The Yankee Years

I just finished reading Joe Torre and Tom Verducci’s The Yankee Years, and I’d definitely recommend it.  An excellent, well-written, engaging, and insightful book, not without its faults, The Yankee Years is unlikely to break new ground for many fans who assiduously followed the team throughout Torre’s amazing tenure.  It adheres to the narrative of rise, greatness, and decline that we all know painfully well.

What the book does very well is several things.  At its most basic level, it lends Torre’s words and thoughts to many games, scenarios, confrontations and dealings with the dysfunctional Yankees front office, and dealings with players throughout his twelve years at the helm.  It breaks significant ground by including many of Torre’s views of his players, primarily the stars who filtered in and out of the team, and more so as the team struggled in vain to regain its greatness from 1996-2000.  Not to be overlooked, the book offers a cogent argument into more than the shortcomings in performance that befell the team for the majority of Torre’s tenure, but indeed the fissures that developed into chasms in the philosophical, mental approach the 1996-2000 teams and their players had perfected.  Impressively, a few chapters take a step back from the immediacy of Torre’s and the Yankees’ experiences to situate their decline and recent playoff malaise into larger milieus, such as the prevalence of steroids, the innovative statistical information networks and changing financial structures that gave rise to new rivals percolating in baseball, and the team’s own grappling with these phenomena as, in the book’s argument, the Yankees went from far ahead to far behind other teams in the span of several years.

[Warning: If those who have yet to read the book do not want to get its details spoiled beforehand, you might want to stop reading this lengthy review now.]

There is no question that Torre, and Verducci for that matter, hold certain players such as Jeter, Mariano, Posada, O’Neill, and Cone up with a healthy reverence.  The player who emerges from the book with as lofty a persona, in addition to Jeter and Mariano, is Cone, clearly defined by The Yankee Years as the spokesperson, leader, and pulse of the Yankees from 1996-2000, even as his body betrayed him from injuries and ineffectiveness in 2000.  Cone quite frankly gave everything he had to win, pitching the end of the 2000 season, including the one-batter stint in the World Series against Piazza and the Mets, with a separated left shoulder.  It was Cone who blistered the team at the beginning of the tremendous 1998 season, when the team started 1-4 and got pasted by Seattle 8-0, in a scathing locker room diatribe the day after the embarrassing loss.

Like Torre, Cone was angered by what he saw the previous night.  He watched Seattle designated hitter Edgar Martinez, batting in the eighth inning with a 4-0 lead, take a huge hack on a 3-and-0 pitch from reliever Mike Buddie–five innings after [Jamie] Moyer had dusted [Paul] O’Neill with a pitch.  Cone knew some position players were grumbling after the game that [Andy] Pettite, the Yankees starter, did not retaliate for Moyer’s message pitch, a problem Cone calls “a brewing situation in the clubhouse  between pitchers and hitters that can really cause divisiveness in the clubhouse–a hot-button issue I’ve seen over the years.”

“Listen, everybody knows Andy’s a gamer, but the hitters need to know we’re going to protect them.  We’ve got to get the emotion going here.  We’ve got to look across the way and find something in our opponent we don’t like.  That team took us out in the ’95 playoffs.  I hate this place, the Kingdome.  I left half my arm out on that mound!  I left a vein out on that mound in ’95, and it pisses me off to see these guys walk all over us and us have no pride being the Yankees!”

Cone looked at Tino Martinez, the former Mariner who played on that ’95 Seattle team that knocked off the Yankees. “No offense, Tino,” Cone said.  “You’re over here now, but I f*&%ing hate those guys.  I hate this place.  If you want to find some motivation here, that’s part of it.  It’s also Edgar swinging 3-and-0 trying to take us deep.  They’re sticking it in our face! And there’s only one way to react to that.” (Yankee Years, 43-44.)

That night, the Yankees blistered Seattle 13-7, leading by 11-1 in the fourth inning.  After that, the rest of baseball watched the Yankees as the languid field did Secretariat in the 1973 Belmont Stakes–from way behind, looking at their backside from farther and farther away. Cone would talk people into battle, and did so for that team, setting a win-at-all-costs tone that other leaders such as O’Neill, Tino, Posada, Jeter, Strawberry, Bernie, Pettite, Clemens, and others shared over the years.  From the book, I get that same impression from Tino, although he was someone who, according to Torre, needed to be told how important to the team he was.  Tino was notoriously tough on himself, and Torre would have to call him into his office to discuss things.

