BY MARK FEINSAND and CORKY SIEMASZKO
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITERS
Friday, October 19th 2007, 4:00 AM
It's the end of an era.
Yankee skipper Joe Torre yesterday rejected a one-year, "performance-based," $5 million contract to return as manager of the Bronx Bombers, ending a historic run in which he took the team to four World Championships and 12 straight playoff appearances.
The end came after a face-to-face showdown in Tampa with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, in which The Boss refused to sweeten an offer Torre felt he could not accept.
The 67-year-old Torre, looking defiant but tired, returned in darkness to his home in Harrison, Westchester County, where he was met by a gang of photographers, flashes popping at machine-gun speed.
"It's been fun," Torre's wife, Ali, said after her husband walked into the house. "It's always difficult to say goodbye, but there's always hello."
As Torre slammed the door on prospects he might return to run the team he has managed since being hired in 1995, Yankees President Randy Levine said he was ready to find someone else to fill Torre's big shoes. "It is now time for the New York Yankees to move forward," Levine said.
Tributes to Torre, the first New Yorker to manage the Yankees, began pouring in as word of his refusal to bend to Steinbrenner's will rocked the sports world.
"This is a very sad day for anybody who is a Yankee fan," said Yankee fan-in-chief Rudy Giuliani. "Joe Torre was what I think athletes would describe as a class guy. Somebody who transcended baseball."
Mayor Bloomberg lauded Torre as a "great New Yorker who brought historic leadership and excitement - and incredible success - to the Bronx for the past 12 seasons."
Torre's fierce rival, Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona, added, "I think you're going to hear people in baseball, every area of baseball, say very, very kind, respectful things about Joe the next couple days, and they're all deserved."
Torre's fate had been hanging in the balance for 10 days, since the Yanks were bounced out of the first round of the playoffs for the third straight year.
During that time, speculation abounded that bench coach Don Mattingly, Yankees broadcaster Joe Girardi or other baseball stalwarts such as Cardinals manager Tony La Russa and ex-Mets manager Bobby Valentine might replace Torre.
Yesterday, general manager Brian Cashman, Chief Operating Officer Lonn Trost and Levine surprised Yanks watchers by flying Torre to Tampa to meet with The Boss.
Torre had been offered a one-year deal that would have boosted his pay to $8 million if the team made it to the World Series. He flew to Tampa to try to get Steinbrenner to agree to a two-year deal.
"Everybody in this room, including The Boss, wanted him back," Cashman said. But Steinbrenner wouldn't budge and Torre stood up, shook his hand and left, sources told the Daily News.
The offer was a substantial pay cut for Torre, who made $7.5 million in the final year of his three-year, $19.2 million contract - and was the highest-paid manager in Major League Baseball.
"Joe Torre turned down that offer," Levine said after Torre flew back home.
Asked why, Levine said, "We're going to let Joe speak for himself." Torre is set to do just that today at a 2 p.m. press conference in Rye.
Levine explained the thinking behind their "performance-based" contract offer.
"We all have the same goal and that goal wasn't met," he said. "We thought we needed to go to a performance-based model."
Levine said the Yanks' failure to reach the World Series was "not one person's fault. ... It was collectively all of our faults."
Levine also said the offer was "very fair" and "clearly was at the top of the market."
Torre did not lose his cool during the talks.
"Joe was very respectful," Levine said. "He was the dignified man he has been. There was no acrimony, we had an open discussion and he declined the offer."
Superagent Scott Boras, who represents Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez, said Torre had no choice.
"It is ... near impossible to accept a salary cut," Boras told The Associated Press. "Successful people can afford their principles."
After landing at Westchester County Airport, Torre drove home in his gray Mercedes. The house was decorated for Halloween with a Frankenstein hanging from a tree out front and a skeleton emerging from the ground beside an ominous RIP headstone.
Dressed in jeans and a striped shirt, and carrying an issue of USA Today and a briefcase, Torre left the car engine running and did not speak as he made his way to the door. His hand appeared to be shaking as he fit the key into the lock.
Minutes later, Torre's wife pulled up in a silver Mercedes and joined her husband inside. After about five minutes, she came out and turned off the ignition to his car.
"I've got to turn the light off," she said.
Torre has been the Bombers' manager longer than anybody except the legendary Casey Stengel - and the first to guide the Yanks to 12 straight postseason appearances. When Torre succeeded Buck Showalter, the Yankees had not won the World Series since 1978. Few expected the Brooklyn-born Torre to do much better. The Daily News greeted him with the headline, "CLUELESS JOE."
Torre proved everybody wrong. With a mixture of off-field stoicism and on-field success, he kept the meddling Steinbrenner at bay.
Torre also inspired many men to take better care of themselves by going public with his prostate-cancer battle.
Torre's end was foretold last year when he was nearly fired after the Yanks were ousted from the Division Series - despite having the most expensive payroll in baseball.
Just before the Yankees fell to the Cleveland Indians last week, Steinbrenner made it clear that Torre's head was on the block. At the meeting with Torre yesterday, the 77-year-old team owner let his sons, Hank and Hal, do the talking.
"The objective of the Yankees since the '20s has been to win the championship every year," Hank Steinbrenner said. "None of us think we can win the championship every year, but that's the goal."
Torre's exit also puts the future of possibly departing Yankees Alex Rodriguez, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada in doubt.