Joe Torre was MLB's Executive Vice President for Baseball Operations for just over ten months, but he made his mark on a host of issues. Torre is what you'd call "old-school baseball." A traditionalist. A vote in favor of "the way it's always been done." He so often relied on that traditional view to keep baseball from moving forward in the 21st Century. Now that he's left MLB to pursue a purchase of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the league can and should move in a different direction.
Here's a sampling of Torre's greatest hits as Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations.
No issue separates baseball traditionalists from baseball progressives more than the role of umpires and the use of instant replay. From the start, Torre placed his hand firmly on the umpires' side. In April, he told the Los Angeles Times that he wanted "umpires to feel as much a part of the game as players" and he "vowed to do everything he could to support them." The comments were amorphous and not tied to any particular policy or initiative. As the season wore on, however, Torre's position became more clear.
Last July 26, the Pittsburgh Pirates played the Atlanta Braves for 19 innings at Turner Field. The game ended in a Braves victory when home plate umpire Jerry Meals called Julio Lugo safe at home on this controversial play. After reviewing video of the play following the game, Meals admitted that he probably got the call wrong, that Lugo was out, and the game should have continued.
Torre's response? According this ESPN.com article, Torre "lamented the error" but said that "mistakes are part of the game." Torre continued, "Most in the game recognize that the human element always will be part of baseball and instant replay can never replace judgment calls by umpires."
That's simply untrue. Many in the game continue to favor the "human element" but many others believe that instant replay can -- and should -- replace many types of judgment calls by umpires.
In the new collective bargaining agreement, the owners and players rejected Torre's view and agreed to expand the use of instant replay for fair/foul calls, line drive/trap calls and fan interference calls. It's a good first step. As technology improves, and old-school umpires are replaced with younger, more forward-thinking ones, replay can and should be expanded even more. Getting the call correct, quickly and fairly, is more important than preserving the "human element." Here's hoping that Torre's replacement has a more open-minded approach to umpiring and instant replay.
Collisions at Home Plate
Last May, San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey suffered a horrific, season-ending injury to his left leg and ankle after a fierce collision at home plate with Florida Marlins outfielder Scott Cousins. If the image of the collision isn't seared in your memory (like it is in mine), you can look at the video again here. Just days after the Posey-Cousins play, Houston Astros catcher Humberto Quintero and Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Ryan Doumit suffered injuries after home-plate collisions. Lots of smart folks around the game started asking whether MLB rules should be changed to better protect catchers from direct hits when there is an otherwise clear path for the runner from the baseline to home plate.
Torre was firmly in the "no rule change needed because its always been done that way" camp, a position he maintained until the end of his tenure with MLB. Torre is wrong. As Baseball Nation's Rob Neyer and Jason Brannon argued at the time of the collisions, the rules can and should be changed to protect catchers from career-threatening injuries. Jason: "'Take it like a man' has been baseball's answer to the problem of home-plate collisions. It's not working. Let's try something else."
I couldn't agree more. And with Torre gone from MLB's executive suites, it's time for someone new to take a fresh look.
Early on in Torre's tenure, he made some noise about enforcing a decades-old rule prohibiting players on opposing teams from "fraternizing" with each other on the field. The rule was imposed back in the 19th century to keep players from "fixing" games for betting purposes. It's been honored in the breach for decades. Torre's move to re-energize the rule grew out of his desire to have players maintain their "rivalries" when on the field of play.
Nothing much came of the effort. Well, except an interesting back-and-forth between me and Rob, before I joined Baseball Nation. At the time, I wrote on my HangingSliders blog that baseball fans seemed nonchalant about watching opposing players chatting it up before and during games, while fans of professional basketball did object to on-court hugging by game-day adversaries. Rob countered that Torre had every right to still be concerned about the possibility of players fixing games, and since the rule was on the books, why not enforce it.
There's been no mention of Torre's anti-fraternization ideas for months. You'd think if MLB was particularly concerned, it would have raised it in negotiations with the players over the new CBA. Nothing. Hopefully (at least from my perspective), this Torre-driven meme died on the vine.
And there were others. Torre was involved in MLB's effort to keep the New York Mets from wearing 9/11-inspired first-responder caps during their September 11, 2011 game broadcast by ESPN on Sunday Night Baseball. Mets players reported that they were threatened with steep fines if they wore the commemorative caps during the game. Torre denied that fines were threatened, but the Mets players abided MLB's wishes, must to their -- and the fans' -- chagrin. Let's hope this issue is handled more responsibly for September 11, 2012 games.
Torre also threatened to ban beer in all clubhouses, after the Red Sox-beer-fried-chicken saga made the rounds following Boston's epic September collapse. The idea was roundly criticized for several reasons, not the least of which was the hypocrisy of MLB's historically lenient treatment of players arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol and its tolerance of other vices like chewing tobacco. And while the new CBA did address the chewing tobacco issue, nothing came of the proposed clubhouse beer ban. Which was smart, because banning beer in all clubhouses following the Red Sox drama would have been the equivalent of cutting off someone's head to cure her cold.
And so Joe Torre departs, with hopes of one day sitting in the owners' circle. For the here and now, baseball operations needs a leader who is grounded in the sport's rich history but moving firmly and steadily toward the future.