“Let me ask you a question,” Torre told Martinez one time.  “I know you don’t want to hear this, but you’re sitting here in the clubhouse and you’re thinking you’re letting everybody down.  If Derek Jeter went 0-for-8, would you feel like he was letting you down?”

“No,” Martinez replied.

“Well, that’s the way we feel about you.” [Yankee Years, 52.]

Paul O’Neill symbolized that self-effacing attitude as well–playing with injuries such as a broken rib, a bum hamstring in the 1996 and 1998 seasons and playoffs, and berating himself to a fault over not hitting in the clutch.  O’Neill was not one to get in the face of teammates.  Rather he rode himself mercilessly for not hitting when it counted.  Said bullpen catcher Mike Borzello:

I remember one time when we played in Detroit and I think he left nine men on base himself.  And I remember him coming in and we lost the game by one or two runs.  We came into the clubhouse, and I remember him saying, ‘You left nine men on base! Nine f*&%ing men on base!’…He wanted to get his hits, but his hits were important to him because of the success of the team.  There are a lot of guys who want a hit every at-bat, but this guy, it was more about not letting the other 24 guys down.  If he didn’t do enough to help the team win the game, he felt like he let everyone down.  And I think people fed off that, that his passion for success and how that translated to the team’s success was what was important to him.” [Yankee Years, 54.]

That typified the dynastic Yankees.  They didn’t need others to berate them, certainly not often.  For the most part, they took care of that themselves, they rode themselves.  They were consistently desperate to win.

That got lost along the way, with a long string of high-priced, self-conscious, self-centered but often talented players, yet nonetheless players who did not fit into the mold of the previous, amazing dynasty.  Players such as Sheffield, Giambi, A-Rod, Rondell White, Kevin Brown, Carl Pavano, Randy Johnson, and others matched these descriptions to various degrees.  Some such as Giambi were good teammates, but Giambi balked at playing in Game 5 of the 2003 World Series because of an injured knee, something that players such as Jeter failed to understand [Yankee Years, 235-236]. I might add this was something that riled Bill Russell about Wilt Chamberlain, his friend but bitter rival during their respectively great and intertwined careers, when Wilt took himself out with about five minutes to go in a tight Game 7 of the 1969 NBA Finals.  Russell just couldn’t understand how a guy, regardless of the pain he was in, would have taken himself out of that situation.

Torre reserves interesting assessments of Clemens, whom he likens to A-Rod but more focused.  According to Torre, each was overtly obsessed with their appearances, each was sensitive for a superstar, worrying about what others thought of them, wanting to be good teammates but often lost as to how, but both gamers with tons of ability who worked very hard.  The difference, it seems, was that Clemens learned to acclimate himself with the team and trust himself to be himself, while A-Rod never really did, never got over the media criticisms, never got past the inevitable comparisons between him and Jeter.

The way that Torre discusses A-Rod gives the reader the impression that he wanted to be fond of A-Rod, and to a degree was, but couldn’t get past A-Rod’s innately self-conscious demeanor.  In this example, while Torre does not draw a direct correlation to O’Neill, the analogy is all too apt.

About midway through the 2004 season, for instance, Rodriguez was walking past Torre in the dugout toward the bat rack.  Torre offered some encouragement to help him relax.

“You know, you’ll be fine,” Torre told Rodriguez.  “It just takes a little time to adjust to playing here.”

Said Rodriguez, “Well, my numbers are about the same as this time last year.”

Torre was disappointed in the response.

“I wasn’t talking about the numbers,” Torre said. “I was talking about getting used to playing in this environment and what you were expected to do.  The expectations with the Yankees are about winning, and people aren’t really concerned about what your stats are.” [Yankee Years, 241-242.]

It’s true that this account, while told by Verducci in the third person when discussing him, is as much by Torre as it is about him.  Yet despite that built-in bias, I find it difficult to doubt Torre’s perspective on him, especially when it is layered with so many other anecdotes about A-Rod’s selfish demeanor in demanding his own clubhouse attendant, his ostentatious gesticulations drawing attention as much attention to himself as to the depth of the outfielders he noticed, and more. [Yankee Years, 246-247.]

