COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. (AP) — Joe Torre still needs a pinch or two, just to make sure.
“It’s still sort of unbelievable,” he said. “Cooperstown was always something way out there. OK, I know where it is. Doesn’t mean I’m going there to visit, much less be inducted. I never had a goal of getting to the Hall of Fame.”
That’s exactly where he’s headed Sunday.
Torre will be inducted with fellow former managers Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa in what is a banner year for the baseball shrine. Pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine and slugger Frank Thomas also will enter.
Torre, La Russa, and Cox were unanimously elected in December by the Hall’s Expansion Era committee.
It was a tense time for Torre.
“I sort of was torn emotionally with the fact that Bobby and Tony were on the ballot,” he said. “I remember having dinner with Tony the night before the announcement. Whoever gets in, if the other one doesn’t get in, it’s sort of going to feel unfair. Our three careers just really mirrored each other.”
“When the three of us got in, I think it just made it that much sweeter. It was probably the first time we stopped lying to each other,” he said.
There’s always been a mutual admiration among La Russa, Cox and Torre, contemporaries who rank third, fourth and fifth, respectively, in all-time managerial wins.
“I always felt like Joe was the best at teaching a team the right way to win and lose,” said La Russa, who compiled 2,728 wins in 33 seasons with the Chicago White Sox, Oakland and St. Louis, behind only Connie Mack (3,731) and John McGraw (2,763). “A loss, they never made excuses. Just got beat.”
“But they won. They won a lot, and they never showed up the other side,” La Russa said. “They never embarrassed you because they beat you, and I can’t say the same for other teams and other managers.”
While Torre excelled as a player — in 1971 he won National League MVP honors with a signature season that included 230 hits and a .363 average, 97 runs, and 137 RBIs for the Cardinals — he became something special in the New York Yankees’ dugout. Despite mediocre stints managing the New York Mets, Atlanta and the Cardinals (five winning seasons in 15 years), Torre was hired by the Yankees prior to the 1996 season.
“That was a good sign for me, trust me,” said Torre, the only man to amass more than 2,000 hits (2,342) as a player and win more than 2,000 games (2,326) as a manager, according to STATS.
“After you’ve been fired three times and then you get hired by the Yankees, that was a good sign. I figured it was all said and done by that point in time,” he said.
Ever the diplomat, Torre somehow managed to assuage the most demanding of owners in George Steinbrenner, maintaining his coolness amid all the Bronx craziness while keeping all those egos in check. The result: 10 division titles, six AL pennants and four World Series triumphs in 12 years as he helped restore the luster to baseball’s most successful franchise.
Heady territory for a guy who never played in the Fall Classic.
“It was magical. I never took it for granted,” said Torre, who today serves as Major League Baseball’s executive vice president for baseball operations. “I just think it’s so important to respect this game, just the fact that you can leave your mark and possibly wind up in a place like this, even though that’s not why you play the game. It’s just been an amazing ride for me.”
La Russa’s teams finished first 12 times and won six pennants, and he was picked as Manager of the Year four times, finishing second in the voting five other times. He went to the World Series three straight years from 1988-90 and also lost in the 2004 World Series when his Cardinals were swept by the Boston Red Sox.
That La Russa found success in the dugout and not as a player is not a surprise. He made his big league debut as a teenage infielder with the 1963 Kansas City Athletics and appeared in just 132 games over six seasons, hitting .199 with no home runs and seven RBIs.
“How lousy I was, I was hoping the guy wouldn’t call me in to play. That’s the truth,” La Russa said. “Then I got to thinking, I can’t make a living, so I went to law school.”
La Russa tried to finance his way through law school as a player-coach in the White Sox organization, and quickly learned there was a lot more to managing than simply making out a lineup card. That allowed La Russa the opportunity to question and second-guess and it all “got my fires going.”
After graduation, La Russa decided to see if he could manage in the minors to get the bug out, with the ultimate goal of becoming a lawyer. The White Sox gave him Double-A and Triple-A assignments, and he was hooked, becoming a devoted student of the game.
In 1983, he managed the White Sox to their first postseason berth in 24 years, and 13 years later he rewarded new Cardinals owners with a division title in his first season in St. Louis (1996). That ended the franchise’s nine-year postseason slump, and they made it to the playoffs nine times in 16 seasons overall.
La Russa also had 70 postseason victories, trailing only Torre’s 84, and he and his role model, Sparky Anderson, are the only managers to win the World Series in both leagues. La Russa credits early conversations with Anderson, Paul Richards, Earl Weaver, Chuck Tanner, Gene Michael, and Billy Martin for much of his success.
“We watched all these masters,” La Russa said. “We would study the managers, and there was this one guy in Toronto that after the second series we played against him we agreed, ‘Hey, this guy is as good as any of them.’ His name was Bobby Cox.”
The fiery Cox — he was ejected a major league record 161 times — guided the Braves to an unprecedented 14 straight division titles and 15 playoff appearances. Many of those wins came with Maddux and Glavine on the mound for him.
When Cox, who also spent four years in Toronto, retired after the 2010 season he was the fourth-winningest manager with 2,504 victories in 29 seasons.
To be sure, induction day will be one to remember.
“The entire thing can never happen again in a million years, I don’t think,” Cox said. “A manager being able to go in with two of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball, and then going in with two fellow managers at the same time. I don’t think that’s ever, ever going to happen again.”