Torre, Torre, Torre!
"There was a knock on the door, and there was my brother Rocco," says Torre, alluding to his eldest sibling—really a surrogate father in his broken childhood home—who died of a heart attack in June. "I'm not a dreamer. But there he was, with a smile."
From then on, pragmatic, down-to-earth Joe Torre from Brooklyn went into some kind of psychic cruise control. Two days after his visitation, the Yankees clinched the American League pennant over the Baltimore Orioles. Even after New York was blown away by the Atlanta Braves in games one and two of the World Series, the manager retained a Zen-like serenity. "My wife and my sisters kept telling me that Rocco is my angel in the outfield," Torre says. "You know, I sensed it."
New York, of course, then pulled off one of baseball's most stirring revival acts, defeating the Atlanta Braves in four straight. And that, as it turned out, was the least of it. On the eve of the decisive sixth game, a 3-2 victory, Torre's surviving brother Frank, 64—and, like Joe, an ex-ballplayer—learned that, after an almost three-month wait, a donor had been found to give him a lifesaving heart transplant.
This was much more than a New York story. Joe Torre, long known by baseball insiders as one of the game's most decent human beings, was now a national figure, the object of a remarkable outpouring of public affection. As he basked in a blizzard of confetti last week, rolling up lower Broadway—known for the moment as New York's Canyon of Heroes—it marked a redemption of sorts. He had survived a season under mercurial Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, survived the sometimes savage New York sporting press (one local paper dubbed him Clueless Joe after he was hired last November), and now he was a world champion—after having waited 37 years and more than 4,272 games before making it to the World Series—longer than anyone in baseball's meticulously recorded history.
By now, thanks to saturation coverage, even casual fans know about his third wife, Alice, 39, and their 11-month-old daughter, Andrea Rae (Torre has three grown children from his previous marriages), and his big sisters, Rae, a retired telephone company auditor who still lives in the same Brooklyn house where Joe was born, and Marguerite, an Ursuline nun and Catholic grammar-school principal who held well-publicized prayer vigils for both Frank and the Yankees.
But above all, the Torre family saga is about the relationship of a close-knit Brooklyn family. Joseph Torre, a New York City police detective, and his wife, Margaret—had five children before separating in the 1950s. (Strict Catholics, they never divorced.) Marguerite recalls her father, who died in 1975, as "a very domineering person—very gentle and loving with me, but very hard on my brothers." Especially Rocco, whom he would not allow to drop out of St. John's University and sign with the Dodgers. He wanted Rocco, who later became a police officer, to pursue a career that promised security; he considered baseball, says Rocco's son Ronnie, "sort of a bum's life." By contrast, Margaret Torre, who died on Mother's Day 1974, was a fixture at her boys' high school and sandlot games, fingering her rosary as she watched from the stands. "She would give dirty looks to anyone who booed my brothers," says Marguerite. "She loved her sons. She loved us too, but she definitely favored her boys."
Not yet a teenager when his father moved out, Joe turned to his big brothers for a paternal hand. Frank was still at home, but Rocco had married and started his own family. "I think Rocco was like the father image to Joe," says Marguerite. "Frank, of course, was his hero. I would say he almost worshipped Frank."
Undeterred by his now-absent father, Frank signed with the Boston Braves in 1951 and made the club—by then relocated to Milwaukee—in 1956. He would spend seven years in the majors as a slick-fielding first baseman, helping the Braves win their first World Series in 43 years in 1957. Along the way, he paid for Joe to attend a private high school, St. Francis Prep, where he was a star pitcher. Come summer, Frank would invite Joe to hang out with the Braves, shine the ballplayers' shoes and soak up the atmosphere. Joe yearned to follow Frank to the majors, but big brother rode him hard about his weight. "I knew how much he wanted to play baseball," Frank says. "The way he was going, he had no chance. He weighed somewhere between 230 and 240 pounds when he was 15."
"I was fat, yeah," Joe says. "The players I played with used to kid me. I used to wait until they went out on the field before I showered, so they wouldn't be around." Urging him to become a catcher, where weight and speed are less crucial, Frank also pushed Joe to join the Cadets, a Brooklyn amateur team. Joe proved a standout and eventually signed with the Braves. He eventually slimmed down en route to 18 distinguished years with the Braves, St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets, during which he was chosen nine times as an all-star. In his best year, 1971, he led the league with a .363 batting average and won the MVP award. After retiring in 1977, Joe went on to manage the Braves, Mets and Cardinals. Frank, meanwhile, had moved on to a long career with Figgie International, Inc., retiring as president of the licensing division in 1985. But even after Frank was far removed from baseball, Joe sought his counsel and approval, calling him almost daily.
The brothers also remained close with Rocco, who spent more than 30 years as a New York police officer and Drug Enforcement agent. Rocco and Joe had a special tradition. "Whenever I would go home, he would always stop at the airport to give me bagels," Joe says. "There is nothing like New York bagels. In fact that Sunday before he died, we were home, and he'd shown up at the ballpark and brought bagels." Rocco, who rarely watched the Yankees on TV because he found it too nerve-racking, tuned in on June 21, when New York launched a stirring comeback win against Cleveland. Later that evening, Rocco died of a massive heart attack. Joe coped by disappearing deeper into the game he loved. "I could go to baseball, immerse myself in work," says Joe. "That's been a place I've been hiding for years."
When Rocco died, Frank Torre was awaiting a heart transplant. He'd had three heart attacks since 1984 and was now totally incapacitated. This time, Joe played big brother, sending Frank to Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan, home of one of the world's finest heart-transplant programs. When Frank checked in on Aug. 5, he had to be carried into the building. "By the time my brother died, I considered myself dead," says Frank. "I didn't even have enough energy to grieve."
At about 3 a.m. on Oct. 25, hours after he had seen the Yankees edge Atlanta, 1-0, in the World Series' fifth game, Frank Torre was awakened by Roxanne Gerow-Smith, a nurse at Columbia-Presbyterian, calling with the news that a heart donor had finally been found. The next day, surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz recalls, Frank was placid and confident while being prepped for the four-hour surgery. "He looked just like his brother looks when he's waiting in the dugout," Oz says.
A couple of hours after the surgery, Joe arrived in the recovery room. "They looked at each other and Frank realized who it was," says Oz. "He lifted up his right hand and Joe kissed it."
Today, Frank is on the mend, with an excellent prognosis. And now that the tumult has passed and the ticker tape has been swept away, Joe has time to reflect on what he has learned from a championship season that was about so much more than winning games. He thinks back to that defining moment, after the Yankees won the pennant, when the nation's TV cameras caught him weeping in the dugout. Many thought it was because he had finally made it to the Series, filling the one great void in his life. But that wasn't it at all. "My family just came to mind and I started choking up," Torre says. "I thought I wanted this very badly all these years, until I realized how many other people wanted it for me more than I wanted it for myself."
NANCY MATSUMOTO in New York City
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