Torre is much harder on players such as David Wells, who breached his trust by lying to him about the incident with a fan in a diner who punched out Wells’s two front teeth in 2002. [Yankee Years, 199-202.] Worse, Wells’s braggadoccio about his slothful “preparation” before games, immediately before his notoriously testy back gave out in Game 5 of the 2003 World Series, perfectly summed up the costs of Wells’s blithe demeanor and its costs to the team, especially as its core chemistry was irrevocably altered well before 2003. “Goes to show you don’t need to bust your ass every day to be successful,” Wells bragged not a day before his doughy body gave way, the very game after the Yankees’ bullpen logged five innings, forcing them to cobble together seven more the very next night. [Yankee Years, 236.]

Not surprisingly, no one sounds worse in the book than Pavano, a gutless miscreant in Torre’s eyes and certainly those of his teammates.  Tim Raines passed along word about the turd that Pavano had always been to Borzello, saying, “He’s never going to pitch for you.  Forget it…The guy didn’t want to pitch in Montreal.  There was always something wrong with him.  In Florida, same thing.  He didn’t want to pitch except for the one year he was pitching for a contract.  I’m telling you, he’s not going to pitch for you.” [Yankee Years, 318] That was unquestionably true, so obviously so that Mussina derisively referred to the disabled list in April 2007 as the “15-day Pavano…That’s what it’s officially called now.  Did you know that? The Pavano.  His body just shut down from actually pitching for six weeks.  It’s like when you get an organ transplant and your body rejects it.  His body rejected pitching.  It’s not used to it.” OUCH.  Even the more reserved Jeter, who typically handled things one-on-one, apparently walked by Pavano one day and said, “Hey, Pav.  You ever going to play? Ever?” [Yankee Years, 388, 319.]

Kevin Brown’s wall-punching received ample attention and a good Torre blast in September 2004 for punching the concrete wall in anger, for coming within a hair (like Chuck Knoblauch in 2000) of quitting in 2005 because of his grotesque struggles and wanton inability to get out of the first inning without getting roughed up. [Yankee Years, 291, 322.] Interestingly, Randy Johnson comes across a nothing short of flaky and paranoid, being continually concerned that other teams were tipped off to his pitches.  Torre referred to him as “probably the most self-conscious superstar I’ve ever been around.  By far.” [Yankee Years, 328.] Torre even said at one point that he wished he knew in 2001 how Johnson could be eaily rattled.

More than succumbing to tell-all anecdotes, Torre and Verducci are more concerned with their contention that the team’s overall comportment changed and devolved in the last several years of his time with the Yankees.  Wells, for example, was the same in 2002 and 2003 as he was in 1998, yet the surrounding team had changed and, without Cone, the Yankees lacked a built-in stabilizing influence–and quite possibly desire–to keep Wells’s odd, self-destructive personality under wraps.  Others reveal themselves to be complex, if still likable personalities.  Mussina, for example, was brash enough to level a stinging critique of Mariano’s (very) occasional post-season failures in 2001 and 2004.

“We were up 3-0 and Mo came in again with the lead and lost it,” Mussina said. “He lost it again.  As great as he is, and it’s amazing what he does, if you start the evaluation again since I got here, he has accomplished nothing in comparison to what he accomplished the four years before.  He blew the World Series in ’01.  He lost the Boston series. He didn’t lose it himself, but we had a chance to win in the ninth and sweep them, and he doesn’t do it there.

“I know you look at everything he’s done and it’s been awesome.  I’ll admit that.  But it hadn’t been the same in those couple of years.  That’s what I’ll remember about the ’04 series.” [Yankee Years, 312.]

In some ways, Mussina is right.  Mariano failed in those instances.  Yet the characterizations–“He accomplished nothing in comparison,” “He lost the Boston series”–ignore a lot.  Mussina ignores that Mariano’s success meant team success; the two were never anything but intertwined.  The team utterly collapsed and was mentally weak in 2004, by Torre’s own admission.  Additionally, in the grand scheme of things, Mariano has had three big failings in the post-season: 1997 in Cleveland, 2001 in Arizona, and 2004 in Boston.  That’s it.  Mussina, on the other hand, has had some terrific post-season moments with the Yankees.  He’s also had some duds: he was poor in Game 1 of the 2001 World Series, setting a bad tone right away; he was lousy in Game 3 of the 2002 ALDS against the Angels; he faltered badly in the Game 5 clincher in Anaheim in 2005; and he coughed up the lead in Game 2 of the ALDS against Detroit.

