Book review: The Yankee Years

No new baseball book this year has achieved quite as much attention or notoriety as The Yankee Years by Tom Verducci and Joe Torre. This story of Torre’s time in the Bronx has drawn attention primarily for its less-than-flattering information about some of the team’s high-priced stars, most notably Alex Rodriquez‘s high-maintenance insecurity and the time Kevin Brown almost quit in the middle of a baseball game.

Such clubhouse gossip is in the book, but it is not necessarily its main focus. In fact, one should note this has a rather odd feel for a tome that contains the name of an author and big leaguer on its title page. Nine times out of 10, those works are first person narratives of the jock’s experiences. He has the stories and thoughts about them, and it’s the writer’s job to put them down in a readable format.

The main narrative of the book is third person. Verducci is clearly the writer, and Torre’s contributions come from a series of extensive interviews he gave Verducci. Sure, that’s normally the case in a book like this, but the result makes Torre a character in the story rather than the storyteller. Torre is still at center stage, but it’s Verducci’s stage. This is especially true because others, most notably David Cone and Mike Mussina, also have gone several rounds with Verducci’s tape recorder, adding their thoughts and insights. This book is more Verducci’s history than Torre’s biography.

This format allows Verducci to stray away from Torre on occasion. Entire chapters go by where Torre is a somewhat incidental character in the narrative. This does not happen too often, but chapters that provide context on the game as a whole and how it changed, such as one on steroids and another on the rise of statistical analysis, make Torre a bit player in a book with his name on it.

It is an extremely good read. Verducci knows how to string a series of sentences together, allowing the book to flow easily and naturally. You’ll hardly notice the length as the 470-plus pages go by because you quickly get caught up in its current.

Verducci wrote it loosely chronologically, rarely engaging in a day-by-day “and then this happened” account of the seasons. In fact, some regular seasons are gone in a flash. The postseasons are given more coverage, especially some of the later ones, but the book aims at something more ambitious than just providing accounts of games that have long since ended.

Instead, Verducci is more interested in examining the whos and the whys than the whats. He is more interested in understanding the people behind those seasons (and Torre’s view of them), and why the Yankees rose and fell as they did. As a result, you get almost all the Jeter and Steinbrenner stories taken care of quickly. That way you get a sense of what they provided to the team during Torre’s run—and if that means an anecdote from 2003 appears before 1998, so be it. Despite that, I never found myself confused as to where Verducci was in his story.

Even more than the whos, the book focuses on the whys. In particular, the main focus of the book is why Torre’s time in New York ended. Torre and Verducci are primarily occupied with explaining why a combination of manager and franchise that produced three straight division titles and four in five years came to an end.

According to the book, the main problem was that Torre found himself increasingly isolated and alienated in a Yankee culture that veered ever further from the halcyon days of the late 1990s. Not only did the players change, with high-priced free agents replacing a core who had possessed desperation to win, but Torre found himself on the outs with the front office.

Though George Steinbrenner could be as obnoxious as anyone, Torre at least always knew where he stood with him. As he declined mentally and physically, other powers grew in the Yankee franchise, and those new forces neither trusted Torre nor were trusted by him. His most important surviving ally from the Good Ol’ Days, GM Brian Cashman, eventually turned away from Torre’s methods of dealing with players as he came to focus more on the new wave stats approach.

Focusing on Torre’s slow motion falling out with the Yankee franchise has an odd impact on the book. The glory years of the late 1990s, which normally would constitute the heart of a book like this, instead become merely a first act. Though the Yanks won their last world title in the fifth of Torre’s 12 seasons, their final rings are handed out on page 143, barely 30 percent of the way into the book. New York’s last World Series, which came two-thirds of the way through Torre’s New York stay, comes halfway into the book.

Verducci spends the most time on 2007, Torre’s final season. That is the only case in which he spends a considerable amount of time reviewing the regular season. The book spends three full chapters on 2007, including the postseason. In comparison, Verducci covers the 1998-2000 three-peat in three chapters (and one of those largely focuses on steroids).

