Wednesday February 20th, 2008

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- In the fall of 1995, Joe Torre called his brother-in-law with the big news. After being fired by the Mets, the Braves and finally the Cardinals, Torre was getting a chance to manage again. His brother-in-law, a passionate baseball fan from Cincinnati named Gary Even, would be thrilled. "Hey Gary," Torre said. "I got a job."

"Great," Even said. "As long as it's not the Yankees or the Dodgers."

Torre spent the next 12 years with the Yankees, winning the World Series four times. But last fall, he called Even to tell him that he was moving on to another job. Even could finally rejoice. Then Torre told him who this new job was with: the Dodgers.

"Oh my God," Even said.

Torre completely understood the reaction. He grew up in Brooklyn, hating the Yankees and the Dodgers, resenting that they always seemed to play in the World Series. He rooted for the Giants, clearly the third of New York's big-league triumvirate.

"I grew up a Giants' fan," Torre said. "And here I am managing the other two."

He was sitting in a golf cart Sunday in Vero Beach, Fla., watching pitchers take batting practice. It was the first sign that his life has changed. He is back in the National League, where pitchers hit and managers have to master the art of the double-switch.

"Other league, other coast," Torre said. "I couldn't have gotten farther away."

With the Yankees, he was just one headliner in a clubhouse full of them. No matter how many pitching changes he made, he could not match Q ratings with Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens or Derek Jeter. Like all good managers, Torre tried to deflect attention from his players. But more often than not, they deflected attention from him.

The Dodgers have their share of high-profile performers -- center fielder Andruw Jones, catcher Russell Martin and starting pitcher Derek Lowe. But make no mistake, Torre is the star here. He cannot drive his golf cart 10 feet without running into a mob of pedestrians. It does not help that he is in Vero Beach, a haven for New York retirees.

This is the Dodgers' last spring in Vero and Torre is well-suited to reminisce with the transplants. Even though he despised the Dodgers as a boy, he played in a youth All-Star Game at Ebbets Field when he was 16. Coaching his squad was Pee Wee Reese.

The Dodgers look at Torre much the way Torre looked at Reese. They are awed and a little bit intimidated. The scruffy ones are concerned Torre will make players cut their hair or shave their goatees -- the way he did in New York. "That wasn't my rule," Torre clarified. "That was a Yankee rule. We are a little more liberal here."

During the off-season, Torre studied the Dodgers, not for their appearance but for their production level. Poring over statistics in media guides, he kept coming across the same number -- 23. "It seems like they're all 23 years old," he said. "They're all kids."

When Torre embarked on his first spring training with the Yankees, in 1996, he noticed something similar. The Yankees had a blossoming batch of home-grown players that included Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams and Jeter. The new generation of Dodgers includes Matt Kemp, James Loney and Martin. Torre does not dare make any comparisons, but it is obvious he would not have come here unless he saw talent.

Los Angeles has become the hot destination for celebrity coaches, no matter the sport. Phil Jackson won six championships with the Chicago Bulls, but left for the Lakers to show that he could succeed elsewhere. Torre won four titles with the Yankees, but before that he failed bitterly in the National League, so he too has something to prove.

Between Torre and Jackson, Los Angeles boasts two of the most accomplished coaches in professional sports. And between USC football coach Pete Carroll and UCLA basketball coach Ben Howland, the city also has two of the most celebrated coaches in the college game. When Torre came to L.A. this winter, he expected to blend right in.

"But people still know who I am," he said. "It must be my nose."

Most of the people who approach Torre ask some variation of the same question: What in the world are you doing here? After all, Torre is 67, a native New Yorker, a lock to make the Hall of Fame. After he left the Yankees in October -- rejecting a one-year contract for $5 million, down from his $7.5 million annual salary -- he could have simply gone home, spent more time with his family and followed his beloved racehorses. Instead, he signed on with the Dodgers for three more years, at less than $5 million a year. Torre looks down at the jersey he is wearing, white with royal blue script.

"It all goes back to when I was growing up," he said. "It was the Yankees and the Dodgers. They were the standard."

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.