Yet those failings aren’t really the point.  Heck, I respect Mussina’s record with the Yankees, his toughness, and his candor.  I’ve advocated him for the Hall.  Yet when he talked about things not having been the same, I can’t help but think that he too made things a bit different from previous teams and players.  Why?  Ask yourself this: could you ever imagine Paul O’Neill, Tino, Jeter, Bernie, Posada, or others saying such things for a book or in public about a teammate, much less someone who bailed them out of countless jams?  Would you ever imagine one of them taking shots at a teammate, especially one as usually and historically great as Mariano, without taking deep, hard looks at themselves first? Hardly. I still have a lot of respect for Mussina but, as I made notes for this review, wrote when I came across this quote and the lack of self-analysis, “Mussina sounds like an ass.” I’ll stand by that remark about his comment quoted above.

There is really much more to discuss about The Yankee Years, including the mounting tensions between Torre and the dysfunctional front office, including Brian Cashman, as Torre’s tenure came to a close.  I’ll say just a few more things.  The book is much too cursory to me about so many great games and incidents, especially in the 1996-2000 years.  For example, Torre recalls how relaxed El Duque was before making his tremendous Game 4 start in the 1998 ALCS in Cleveland, helping to tie the series at 2, and serving breakfast to people in the hotel restaurant that morning. [Yankee Years, 59-60.] Yet that crucial game received such cursory treatment despite how pivotal it was, how great El Duque was, how vital it was that he pitched out of a two-on jam in the first to protect a one-run lead, with Thome’s long blast to the right field wall that O’Neill caught the first and really last, huge threat the Yankees faced that game, how key it was to escape the first inning with a lead–thanks to O’Neill’s solo homer in the top of the first–considering that the Yankees were blown out the game before to fall behind in the series to the team that eliminated them from the ALDS and themselves nearly won the World Series the year before.  Pity, for October 10, 1998 was a great day in Yankees history.

Why no mention of Aaron Small and Shawn Chacon and what tremendous jobs they did in 2005, bailing out a desperate and injured team? It’s quite telling, for perhaps not just Verducci but Torre himself may have maintained too prominent a focus on his superstar players during his reign.  Maybe not; maybe it was a product of the book’s narrative strategy discussing the team’s failed strategy of focusing on acquiring aging superstars who fell short.  Yet this was an odd, telling oversight, especially since it wasn’t so long ago.

Torre also spends remarkably little time assessing his own decisions, his own perspectives on acquisitions.  Much of the latter is left for Verducci, despite Torre’s obvious proximity to those situations and the book itself.  As a result, the book often allows Torre to play a safe role in crucial areas such as these–facilitated by the story being told in the third person and not his own voice–while continually appearing to be the voice of reason.  It may well be an accurate portrayal on the whole; it may well be that Torre is not prone to second-guessing, that he got much right the first time.  Yet in various instances, there is a clear need to second-guess and reconsider, but it passes.  For example, in September 2007 when the Yankees blew a 5-0 lead in Tampa and lost 7-6 in 10 innings, this moved the Yankees from two to three games behind Boston in the AL East with five games to play.  Who knows what would have happened had they won that game to clinch the Wild Card instead of the following game? if they had pressured a very good but reachable Boston team that was ahead of New York 14 1/2 games in late May, only to see the Yankees storm back? No, it was nothing more than passing along calm reassurance to the brass in a Tampa meeting that they’d win the next game, despite the fact that Torre was summoned to a meeting after the loss.  Sorry, Joe, that one was a gimme review.

Yet on the whole, it’s very well done, very readable, quite lucid and impressive, and a good, detailed retrospective that, while obviously pro-Torre, is a salient reminder of the importance of chemistry and good leadership–from managers as well as players–on championship clubs.  Additionally, the chapters on steroids (Chapter 3, “Getting an Edge”) and the rise of other teams using innovative statistical data to acquire fairly good and complementary players (Chapter 6, “Baseball Catches Up”) are highly impressive views of the game that are mostly the work of Verducci.

