NEW YORK -- As is his annual custom, Joe Torre is vacationing in Hawaii this month, far removed from the Yankee machinery that nearly swallowed him up after the disastrous Division Series. But unlike recent offseasons, Torre is safe from Tampa's slings and arrows. In fact, he's been actively involved in the club's decision-making process instead of being frozen out by George Steinbrenner.
One high-ranking Yankee official says the relationship between the two "is better now than it's been in a long time" -- which is obviously good news for Torre, going into a season where the Yankees are expected to return to the World Series.
With Johnny Damon assuming the leadoff spot, Torre is blessed with potentially the greatest offensive powerhouse of the current Yankee era. Coupled with the Red Sox's offseason decline, the Bombers think this is their best chance for a world championship since the current drought began in 2001.
In any other year, however, such high expectations would've only gunned Steinbrenner's second-guessing engines, giving him an excuse to undercut Torre at the first hint of an April or May slump. But the poisonous chemistry appears to have changed, finally, after a dramatic face-to-face with Steinbrenner following the first-round loss to the Angels last October.
Bleeding after a long summer of Steinbrenner's harpooning, Torre flew to Tampa to clear the air. The two sat in a conference room at Legends Field and acknowledged the many poisonings of their relationship. First on the agenda was the YES Network's postgame questions, which Torre felt were Steinbrenner's way of sabotaging him in public. The manager was convinced the network's reporters were encouraged, it not ordered, to challenge his decisions, a tactic that fooled no one, least of all Torre.
Even today, he's still feeling the burn. Torre has chosen not to participate in YES' pregame show in 2006, a decision that will cost him $300,000 in appearance fees. Still, Torre considers it a fair tradeoff for the simple pleasure of saying "no" to Tampa.
Aside from spurning Steinbrenner's personal network, however, Torre's détente with the club's hierarchy appears real. A person familiar with the Tampa summit said, "Everything that needed to be said in that room was said."
Torre subsequently became the lead recruiter during the Yankees' courtships of Brian Giles and Nomar Garciaparra, although in both instances, not even Torre's personal appeals convinced the free agents to wear pinstripes. But with Steinbrenner's blessing, Torre again worked the phones when the Bombers pursued Damon.
This time Torre sounded all the right notes -- coming off as a man in control of his surroundings. After all, it was Torre who prevailed in getting Ron Guidry named as pitching coach, despite the fact that the ex-Yankee star had no previous experience in the field. And Torre was instrumental in luring Larry Bowa to be his third base coach, even though putting so much trust in a stranger -- and a former manager, to boot -- can sometimes be the equivalent of jump-starting a mutiny.
But Torre never once considered the possibility of Bowa's disloyalty. As one American League official put it, "He's the most secure [manager] in the league."
Indeed, Torre has two years remaining on his contract and convinced Damon he has no intention of walking away or getting fired before the 2007 season is over. Compared to the disarray in Boston, the Yankees' stability struck a chord with Damon, who promptly signed a four-year, $52 million contract with the Bombers.
In Damon and Derek Jeter, the Yankees now have a 1-2 combination similar to the Chuck Knoblauch-Jeter era, which led to three consecutive world championships and four American League pennants. Although there are lingering questions about the starting rotation -- Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina should be no better in 2006 than they were in 2005, only a year older, and Carl Pavano's attitude and health are equally unresolved -- no one figures to pressure the Yankees the way the Red Sox have in the last two seasons.
That'll give Torre room to breathe. And it doesn't hurt that GM Brian Cashman, his most loyal ally in the organization, has emerged as the most dominant figure in the baseball operations department. Like Torre, Cashman languished for weeks after the playoffs before deciding to return to the Bronx. He did so, signing a three-year deal worth $5.5 million, but not until he had a promise that he -- and not any of the Boss' Tampa-based acolytes -- would be entrusted with the Yankees' personnel decisions.
Steinbrenner vowed to transfer the team's day-to-day authority to Cashman, and has so far lived up to his word. It was Cashman who single-handedly kept the Yankees from trading for Milton Bradley during the winter meetings. And it was Cashman who stonewalled Scott Boras while the agent was trying to convince the world that Damon's demand for a seven-year contract was perfectly logical.
As long as Cashman remains in power, Torre is safe -- for tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Cashman likes to brag, "We're going to be like the 29 other clubs [delegating power]."
No more factions, no more cliques, and finally, no need for the manager to watch his back.
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.