skipped through 14 managers in the first 22 years of the George Steinbrenner ownership era, including five during a span of eight straight winning seasons. The Boss fired good managers. He fired average managers. Sometimes he fired managers, rehired managers and then fired them again.

Billy Martin piloted the Yanks on four occasions. Eight times in 14 years, Steinbrenner employed multiple skippers during the course of the same season. And when it finally appeared that stability had arrived in the form of Buck Showalter, a Yankee through and through -- poof! -- the club issued a release in October 1995 announcing his departure. It was a surprise to all considering the Yanks had played 55 games over .500 the last three of Showalter's four seasons. It was particularly startling to the deposed manager, who had thought the parties were in the midst of negotiating a contract extension.

In came Torre, a hire with "quick fire" written all over him. He'd been let go by St. Louis in '95 with the Cardinals 20-27 on the heels of 53-61. He'd managed for 14 years to emphatically sub-.500 results following a long and accomplished career as a player. All signs pointed to a one-season stand, another managerial blip in Steinbrenner's reign of terror.

Friends struggled to reconcile why Torre, a man with a distinguished air and a mild manner, would take baseball's most volatile job, subject himself to Steinbrenner's incessant meddling and unyielding demands. But to Torre, there was one alluring positive overriding all the blatant negatives. Since he'd never won a world championship, why not work for a man who regards anything less than perfection as failure? Weren't they united, bonded by a common goal?

"The one thing I've missed is the World Series," Torre, a Brooklyn native, said the day he was hired. "I'm in a position to get there with an organization that has a burning desire to win. I'm beyond the point where I just want to be competitive. This organization has a need to win. It's the tradition of the Yankees. No other organization has their history."

Here he is, into his 10th season, the Yankee skipper with the longest uninterrupted tenure since Casey Stengel steered the ship from 1949 to '60. Torre's guided the Yanks to four World Series titles. He's continually conquered the underappreciated challenge of melding baseball's highest-priced talent -- and their accompanying egos -- into a perennial contender. Most amazingly, he's managed to pacify Steinbrenner, their time together marked by surprisingly few rifts. Could anyone have envisioned a 10-season marriage, let alone one that has unfolded in relative bliss?

"No, obviously not," said Tino Martinez, who joined the Yanks in Torre's first season. "The first three or four years that Joe was here and the way that he handled it, I knew he had a chance. After three or four years you knew he had a chance to be here a long time because he was just the perfect fit for this team, this city and this organization."

Yes, Torre, 64, has been the perfect fit. But why is that? What has made him so? Two of his players, first baseman/designated hitter Martinez and third baseman Alex Rodriguez, offered their insights when the Yankees visited Toronto last week and swept a two-game series from the Blue Jays. Their observations paint a picture of what players mean when they speak of a "players' manager."

"He has a very regal way about him," said Rodriguez, baseball's highest-paid player and a second-year Yankee. "He demands respect in a very calm way. And he also exudes a lot of confidence, for his coaching staff, for his players, for the City of New York. I think his greatest asset is probably that he played major league baseball for a very long time, won an MVP, won a batting title. I think he hit .365 one year and hit .230 one year. So he can relate with the very best and he can relate with the struggles of the game."

"It's almost like he just got out of the game as a player," Martinez said. "He knows what it's like to struggle. He hasn't forgotten what it's like to have a batting slump, a pitching slump or a team not winning games. He understands all that. He knows how to handle his personnel. He's great at communicating to the players and letting everybody know what their roles are and keeping everybody happy in the clubhouse."

Go ahead, try to ruffle the man. Try to get Torre off his game. Not even Steinbrenner has succeeded in that regard. The Boss lambasted the Yankees last weekend, said their poor start was embarrassingly unacceptable for the highest-paid team in baseball. The Yanks answered with a lopsided win, then lost to bottom-feeding Tampa Bay the following night, just before arriving in Toronto. Yet there was Torre, sitting in the dugout before the game, answering questions, saying the Boss had every right to gripe.

"I learned in this game, if you start worrying about what may happen . . . you just can't worry," Torre said. "But it takes you awhile to get to where you have that philosophy."

"Joe's like the eye of the storm," Rodriguez said. "He's calm, but there's a heck of a lot of fire inside. And we know that as well."

Wait. What's this he is saying? Sometimes there's anger in the man? He gets upset?

"Oh, yeah," Rodriguez said. "Very upset. But he gets the point across in a respectful way."

Sometimes the best managers never get their due. Sometimes everyone assumes the best managers are nothing more than a reflection of their talent, that their input is negligible. Phil Jackson's heard that charge in the NBA, so did Scotty Bowman in the NHL.

"No question," Rodriguez said. "If you win a championship, oh, you're supposed to win. And if you don't win everyone is going to ask, why didn't you win with all this talent?"

Torre's unfazed by the pressure. He understands Steinbrenner's demands, understands them perfectly. But he never belabors the point with his players.

"He's always on that same plane," Martinez said. "He has such the perfect mentality to be a great manager, and to be a great manager in New York."

JOE TORRE AT A GLANCE
Personal
Born July 18, 1940, in Brooklyn, N.Y. Married (Ali) and has four children (Michael, Lauren, Cristina and Andrea Rae).
Fast facts
-- Torre's Yankees managing record is 895-578, 317 games above .500.
-- Has 1,789 career wins for sole possession of 13th place on the all-time managerial victory list (Hall of Famer Bill McKechnie is next with 1,845).
-- Compiled 894-1,003 record as manager of New York Mets (1977-81), Atlanta Braves (1982-84) and St. Louis Cardinals (1990-95).
-- As a player, hit .297 with 252 home runs and 1,185 RBIs in 2,209 games from 1960-77 for the Braves, Cardinals and Mets.

Yankees' teams under Joe Torre
SEASON W L PCT. AL EAST
2005* 8 11 .421 T-4th
2004 101 61 .623 1st
2003 101 61 .623 1st
2002 103 58 .640 1st
2001 95 65 .594 1st
2000 87 74 .540 1st
1999 98 64 .605 1st
1998 114 48 .704 1st
1997 96 66 .593 2nd
1996 92 70 .568 1st
* -- Through Sunday

e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com