SARATOGA SPRINGS — He’ll have some key words written out.
A few phrases in mind.
No formal speech, though, will guide Joe Torre when he serves Saturday as one of this year’s Skidmore College Commencement speakers.
That’s by design, but not because of overconfidence. If anything, Torre — the legendary former manager of the New York Yankees — feels nerves ahead of speaking engagements. Still, though, the 78-year-old Torre prefers there be a touch of spontaneity to his address before the 622 students receiving degrees Saturday at Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
“Usually, the emotion of the day takes me one place or another,” Torre said Friday during an interview inside the college’s Arthur Zankel Music Center. “Hopefully, it works well. I look forward to doing it. I get a little nervous because it is something I care about. You want to say something. You don’t want to just show up and blabber and not say anything. I’d like to believe that I can mention something to these young people and have it mean something — if not now, maybe a year from now.”
Along with Torre, Skidmore sociology professor Kristie Ford will serve as the day’s faculty commencement speaker, and MIT professor and physicist Alan Lightman will also deliver a commencement address.
Torre never went to college, but he’ll add an honorary degree from Skidmore to his growing collection.
“I had a scholarship to go to St. John’s in New York, in Queens, but school wasn’t my favorite thing to do,” Torre said.
So, instead, the New York City native worked for a year after high school before signing with the then-Milwaukee Braves. What followed was a long career within professional baseball, first as an all-star player, then as a decorated manager and finally as Major League Baseball's Chief Baseball Officer.
Torre understands why people will want to hear Saturday about his years with the Yankees, but the story he wants to tell more culminates with those years in which he led the MLB franchise to four World Series championships in five years than it starts there.
“The big part of what I’m going to say is really dealing with failure because, to me, that’s part of success,” Torre said. “I went over 4,000 games [in MLB] before I got to a World Series as a player or a manager. So you realize how precious that is when you get there, and the fact that it takes a lot of persistence and resilience. You can’t give up. You have goals on what you want to accomplish, and you hope to hell that you get there.”
Torre finally did in 1996 when he led the Yankees to their first championship in nearly two decades. The Yankees lost in the playoffs the next year, then won the World Series in each of the next three seasons with memorable stars such as Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Bernie Williams leading the way.
“Man, all the sudden, it was like a storm,” said Torre, whose initial hire in New York saw him mocked as “Clueless Joe” because of his relative previous lack of success managing the New York Mets, Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals. “I won every year. It was crazy.”
Torre means that last part, which is why so much of his speech at Skidmore’s 108th commencement will focus on all those years that didn’t end in a championship. There were more of those types of seasons than there were the best kind, and the ability to push through the tougher years made the championship ones possible — and sweeter.
“There may be Yankees fans out there and you could talk about the success, but I think it’s important to talk about the failures, too, because it’s not always a bed of roses,” said Torre, who wears his Hall of Fame ring on his right hand and rotates his World Series rings on his left. “I think why winning feels so good is because you’re so close to losing.”
Torre, a nine-time all-star who won more games as a manager than all but four other men in MLB history, added: “Baseball is full of negative statistics, so you really have to deal with setbacks, and I think that’s important going forward in life, too, because you leave here with a head full of steam as a [Skidmore] graduate and you go out there into the real world and, all the sudden, you’re going to hit a pothole or two. That’s one thing you need to be prepared for.”
And Torre wants to help Skidmore’s newest graduates with that. He’ll lean on stories from his playing days and messages he delivered to teams he managed to do that, and fight off nerves throughout the process.
“I just want to leave them with something,” Torre said. “That’s why I get a little jumpy.”