09 May 2009

Book Review: The Yankee Years, by Joe Torre and Tom Verducci

As the field manager of the New York Yankees from 1996 to 2007, Joe Torre epitomized class and dignity on the baseball field, so it's fitting that even his book's title and cover are classy. A simple title, with no ridiculous subtitle that's four times as long as the title itself. The authors should really be listed as TomVerducci with Joe Torre, as it's clear that Verducci does the writing in this relationship, and that Torre is mostly there to narrate and provide quotes.

The front cover is graced by a simple, dim picture of Torre in the corridor at Yankee Stadium, en route to the locker room, his well known number six on his back, shoulders slumped a bit with age and all the years of turmoil in Yankeeland, but still proud and determined.

The back cover shows him being carried off the the field by his players, presumably after the 1998 World Series, waving to the crowd, recent tears still wetting hisdeep set eyes. The photo, a little out of focus, hints at the fleeting nature of this one-of-a-kind run in Yankee history, this one-of-a-kind manager's tenure there, and suggests that perhaps there was more to Torre and those great Yankee teams than we knew.

And there certainly was.

Not that this is a tell-all book. For one thing, Torre has too much class to dish out juicy details of other people's personal lives, or compromise people's standing in the game, or otherwise make a quick buck at the expense of others. There's no shortage of interesting anecdotes or good quotes, both from Torre and others, but this is not a ground-breaking tome like Ball Four was 40 years ago.

Verducci starts the book with the story of how Joe became the Yankees manager, the idea that he was the Yankees' fourth choice, and that even after he was hired, there were rumors thatGeorge Steinbrenner was still trying to convince Buck Showalter to return. What a way to start a new job, right?

From there he moves on to how Torre helped inspire a work ethic, a "desperation to win" in those players in the late 1990's, how he got them to play ball the right way and to work at winning, every day. His young shortstop, DerekJeter , was a big part of that, leading by example right from the start, teaching everyone around him how to play baseball the Yankee Way, how to carry yourself, how to act, and how not to. Torre andJeter naturally became very good friends, and Jeter earned the respect due a team captain even before he bore the official title.

The following paragraph, about the famous "Flip Play" in the 2000 playoffs against the Oakland A's, demonstrates both Jeter's amazing baseball instincts and Verducci's writing prowess:

"Jeter made a play that only could have been made by a player with supreme
alertness, the mental computing power to quickly crunch the advanced baseball
calculus needed to process the trajectory and speed of Spencer's throw and the
speed and location of a runner behind his back, and the athletic and
improvisational skills to actually find a way to get the ball home on time and
on target while running in a direction opposite to the plate."

OK, so it's kind of a run-on sentence, and he lays it on a little thick, but it's still solid, informative, colorful writing that paints the picture he wants. Besides this, the run-on nature of the sentence conveys the urgency of the play much better than more traditional punctuation choices would have.

For Torre's part, of course, teaching a bunch of guys how to win consistently is a lot easier when you've got so much talent with which to work. Teams that includeJeter, Jorge Posada, Tino Martinez, Paul O'Neill, Bernie Williams, David Cone, David Wells, Roger Clemens, Mariano Rivera and others ought to win all the time. Right?

But even at that, they never seemed to consider themselves entitled, never rubbed it in their opponents' faces, never took winning for granted. As BillyBeane said,

"And one thing about getting beat by the Yankees: They did it with class. It was
as if they beat you in rented tuxedos." (p. 51)

Torre also addresses some of the controversies of that era, specifically the steroid issue and how it affected the Yankees' clubhouse. Because TomVerducci is really the one writing this, he can paint a picture of the era with broader strokes than Torre could have by himself. He discusses the happenings in baseball as a whole, how records were falling both left (homers) and right (attendance), how everyone was making money, and how nobody took the issue of performance enhancing drugs too seriously.

Though I don't remember ever having heard of this at the time, apparently former Texas Rangers pitcher Rick Helling was one of the first to blow the whistle on the steroid issue, at a players' union meeting in 1998. He challenged his fellow players to crack down onPEDs , to help make sure the game was played the right way, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. He repeatedly stated that, at least in his opinion, the increasing prevalence of steroids in baseball was forcing some otherwise clean players to consider usingPEDs themselves, just to remain competitive.

Which of course was exactly what was happening. Unfortunately, Verducci includes three nearly identical quotes from Helling on the same page to make this point, despite the fact that they read like a skipping record. And Major League Baseball and theMLBPA ignored Helling and others who were sounding the PED alarm at the time, and we all know how that turned out.

For his part, Verducci states, Torre was innocent of the whole thing. "You had two guys from New York doing all the talking in the Mitchell Report. That's why you have more information on New York players."

"Steroids?" Verducci asks, innocently, "He [Torre] knew nothing about them. He never saw them." Torre indicates that he didn't want to go probing, uninvited, into the players' lives, and so he never asked those questions, presumably content that whatever they were doing was working, and decided to leave "well enough" alone.

You can believe that if you want to, and it's Torre's privilege to present himself how he wants to in his own book, but he and Verducci must take the baseball watching public for fools if they think many of us are buying that explanation. Even if it is true, it makes Torre out to be a little toonaive , a little too "hands-off" to truly be an effective manager. The players would never respect and follow someone they thought could be so easily duped.

The book contains a great many anecdotes about the normally private and confidential rituals of the clubhouse, including this gem about Roger Clemens'pre-game preparation:
Clemens lost himself in his usual pregame preparation. which typically began with cranking the whirlpool to its hottest possible temperature. "He'd come out looking like a lobster," trainer Steve Donahue said. Then Donahue would rub the hottest possible liniment on his testicles. "He'd start snorting like a bull," the trainer said. "That's when he was ready to pitch." (p. 132)
Listen, I'm as open minded as the next guy, but if I never have to read another story about one man rubbing liniment on another man's balls as long as I live, it will be too soon. Some things just shouldn't be shared, OK? Like balls.

In addition to all the material from Torre, Verducci mines a wealth of information from bullpen catcher Mike Borzello, pitcher Mike Mussina, and several other players to whom Torre was close. He discusses the ways in which George Steinbrenner would try to micromanage and manipulate people, how different people on Steinbrnner's staff, such as Randy Levine or George's sons, behaved toward Torre, how Brian Cashman, in the end, chose to cover his own ass rather than go to bat for Torre.

He also relates not a small number of stories on Torre's dealings with different players. He talks about how Gary Sheffield's efforts on the field varied with his mood, how David Wells was constantly causing trouble of one kind or another, and how the Yankees were warned about CarlPavano:

"Tim Raines told me, 'Pavano? He's never going to pitch for you. Forget it.' Borzello said. I said, "What?" He said, '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." (p. 319)

The Yankee Years, while not entirely chocked full of these kinds of tidbits, certainly has no shortage of them either, plenty to make the chapters interesting. There's not much earth-shattering stuff here, not any really, but there's plenty of inside gossip and other information that we all wish we could have known at the time.

We all know the baseball side of things. What happened is in the record books for all to see. But a book like this offers us some rare insight into the reasons for why things happened or didn't happen, at least in one manager's opinion. The Yankee Years is a worthwhile read for this reason and more, for Yankees fans and Torre fans and anyone who rooted against them all those years.