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Yankees vs. Dodgers clash is really about Joe Torre vs. Joe Torre

The billboards came down late this week, just as Torre was turning the so-called rivalry into a love-in. He called Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter on Wednesday to welcome him to Los Angeles. He went to breakfast Thursday morning with a Yankees trainer and clubhouse manager. He showed up at Angel Stadium on Thursday afternoon, saw the Yankees beat crew waiting for him in the dugout, and said: "Old home week."

The Dodgers kick off their three-game extravaganza against the Yankees at Chavez Ravine on Friday night, the kind of spectacle that interleague play was invented for. "The odd thing is I'm going to be in that dugout pulling against people I've never pulled against," Torre said. He used to rejoice whenever he saw Yankees closer Mariano Rivera emerge from the bullpen. Now he dreads the thought.

No fan under age 30 can remember the Yankees and Dodgers playing in the World Series -- which they've done 11 times, most recently in 1977, '78 and '81 -- but all remember Torre leaving the Yankees and winding up with the Dodgers less than three years ago. Since then, he has barely spoken with Yankees general manager Brian Cashman and only called owner George Steinbrenner to congratulate him for winning the World Series last season. Torre watched those World Series games on television, but said: "Not one night did I wish I was in the dugout."

He is far cozier with Yankees players than with the front office. He still talks about the Core Four as his adopted children and they still talk about him as their second father. The fact that Jeter will turn 36 on Saturday amazes him to no end. "They're still kids to me," Torre said. He even refers to their manager, Joe Girardi, as a "tough kid." Before Girardi took over the Yankees, he called Torre for his blessing, and Torre told him: "That's perfect."

The tale of Torre's departure is old news, but it will resurface this weekend, as the backdrop of the series. The way Torre recreated events Thursday, he knew it was time to leave, and the low-ball contract offer just gave him an excuse. "I stayed a long time, maybe too long," he said. "I was very stressed out." He discovered in L.A. what so many other dispatched New Yorkers have found over the years: a place to work and relax at the same time. "I wanted to see if it could be fun again," Torre said, "and it was fun here."

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The Dodgers gave Torre a second wind, but he gave them something much more valuable. Besides guiding them to two straight NL West championships, he has provided the organization with credibility, a commodity in short supply under the ownership of Frank and Jamie McCourt. While the McCourts are locked in an epic divorce -- these are people who could reportedly pay up to $19 million in legal fees but can't seem to afford a No. 5 starter -- Torre sits in front of the cameras every day and puts a respectable face on the franchise.

But even he has limits. Before beating the Angels on Thursday night, the Dodgers had lost six in a row and nine of 11, suffering from the kind of mental lapses that speak to a team's make-up. Trailing by one run with one out in the ninth inning Wednesday, Matt Kemp was picked off second base. Then, with two out and Reed Johnson at second, Jamey Carroll dropped a single into left field. Johnson cruised home with what should have been the tying run, but before he could make it, Russell Martin was tagged out taking too wide a turn around second. The Dodgers lost, and one night later, did not seem to have learned much. When Carroll beat a throw to second on a fielder's choice, he presumed he was out and jogged back toward the dugout, whereupon the Angels tagged him.

"You need more than ability to play this game," Torre said. "You need to be able to think."

Not all can be blamed on the McCourts. The Dodgers still have a payroll that is more than twice as much as the Padres, who lead them in the NL West. With Torre in the final year of his contract, the stakes are high for a turnaround.

Perhaps the Dodgers can kick-start themselves by hosting this weekend's Joe Torre Reunion. He will hug the Core Four. He will shake hands with Alex Rodriguez. He will do everything but put on the pinstripes and make the calls to Rivera. Renewed acquaintances could go a long way toward easing him back into the Yankee family, his jersey number on the façade, a Joe Torre Day sometime in the future. "I certainly won't resist," he said, and with that the friendliest rivalry in sports was renewed.