Managing a nuanced feat
Last week, as the controversy over Joe Torre and Tom Verducci’s “The Yankee Years” was ratcheting up, I got an e-mail from my brother, who, like me, is a lifelong New York Yankees fan. “As I understand it,” he wrote, “Torre is saying NYY is a tough place to work, very ‘What have you done for me lately?’ and if your name is not Piniella or Jeter, everyone is out to get you. No news there.”
This is the reality for the Yankee faithful and has been since George Steinbrenner took control of the team in 1973. As for Torre’s revelations that Alex Rodriguez is high-maintenance (No!) or that General Manager Brian Cashman failed to stand by him after the 2007 season . . . tell me something I don’t know.
As it turns out, that’s precisely what “The Yankee Years” does, providing an unexpectedly thoughtful, even nuanced, history not only of Torre’s 12 years as manager of the Yankees but of Major League Baseball during that time. It’s a period ripe for just this sort of overview: the steroid era, the rise of moneyball.
When Torre took over the Yankees in 1996, baseball was less than two years removed from the catastrophic strike that stopped the 1994 season, forcing the cancellation of the World Series for the first time since 1904.
By 2007, when he left the team after losing the American League division series to the Cleveland Indians, baseball was huge business despite the exposure of some of its biggest stars (Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds) as alleged cheaters, transformed by a new generation of executives who made decisions based on advanced statistical analyses.
On the surface, none of this appears to have much to do with the Yankees: Although Clemens and others on the 2000 team have been embroiled in the steroids scandal, the team never had an ingrown culture of cheating, while the new age, numbers-crunching style of management demands a patience Steinbrenner lacks.
And yet, “The Yankee Years” masterfully interweaves these larger issues into a detailed account of the rise and fall of Torre’s dynasty, a team that won four World Series in the first five years he was managing -- and then did not go all the way again.
The credit for this belongs to Verducci, senior baseball writer for Sports Illustrated and SportsIllustrated.com. He is, if truth be told, the real author of “The Yankee Years,” which is not a memoir, regardless of how it’s been portrayed.
Written in the third person, the book is more an extended piece of reporting interspersed with long quotes from Torre and many others, which at times makes for an interesting tension between the manager’s recollections and Verducci’s broader point of view.
This is especially true when they address the steroid issue, which Verducci condemns as a baseball Watergate even as Torre offers a less definitive response. “You had two guys from New York doing all the talking in the Mitchell Report,” he says, somewhat defensively. “That’s why you have more information on New York players. . . . One thing I’ve learned is that people are going to feel the way they’re going to feel, regardless of what happened. You can talk until you’re blue in the face and there’s no answer that’s going to satisfy everybody.”
That’s true enough, I suppose, but it’s also the case, as Verducci points out, that baseball turned a blind eye to steroids for the better part of a decade, even going so far as to stage a 1998 presentation to “baseball executives and physicians about the benefits of using testosterone.”
Torre’s reaction to the steroids question is the one instance in which he pulls his punches; otherwise, he comes off as reflective and forthright. He’s terrific on the day-to-day dynamics of the Yankees, the way the selfless, win-at-all-costs culture of the championship teams dissipated with the departure of Paul O’Neill, Scott Brosius and Tino Martinez after the 2001 season, leaving a void filled by selfish superstars.
Such a trend began with the 2001 signing of Jason Giambi -- a move Torre opposed in writing, so he couldn’t be held responsible if it didn’t work out -- and it’s personified by the contradictory figure of Rodriguez, perhaps the most talented and least endearing superstar in American sports, an insecure stat machine utterly unable to hit when it counts.
Much of the media buzz around “The Yankee Years” has involved reports that Yankee players called Rodriguez “A-Fraud” or that the player was so obsessed with shortstop Derek Jeter that it “recalled the 1992 film ‘Single White Female.’ ”
In the context of the book, however, these lines are throwaways, not even written in Torre’s voice. Far more interesting is the manager’s assessment that Rodriguez could not succeed as a team player because he is unwilling to fail.
“There’s a certain free fall you have to go through,” Torre says, “when you commit yourself without a guarantee that it’s always going to be good. There’s a sort of trust, a trust and commitment thing that has to allow yourself to fail. Allow yourself to be embarrassed. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. And sometimes players aren’t willing to do that.”
That’s the key to Jeter, who has always done anything to help the team. As for Rodriguez, Torre notes, “When it comes to a key situation, . . . he can’t get himself to concern himself with getting the job done, instead of how it looks.”
That’s a pretty damning statement, but there’s nothing personal about it; it’s observable, quantifiable, as any Yankee fan knows.
“Rodriguez,” the authors write, “was conspicuous by the awesome disparity between his skills and his ability to use them in the clutch. Rodriguez hit .245 in the postseason as a Yankee, or 61 points worse than his career average. From the fifth inning of Game 4 of the 2004 [American League Championship Series] -- the onset of the dynasty’s demise -- through 2008, Rodriguez hit .136 in 59 postseason at-bats.”
Compare this with what Torre and Verducci cite as “the quintessential championship Yankees at-bat”: O’Neill’s 10-pitch walk in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 1 of the 2000 World Series against the Mets. The Yankees were down to their last two outs, but O’Neill refused to give in, working the count, fouling off pitches, driven by a “desperation to win.”
It’s still the greatest single at-bat I’ve ever seen, one that, as Torre remembers, “set the tone for the series. . . . It was just a dare: ‘You can’t get me out.’ It was the loudest walk you’ve ever experienced.”
This, of course, is part of the appeal of “The Yankee Years,” the nostalgia factor, the trip down memory lane. It was great to be a Yankee fan from 1996 until Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS, when Mariano Rivera walked Kevin Millar leading off the ninth inning and the collapse against Boston began.
The Yankees have yet to recover from that loss, but the measure of Torre and Verducci is that they situate this within a larger framework, highlighting the emergence of the Red Sox as a counterpoint to the Yankees’ decline. More than that, they trace the arc of the dynasty as a kind of epic narrative, involving an inevitable rise and fall.
In that sense, it’s fitting that Torre left the Yankees after the 2007 season; it was time to make a change. He himself admits this, noting that once the decision had been made, he was struck by a profound “feeling of relief.”
And yet, “The Yankee Years” is not a bitter book, despite what early media reports have claimed.
It is, instead, the consummate insider’s view of what may be the last great dynasty in baseball history, a team whose nine-year run from 1996 to 2004 was so unbelievable -- seven League Championship Series appearances, six American League pennants and four World Series titles, including three in a row -- that it now feels, to the true believers anyway, like something of a fairy tale.
Ulin is books editor of The Times.