Dodgers still a natural fit for Torre

PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. -- It was around lunchtime Thursday when the dark blue SUV pulled up to the front door of the desert resort where Major League Baseball's quarterly owners meetings were already wrapping. Most of the owners and general managers, who had been invited to the festivities by commissioner Bud Selig for the first time, were already heading to the airport when the last person to show up got out of the backseat, one hand holding a cell phone to his ear and the other clutching a Starbucks cup.

After all these years, and all those championships, Joe Torre has earned the right to arrive fashionably late. And at an event where almost everyone wore a suit and tie, he didn't have to apologize for wearing a striped oxford shirt, a pair of casual pants and black tennis shoes.

With his 70th birthday looming and the Hall of Fame not too far behind, it's a good time to be Joe Torre.

Torre wasn't actually late at all. The special committee to which Selig had appointed him and three other managers wasn't scheduled to convene for another hour, the final event on these meetings' itinerary. All the more reason, then, for Torre to stop and reflect on his first two seasons as manager of the Dodgers -- which, perhaps more notably, were his first two seasons as the former manager of the New York Yankees.

"It has been great," Torre said. "Coming in here, I really didn't know what to expect. My life has been baseball. The happy and sad times in my life really have come from whatever baseball situation I have been in. This has been a very positive situation, and the results have been great.''

So great, in fact, that Torre now appears fresher and more energetic than he did when he first took over the Dodgers a little more than two years ago, just removed from an acrimonious departure in New York.

The highs there had come in the beginning, when he had led the Yankees to a world championship in his first season, won three more in the four years that followed and then made a couple of more trips to the World Series. The lows, as the familiar story goes, began with the 2004 American League Championship Series, when the Yankees blew a three-game lead and lost to the hated Boston Red Sox. That was followed by three consecutive first-round exits, then Torre's final, unceremonious one.

That bitter aftertaste was still evident the next spring, his first with the Dodgers.

"When I first got to spring training, I don't want to use the term 'hung over,' but I was anemic and I was tired," he said. "And I had just had a knee replacement, and I wasn't getting around that well."

He also had a three-year contract that at the time seemed almost certain to be his last, in his own mind and in the minds of most observers. It would take him to age 70, at which point he figured to be over it all.

Somewhere along the way, however, although no longer blessed with veteran-laden teams and $200 million payrolls, Torre rediscovered what he had once craved about this job. He also came to the sudden realization that he might want to do it a little longer than he, Dodgers owner Frank McCourt or general manager Ned Colletti originally had planned.

"We talked about two years when I first came in," Torre said. "But I said I wanted three because I didn't know what was going to happen that first year and I didn't want to go into the second year with everybody talking about it being my last year. As it turned out, it's perfectly natural for me, feelingwise, to go into this third year. These last couple of years, there has been enough satisfaction involved. More than anything, when I talk to players, I feel like I can still do what I do. I would like to believe that I would have enough of a sense for people to recognize if a time comes when I can't do that anymore."

That time isn't now. Not after Torre and his mostly handpicked coaching staff has turned what had been a young and seemingly directionless team before its arrival into a back-to-back division winner and National League Championship Series participant. It is for that reason that Torre is open to adding at least one more year to his contractual commitment and is in negotiations with McCourt and Colletti to do just that.

Beyond that, nobody knows. Not even Torre, who said "2011 is it for sure," before adding, "but I have lied before."

The Dodgers don't have a fourth starter to replace Randy Wolf. They don't have a fourth outfielder to replace Juan Pierre. Their payroll is expected to shrink considerably from last year's estimated $100 million. But after consecutive NLCS losses to Philadelphia that, except for their five-game duration, bore no resemblance to each other, Torre is convinced this team is ready to take the next step.

It's a step he has taken many times and is hungry to take again.

"This time, [after losing to the Phillies,] it was like these players realized they were very close to doing something," Torre said. "It was different from the year before, when they were just happy to be there, so to speak. … Last year, we were able to build on top of that. I thought it was very impressive for these kids to be able to do it when they were expected to do it."

The trick now will be to build on it again, at a time when the rest of the NL West is better and the Dodgers, at least for now, have done more subtracting than adding.

"To me, I think our division has a chance to be the strongest in our league," Torre said. "Really, the key to our success will be the progress of our young players. Matt Kemp made huge strides last year. [James] Loney found out something about himself. I would like to rest Casey Blake a little more this year because I think we kind of forced it with him at the end last year. And Blake DeWitt, we're going to give him a shot at playing second base. We would still like to shore up our pitching staff, no question.''

Torre said he isn't entirely sure what he wants to do when he retires. He just finished the gargantuan task of moving the headquarters of his charitable organization, Safe at Home, from New York, and he says that will be a primary focus of his post-managerial life. He also would like to stay in the game in some capacity, perhaps as an assistant to Colletti.

"But I told him I don't want to be a special assistant," Torre said. "I don't want to have to make decisions."

Safe at Home, an organization that works to prevent domestic violence, has moved to L.A. with Torre, one more indication that his successful but turbulent tenure in New York really is behind him now, a distant memory that will launch him to Cooperstown but one on which he doesn't dwell.

"We're just getting a little more entrenched in Los Angeles," he said.

Two years after finding a soft landing there, it is starting to look as if Torre might stay for a while.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.