Book Review

Yankee Years

By Mark Garrity
Published: May 2009

Yankee Years
by Joe Torre and Tom Verducci

Joe Torre’s life in baseball didn’t begin with the Yankees and surely has not ended with them. But, that Bronx pinstripe world was dead center, and is dead center for many fans still.

The one thing that hits you while reading Yankee Years by Joe is the fact that Torre, arguably one of the greatest coaches the Yankee’s have ever had, was the fourth choice for the managerial position of the storied New York Yankees.

The Yankees had been going through some tough times, especially for their standards.

They had not been producing championships and as a result, The Boss, George Steinbrenner, was moving pieces around constantly as evident by the 21 managerial changes during his first 23 at the helm.

But this run of form changed when Torre was hired.

For the next 12 years the Yankees would restore the brilliance affiliated with their name, and they would be referred to as a “dynasty.

During that 12-year span, the Yankees made 12 straight playoff appearances, won six American League pennants, and won four World Series championships.

This “as told to book chronicles the journey of those 12 seasons for Torre and reveals a great deal about the players who were involved in the historic run and those players’ relationships with Torre.

It’s written in a brisk but not chatty style, and while providing any number of close up details keeps a distance somewhere between a knowledgable fan and a veteran sportswriter with a grumpy cigar-smoking managing editor staring over his shoulder.

The Yankee Years opens by describing Torre’s first several years during which the team was very successful. He claims this, in part, because it was a very ‘Ëœspecial’ group of guys who were unselfish and played baseball the right way.

The team these magic years was made up of both veterans such as Tino Martinez and Scott Brosious, and talented younger guys who were just starting out in the American League, namely Derek Jeter.

Jeter. All Bostonians have some really bad, or sharply negative feelings toward Jeter, considering the fact that he is the leader and face of the franchise that Red Sox Nation all love to hate, and has turned more than a few games in their favor all by himself.

But, one has to say that after reading the book, they would gain a newfound respect for Jeter. A superb ballplayer, he was the leader of the team at a very young age, and Torre was surprised by the fact that when things weren’t going their way, the veterans would look towards Jeter to get something moving.

The teams of these years were made up of Jeter, Jorge Posada, Martinez, Brosious (among others), and they played a great brand of baseball.

They all played unselfishly and the ‘Ëœstar players’ of the team, such as Bernie Williams, did not, we learn, care about their own statistics.

Torre claimed that the team “desperately needed to win, not just post high individual stats.

As a result of this camaraderie and unselfishness, the Yankees, with this special batch of players, went on to win World Series championships in four years between 1996 and 2000, including three in a row from 1998 to 2000.
The problem for the Yankees occurred after their loss in what had become the Yankees’ “Fall Classic to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

What happened? Father time, for one thing, the changing climate of baseball in general for another.

A good chunk of the players who had made up the great Yankee teams of the past, Torre observes, began to age and they ended up retiring, being pushed out, or moving on to other teams.

In the next couple of years, the Yankees did not live up to The Boss’ impossible expectations and Steinbrenner proceeded to purge and splurge, splurge on big name free agents such as Jason Giambi, Randy Johnson, and of course, the quarter billion dollar man, Alex Rodriguez (A-Rod).

The great camaraderie that had once been a staple of the past Yankee teams, a chief motivator, was out the window.

Now it was evident that Steinbrenner would spare no expense in his vain attempt to assemble a “dream team,which was going to be made up of a handful of the richest and highest profile names in baseball.
The problem was obvious. These teams appeared to care more about their personal statistics rather than the success of the team.

Jeter noticed this right away, and stated in public that the new players had stopped doing the right things.
For example and the surest sign, when a runner was on second with one out, the player would swing for the fences in an attempt to pad his stats. The ‘Ëœright’ thing to do in that situation of course was to hit the ball behind the runner so that the runner could advance to third base, putting the team in a scoring position.

One of these players clearly interested in his own success was the infamous Alex Rodriguez.

Rodriguez wasn’t all bad news.

He came to fame in the baseball world after some solid seasons in Seattle with the Mariners and a couple outstanding tenures with the Rangers, including an MVP campaign in which he led the league in home runs, runs scored, and slugging percentage.

The Yankees had high hopes for arguably the league’s best slugger, but in the end, Torre was badly disappointed in A-Rod, no less than Yankee fans and Steinbrenner.

In his memoire Torre refers to A-Rod as Mr. April. This was shorthand for the criticism that A-Rod would hit bombs out of Yankee Stadium early on in the season, but when it came time for the postseason, Rodriguez would shrink back down to becoming an average player because of the pressures of New York and home park fans.
Yankee Years also describes the experiences that Roger Clemens endured when he was traded to the Bronx Bombers from the Toronto Blue Jays. (After the Red Sox, of course.)