Can you imagine a book about the Joe McCarthy Yankees that concerns itself more with the 1945 season that their 1936-39 period? Or a work on Casey Stengel that gives greater emphasis to the late 1950s than their five-peat? That’s what happens here. It doesn’t make it a bad book (again, I enjoyed it immensely) but it is a bit odd. The story it wants to tell isn’t quite the conventional baseball story one might expect.

A central irony haunts this book; one the authors do not seem to be entirely aware of. One of the central points this book makes over and over again is the centrality of trust to Torre and his relations to people. Throughout the book it is noted that Torre bases the relations with his players on trust, holding that as a paramount virtue. Arguably the main thrust of the book is the story of how Torre gradually ceased to trust the higher-ups in the Yankee organization, causing him to walk away from their final contract offer for 2008.

Yet, this book made headlines for itself because of some of the less flattering information it brings to light about Yankee players. Players like Kevin Brown or Alex Rodriquez would have a legitimate gripe that this work violates their trust in Torre.

This paradox is never addressed or commented on in the book. A big blind spot exists in its view of the main character. One can offer several different hypotheses explaining this oddity, but none are necessarily satisfactory.

One could argue the book’s structure absolves Torre from the embarrassing tidbits it reveals about players. After all, it presents Torre appears as a character, not the storyteller. That doesn’t pass the smell test, though. His name is on the cover so he must be held responsible. Besides, it’s clear he told Verducci many of the unflattering stories, even if they are written in third-person by the sportswriter.

Besides, Torre has publicly stood up for the book, not backing away or distancing himself from the contents. As well he should—it’s bad enough when a young star claims to be misquoted in his autobiography, it’s that much worse if someone in a position of managerial oversight attempts the same rationale.

Or you could say that it shouldn’t matter because he’s no longer the Yankees manager, so it’s okay to open up about things now that they are all in the past tense. Maybe, but the idea of putting a statute of limitations on trust seems to negate the primacy Torre places on that attribute.

Besides, he may have left New York, but he hasn’t left the dugout. He’s still managing in LA, and one assumes attempting to foster relations with his players based on trust. In that regard, Torre’s involvement with the book damages his current credibility as a manager. Though I think the book is excellent, I question Torre’s decision to be a part of it. Even though The Yankee Years is not especially salacious, it doesn’t have to be to make him look hypocritical.

One final, somewhat random note should be made: In some ways this book offers a testament to how the statgeek (and I say that knowing full well that I am one) view has infected mainstream opinion. Not only does it approvingly note the influence of Moneyball, and bring up OBP several times, but Verducci’s discussion of Derek Jeter‘s defense is perhaps the most telling aspect of how people’s opinions have changed. Verducci writes:

If there was any downside to Jeter, it was his range at shortstop, which statistical analysts annually derided as among the worst in baseball. When Jeter arrived in the big leagues, he had a habit of reaching for balls to his left with two hands, which effectively reduced his reach. Jeter worked to improve his technique, but according to the number crunchers who charted batted balls, he never conquered the difficulty ranging to his left. Part of the problem was that he often played through leg injuries without making it known publicly. If limited range was Jeter’s Achilles’ heel, Torre was more than willing to live with it because of everything else he gave the Yankees.

There is plenty a student of sabermetric fielding might disagree with. Verducci certainly tries to minimize the complaints about Jeter’s shortstop shortcomings. What is most notable about that blurb is what it doesn’t say, though. It never says the number crunchers are wrong.

Instead, this section ends by passively accepted this critique by saying “If limited range was Jeter’s Achilles’ heel.” This is a major publication by a well-respected sportswriter in a book that largely praises Jeter to the high heavens. But the sabermetric criticisms of Jeter’s defense are explained away to some extent, but not rejected or denounced.

Look, I realize Jeter still has plenty of defenders who will argue until the end of time that he is the greatest defender ever, but it’s impossible to imagine something like being said in a mainstream publication 10 years ago.

For perspective, in the early days of the Internet, an unknown flannel-clad writer named Rob Neyer wrote some pieces denouncing Jeter’s range and oh my golly—you think the people who firebombed Dresden committed a crime. I’m sure any piece attacking Jeter’s defense will still cause angry responses, but the field has changed. Now Jeter’s defenders are often on the defensive.

References & Resources
Obviously, The Yankee Years by Tom Verducci and Joe Torre (New York: Doubleday, 2009) was the main source here.

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