Kevin Brown was a $130 million big-league pitcher in 2005 when he stormed off the field, walked into the locker room, and crawled into the fetal position after giving up six runs. He then threatened to take his glove and go home – in the bottom of the first inning.
George Steinbrenner, presiding over one of the sports world’s most valuable and lucrative franchises, rewarded his scouts and other members of the organization by neglecting to provide them with World Series rings after a third straight championship season in 2000. To make matters worse, Steinbrenner did give a ring to comedian Billy Crystal, who loves the New York Yankees but has yet, as far as we know, to assist the team with scouting, coaching, or anything beyond genuflection.
And Alex Rodriguez, baseball’s current steroid villain, brushed off repeated post-season failures and a chilly reception from teammates by fixating on his individual statistics. Rodriguez may be a feared slugger, but he’s also a fearsome diva, rivaling Madonna and Elton John in his demands for personal attendants.
He is, in other words, the polar opposite of teammate Derek Jeter, who embodied the selfless, late-’90s teams Yankees manager Joe Torre led to championship seasons.
These are just a few of the combustible personalities and interesting anecdotes related in The Yankee Years. The book is an unusual hybrid of insider reporting, autobiography, and synopsis, spanning the 12 years that Torre managed the Yankees. During Torre’s managerial stint in New York, the Yankees won four World Series, and six American League pennants, and never missed the playoffs.
It’s easy to forget, but Torre was the team’s fourth choice when he was hired. Torre, then 55, carried the dubious distinction of compiling the longest combined résumé as a player and manager without a single World Series appearance. Combined with the Yankees’ failure to win a championship since 1978, the marriage seemed bound for heartache.
Instead, Torre, Jeter, and Steinbrenner’s indomitable spirit spurred a modern-day dynasty, likely the last of its kind in baseball for many years to come.
This era of Yankees players and teams reflects the best and worst of baseball, from model teammates (Jeter, Bernie Williams, Paul O’Neill, Mariano Rivera, and David Cone) to reputedly petulant prima donnas and head cases (Brown, Carl Pavano, and Randy Johnson). They won big, later splintered and, finally, floundered.
After a 2007 first-round playoff loss to Cleveland, Torre and the Yankees parted ways after the team forced him out. He was quickly snapped up by the Los Angeles Dodgers, who reached the National League Championship Series last season. In other words, Torre is an impeccable manager.
And, after reading “The Yankee Years,” he might well be considered a master psychologist and therapist, as well.
Torre coauthored the book with Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, a tough-minded reporter with an eye for detail.
Early buzz on the book emphasized Torre’s assessment of A-Rod’s penchant for me-first ethos, but “The Yankee Years” is most compelling in its explanation of how the Torre-era Bronx dynasty began – and how it ended. The latter occurred as baseball was transformed by computer analysis, revenue-sharing, and other increasingly astute business techniques.
Reading these accounts during the current economic calamities, a picture emerges of baseball teams using more rigorous analysis than your average Wall Street firm.
Baseball, it turns out, has laissez-faire abominations of a different kind. “The Yankee Years” offers a damning portrait of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs, replete with mistakes-were-made mea culpas reminiscent of Washington pols and, yes, Wall Street masters of the universal cop-out.
First, though, readers must make their peace with the Torre-Verducci pairing. Looking at the cover image, a lonely photo of Torre walking the tunnel to the dugout above his name and Verducci’s, the natural inclination is to think of the book as a standard autobiography. It’s not.
Though Torre no doubt provided much of the information, Verducci delves into his own copious notes, putting the Yankees in context within the rest of baseball. Verducci also delves into the front offices of New York’s arch-villain, the Boston Red Sox, among others, demonstrating how the Red Sox adapted to baseball’s new world order and left the Yankees in internecine chaos.
Torre is quoted in passages where he wishes to make a direct comment. The unusual format proves jarring at first, but becomes more and more effective as the book goes on and Verducci widens his lens to offer a panorama of Boston’s rise and New York’s fat-and-happy demise.
This is a book mercifully short on play-by-play recaps and long on internal machinations and politics. Torre acknowledges his own hypersensitivity even as he chronicles the bluster of Steinbrenner and an eventual rift with general manager Brian Cashman.
Verducci, who blew the lid off of pervasive steroid use in a 2002 Sports Illustrated article on former Most Valuable Player Ken Caminiti, spares no one in assessing baseball’s drug culture. Peeking under the locker-room rug is akin to hopping on Mötley Crüe’s tour bus.
Just as the Yankees dominated baseball under Torre, so, too, did they stand at the vanguard for all-star drug use. Andy Pettitte, Jason Giambi, A-Rod, and the incorrigible Roger Clemens are among the admitted or accused users. Beyond steroids and human-growth hormone, almost everyone in baseball stands guilty of easing the game’s daily grind with hearty doses of amphetamines.
One insider describes players swilling coffee laced with crushed amphetamines, a potentially lethal pick-me-up administered with casual indifference in the clubhouse.
Torre, like the players, owners, general managers, and Major League Baseball executives, comes off as someone hopelessly deluded and in denial on the pervasive drug problems. At one point, he tells Verducci, “I’ve always tried to respect guys’ privacy.”
For someone who professes to care so much for his players, Torre’s decision to blithely ignore illegal, potentially debilitating drug use smacks of unconscionable hypocrisy.
To be sure, Torre has plenty of company. Upon reading Caminiti’s confession, then-Cubs manager Dusty Baker skipped right over the impugned integrity of the game and hit fast-forward to clueless closed ranks. “Everybody hates a snitch,” Baker said.
But most damning of all, Verducci describes Major League Baseball’s audacious decision to allow its two medical directors to make a formal presentation outlining the benefits of using testosterone during the 1998 annual winter meetings. With that pathetic episode in mind, it becomes easy to see why it took a series of humiliating congressional hearings to force Commissioner Bud Selig, owners, and players to usher in a legitimate steroids-testing policy.
Unhappy stuff, but for any serious baseball fan, this is required reading. Oh, yeah, and there’s a little baseball in here, too.
Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.