Many of the Yankees feared that the addition of Clemens would not be a smooth transition. Clemens had a bad reputation among most of the players in the league, and the Yankees feared that he might not be the best teammate.

Yet the case proved just the opposite, at least in terms of Clemens’ intentions.

Torre documents multiple occasions where Clemens showed a softer side. One of these occasions occurred when Torre walked in on Clemens talking to his wife on the telephone. Clemens was sobbing uncontrollably and exclaimed, “I just want to be a good teammate.

Torre’s memoir not only discusses Yankees’ baseball throughout the season, but also explores off-the-field incidents that occurred during Torre’s tenure as manager ‘€including the whole steroids ordeal, as it related to his team.

Steroids is not exactly today’s news.

The performance-enhancing drug had been in baseball from the 70s through the early 90s, but they became prevalent in the league and went public during the mid-90s.

The steroid craze was especially evident during the 1999 season in which both Sammy Sosa (Cubs) and Mark McGwire (Cardinals) topped the previous home run record, which stood at 61. Sosa and McGwire went on to slug 66 and 71 homeruns, respectively.

It got to a point where as pitcher and player representative Rick Helling stated, “What really bothered me was there were plenty of good guys, good people, who were feeling the pressure to cheat because it had become so prevalent.

The Yankees were, in this respect, like many other teams during this time.

The Yankees, unfortunately, had multiple players who were allegedly connected with steroids, and connected in a big, aggressive, very critical newspaper town.

Glenallen Hill, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte got the headlines, but others were hinted. Congressional hearings didn’t help sell tickets either.

As expected, or anticipated, Torre’s book explores Clemens’ situation in depth. The big hurler had a close relationship with a man by the name of Brian McNamee who was one of the main sources of drugs, and chief information purveyor for the Mitchell Report on steroid use in baseball.

Some believed that the reason Clemens struggled during his first year with the Yankees was because McNamee did not come to New York with Clemens, due to the fact that he was under a player’s contact with the Blue Jays in Toronto.

Maybe yes, maybe no. But, the next year, when Clemens paid the freight for McNamee to come to the Yankees as his “personal trainer, what do you know? Clemens had a much improved season and returned to the successful “form he had while a member of the Blue Jays.
Surprise, surprise.
Opposing players and managers have always given Torre credit for the calm way he carried himself, on and off the field. Readers naturally will scan Torre’s memoirs for his porcupine encounters with The Boss.

Interestingly and despite the fact that Steinbrenner’s horrendously negative reputation didn’t exactly improve with age, Joe Torre was for the most part able to exert considerable control over the team and the decisions made.

Despite the, ah force of Steinbrenner’s personality, Torre did not back down from Steinbrenner’s less than wise commands or his intrusive strategic attempts. Torre by his own account took a strong leadership role, less and less supported, of course, when Yankees failed to continue their winning ways.

Also, in the early years of his Yankee tenure, Torre brought a laid back style to coaching where trust was a major factor.

This outlook and the actions that followed went over very well with the players’€especially the veterans. They had already been in the League for a good period of time and did not need someone to repeatedly identify their every misstep.

Today, although George Steinbrenner is no longer in power and Torre no longer at the helm, the Yankees’ philosophy of winning has changed little.

Yankee top management continues to ship in the top players from the free agent classes, no matter what those players’ past reputations might portend.

The Yankees have had a string of bad games, a disappointing last couple of years, and as all know have not won a World Series championship since 2000.

This October drought included’€to the awkward delirium of the New York Times and sheer ecstasy of Red Sox Nation’€ a complete collapse in 2004 where the Red Sox overcame an impossible three-to-zero series deficit to snatch victory after victory from the Bronx Bombers and after re-writing baseball history, coast to World Series Never-Neverland. Good Bye, Curse…

Overall, Yankee Years was, as they say, an enjoyable read. It seems as though every time one sits down with the book they end up being unable to put it down.

Verducci does a lively job in spicing up the literature and vividly re-telling Torre’s rich stories. A die-hard Red Sox fan after reading may’€hard to believe’€ feel as though they had become a part of those Yankee teams who became almost a dynasty.

The stories humanized the machine Torre managed, individualizing the players. Despite the stereotypes, Yankee Years may change a reader’s attitude.

For example, David Cone becomes likeable. Cone, we learn, brings humor to the clubhouse while still maintaining his position as one of the key leaders on the team.

But not all straw is turned to gold. Even more respect is lost for Roger Clemens. The book reinforces the belief that he took steroids, and portrays him as an outcast from the rest of his teammates.
And Captian Steinbrenner remains an un-socialized tyrant, a rich bully. So what? Yankee Years is Joe Torre, and Joe Torre is worth knowing.

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