I disagree with those who say this should not have been written.  If anything, it lays out how much is required to foster and maintain greatness, how tenuous the grasp on it can be and, for us as Yankees fans waiting and rooting for another title, how appreciative we all must be when we do encounter it.  The years from 1996-2000, as I knew all too well then but am thankfully reminded of now in light of additional information detailing little-known quirks and setbacks, were nothing short of majestic.

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Published in: on February 22, 2009 at 7:59 pm  Comments (9)  

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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Good thorough post, Jason. I probably wasn’t going to read the book anyway, and now since you told me a lot of it, the odds are even more slim…

    http://statisticianmagician.mlblogs.com/

  2. you should submit this around. you might get some work as a book reviewer. excellent job.

  3. Thanks, guys. Sorry for spoiling any chance you might have read it, Joe. There really is much more to it–not discussing Tino’s return and great play in 2005, his decent words about Sheffield being a good if moody teammate despite Sheffield’s accusations of racism, seeing how impressive Larry Bowa is as a coach and how (even more) direct he is, Mariano leaving the bullpen when Jorge’s bloop double in the 8th tied Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS to cry because he was overwhelmed by the magnitude of what occurred, and more. There was much more to discuss, and I acknowledge it is tough to cover so much history within the confines of a book.

    I certainly recommend it.

  4. you know one thing that surprised me a bit was the relatively small amount of time devoted to posada in the book. dod you notice that?

  5. It’s true, Mike, as well as the sparse time devoted to Tino. It’s as if Torre took the time to acknowledge his feeling for Posada as a son, then moved on to a good many for whom he didn’t. I wish he would have spent a bit more time on Posada, on discussing what he thought and told O’Neill after the Game 4 Series clincher in ’99, when O’Neill’s father had just died and he sobbed on Torre’s shoulder immediately after the game. I think the book was very much a product of presentism, with Torre getting out his views of the decline, of the brewing feuds, and not enough about the good times–more about why those faded.

    It’s unfortunate.

  6. …and of course, after his knee prevented him from starting Game 5 of the 2003 WS, Giambi pinch-hits at the end of the game and hits a HR.

    …and to date, that HR is the last WS HR hit by a Yankee.

  7. Exactly Mike, making his decision all the tougher for others to take. 2003 quickly devolved from a World Series in which the Yankees were in control into a big mess.

    Giambi had some big homers in the 2003 post-season, not the least of which were his two in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS to keep the Yankees in the game before the 8th inning comeback. But his body was a mess in 2003 and beyond. Thanks, steroids!

  8. I’ll add this about “The Yankee Years:” an error slipped past the editors. On pages 214-215, in the description of the Game 3 mayhem of the 2003 ALCS, when Pedro beaned Garcia then Clemens threw high but over the plate to Ramirez, who unnecessarily went off and precipitated a melee, Verducci and Torre locate that in the sixth inning of the game. In fact, it was the bottom of the fourth, when Clemens eventually fanned Ramirez after order was restored. I think Verducci confused the details because Clemens also struck out Ramirez in the sixth.

    It wasn’t. I remember that like it was yesterday. My in-laws were in town. We had a huge ham in the oven that Sunday afternoon. I was riled as all get-out over the events that transpired, and always remembered that it was early in the game. I also remember a spirited chinwag with The Sage after the game and a huge, filling dinner in celebration of the big victory.

    I only say this to say that, obviously, we all make mistakes. Yet this was one that slipped past fact-checkers who missed a pertinent detail for a major publication–not something that 400 people would read. And another thing–Clemens would have torn off Ramirez’s head had he gotten close enough. I thought that at the time, well before I learned about the likely steroid use and the, um, pre-game liniment lathering. Ramirez got off easy.

  9. Thanks for that review, which gave me new insights into the book. I must admit that the Mussina comments about Mo, no matter how many times I read them, make me furious. Candor is great. Astuteness is welcome. But I can’t find any reason for Mussina to hand Verducci those remarks. None. I was cheering for him to win his 20th last year. I’m not cheering for him now.


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