Torre's back? He never should have left

NEW YORK -- Joe Torre should have taken the pay cut. In the fall of 2007, when the devil on his left shoulder was shouting down the angel on his right, Torre should have grabbed the $5 million and incentives and held fast to the greatest job in American sports.

Torre proved the point Monday night at the new Yankee Stadium, when he returned home to honor an owner who was the best big-league thing that ever happened to him, and by a country mile.

A fading George Steinbrenner and his odd-couple sons, or Frank and Jamie McCourt and a divorce from the deepest corner of hell? Offer Torre a mulligan right here, right now, and yes, he would agree to tee it up in the Bronx in the spring of 2008.

Once again, with feeling, you make someone fire you when you hold one of these three jobs: head coach of the Dallas Cowboys; head football coach at Notre Dame; manager of the New York Yankees.

Joe Torre wasn't fired. He might've received an offer designed for him to refuse, and he might've realized powerful front office forces wanted him going, going, gone.

But we all have crosses to bear in our workplace. Torre's would've been dealing with fractured ownership support, a blood enemy in team president Randy Levine, and the built-in emasculation that comes with making a guaranteed $7.5 million one year and a guaranteed $5 million the next.

Torre should've swallowed hard and taken the deal. He would've made the playoffs Joe Girardi missed in 2008 -- Torre reached 12 postseasons in 12 attempts here, so he earned the benefit of the doubt -- and he likely would've survived long enough to benefit from the $423.5 million the Steinbrenners spent on CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett.

Instead Torre called the incentive-based offer an "insult," surrendered to his own pride, and traded the Yankees for a team to be named a little later. That team turned out to be the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Dodgers are a lot of things, but the Yankees they are not.

"Trust me," Torre said of his time in L.A., "I've signed more Yankee stuff than I ever signed Dodger stuff."

Only this isn't solely about prestige, and the magnitude of the Yankees brand when measured against the Dodgers brand. This isn't solely about Torre's lost opportunity to close down the old Yankee Stadium across the street, and to bring down its replacement with a 2009 title that would've secured his one for the thumb.

This is about Torre's choice of employers, too. Fired by the Mets, Braves and Cardinals before Steinbrenner hired him on the advice of an aide, Arthur Richman, Torre fully understood a place in the Boss' line of fire wasn't without its upside. "At least when you get fired here," he once said, "you had a chance to win."

Torre would liken himself to Charlie Brown, to a down-on-his-luck guy waiting for Lucy to hold the ball. Steinbrenner held the ball. In time, the Boss gave Torre the biggest payroll, the best talent, and the fattest wage, salvaging the manager's legacy as much as the manager enhanced his.

In a news conference he attended with his Dodgers' successor-to-be, Don Mattingly, Torre recalled the first championship run in 1996 as the best time he ever shared with the Boss. As the Orioles closed hard on the Yankees near the end of the season, Steinbrenner had warned Torre he'd go down as another Ralph Branca if he blew such a big divisional lead.

The Yankees clinched, and suddenly Steinbrenner was on the line. "Hi," Torre said, "this is Bobby Thomson."

No, nothing could beat that dreamy run in '96, the Jeffrey Maier homer, the comeback from two games down to the Braves in the World Series.

"The emotion of that first year," Torre said, "was something that I felt lasted forever."

Only it didn't last forever. Torre lost his October touch, started losing first-round series to leaner and meaner opponents, and ultimately told the Steinbrenners and Levine and Brian Cashman to take their incentives and stuff them.

"When I left," Torre said, "that was a very dark time for me."

Torre led the Dodgers to the back-to-back National League Championship Series, but the McCourts wore him out, made him cry uncle, made him yearn for the silent treatment from the Boss.

So there was Torre at the Stadium on Monday night, a 70-year-old man fleeing the dysfunctional Dodgers, their dwindling prospects and their diminishing payroll. He wants another job in baseball. He needs another job in baseball.

Asked if he'd listen if Fred and Jeff Wilpon called him about the Mets, Torre said, "Oh, there is no question."

But on this night he was more concerned about the Yankees, about restoring some of the bridges he napalmed in his book. Torre shared a hug with Cashman, who took a direct hit in "The Yankee Years," and told the GM, "Hey, we've got to talk." So they sat down and talked for the first time since the book's release.

"The Boss," Cashman said, "is a great individual for bringing people together."

And for bringing people back.

Finally, the excommunicated Torre came back, and Cashman reminded everyone that the framed photos of a champagne-soaked Steinbrenner and Torre and the trophies represented some of the happiest days of the Boss' life.

Joe was good for George, and George was even better for Joe.

On his walk out to Monument Park with his wife, Ali, for the Steinbrenner tribute, a teary-eyed Torre waved and blew kisses to the fans. The videoboard showed him long enough for the crowd to cheer, but not long enough to turn George's night into Joe's night.

Before the outsize monument to the outsize Boss was revealed, Torre said Steinbrenner belonged in the Hall of Fame. Joe was only giving back to George. Managing the Yankees, Torre allowed, "made my whole career."

Yes it did. And if you didn't believe that's a career Torre should've extended in the Bronx, consider where he is now:

Looking for a job. Looking for a home.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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