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the yankee years

31 august 2009

It may not even use the term, but The Yankee Years by Joe Torre and Tom Verducci is an argument for the importance of "chemistry" in putting together a winning baseball team. Time and again, the point the authors make is that you can bring together the 25 best ballplayers money can buy and still lose championships if your guys don't share a "desperation" to win, and don't pull together toward that common goal.

"Chemistry" is sometimes derided in analytic discussions of baseball, of course. You can have the happiest, most synergistic clubhouse in the game, and if you can't hit the ball out of the infield, you'll finish in the cellar.

Provided you can play the game, though, it can't hurt to play like a team. Controlled experiments are impossible, so one should at least listen to close observers like Joe Torre. Why did the New York Yankees win 14 of 16 postseason series in Torre's first six years (four World Championships) as their manager, and then just 3 of 9 (no World Championships) in his final six seasons? They had strong regular-season records throughout, and a lineup packed with all-time greats for his entire tenure. How did they go from near-unbeatable in October to well short of meh?

Billy Beane would explain that good teams' . . . um . . . skill sets don't necessarily work in the playoffs. Sabermetricians would point to the small sample sets involved when extrapolating April-September records into a few games in October.

Torre and Verducci prefer to talk about the hunger, grit, and fanatical devotion to The Ringz that characterized the Yankees in 1996-2001, before selfless leaders like Paul O'Neill, Scott Brosius, Tino Martinez, and David Cone left the Bronx. And you know, this conclusion shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. Winning four World Series in five years is perhaps a statistical blip. But perhaps it's also what happens when a team bulging with talent is also intensely focused on a single communal goal.

Torre (in the third person, despite being an author of the book), Cone, Derek Jeter and others talk in The Yankee Years about the special camaraderie of the late-20th-century Yankees, an ethos that seemed to evaporate early in the 21st century. Time and again, they hark back to a special bunch of guys who knew how to win and did whatever it took.

Of course, once one tries to line up their examples into any kind of coherent or consistent argument, it falls into lots of disconnected pieces. The book, like dozens of sport memoirs before it, is basically an excuse for its celebrity author to talk about who he liked or didn't like in his clubhouse.

Derek Jeter is unremittingly admirable, the ultimate modest team-oriented leader-by-example. Somehow Torre & Verducci don't account for why Jeter's leadership ability declined markedly the longer he played for the Yankees. Until about age 27, veteran Yankees adulated Jeter; ever since, veterans and newbies alike seem to have ignored him.

By contrast, David Wells and Roger Clemens come across as oversized selfish jerks. Their egotism is outrageous: yet Wells was the ace pitcher on the greatest and most selfless of all the Yankee teams, the 1998 edition. And Clemens would anchor the rotations of four Yankee pennant winners, two of them World Champs.

The conclusion seems to be that when the Yankees were winning with their selfless ensemble attitudes, they could absorb as many dysfunctional ego cases as George Steinbrenner's checkbook could attract: Wells, Clemens, sex addict Wade Boggs, second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, who embodied the notion of crise de confiance, Hideki "Fat Toad" Irabu, drug addict Darryl Strawberry, domestically-violent David Justice, steroid-patient-zero Jose Canseco, "spoiled kid" Ruben Sierra, Bernie Williams (a great center fielder who comes across in Torre's accounts as a kind of self-absorbed, overgrown child), the obnoxious Chad Curtis, the unspeakable Jim Leyritz, and Denny Neagle, who would later become the most famous suborner of prostitution ever to play in the major leagues.

Yes, but in those years they knew how to win. It was only after a different round of head cases showed up in the Bronx (Jason Giambi, Kenny Lofton, Johnny Damon, Gary Sheffield, Randy Johnson, Kevin Brown, and of course, the ne plus ultra of baseball narcissists, Alex Rodriguez) that the center could no longer hold.

Somehow, I reckon that the situation is both more complicated and simpler than Torre & Verducci's analysis makes it out to be. Success is a lot more than just determination. But success is also mostly dictated by having the horses. The Yankee teams throughout Torre's years seem to be uniformly packed with difficult characters – not unlike the Yankees of the Bronx Zoo days, or the Casey Stengel days, or the Lefty Gomez days, or for that matter the days when Babe Ruth was in the outfield and Carl Mays on the mound. When they have better players, they win: to their credit, in between discussions of knowing how to win, Torre & Verducci provide facts and figures showing how the starting rotations of the champion Yankee teams were better than those of the just-short-of champion Yankees.

So I wouldn't read The Yankee Years for analysis. But for gossip, it's fun. And for game stories, it's unbeatable. The dominance of the Torre Yankees, ensured by their bloated payroll, was much-lamented by fans of other clubs. But it sure produced some great TV moments. The Jeffrey Maier home run. Andy Pettitte batting for himself. The Clemens-Piazza bat toss. The Flip. Home runs off Byung-Hyun Kim to prolong the 2001 Series, and Mo Rivera throwing it away with a bunt. Pedro taking down Don Zimmer. Aaron F. Boone. Losing the 2004 ALCS when up 3-0 in games. AROD batting eighth. Midges swarming over Joba Chamberlain. If there was a dull moment or two during the Torre years, I must have missed them.

The stories are so great that they need no overall narrative, though Verducci (I sense, more than Torre) stretches to provide one. He's insistent that the Red Sox began to win championships because they got smarter than the Yankees as the 2000s wore on. But it's hard to see the 2003-04 Yankeee-Red Sox matchups as anything but the knife-edge balanced contests they were. And by the Sox' second championship in 2007, it wasn't smarts that were in short supply in the Bronx, it was pitching arms. The Sox just had more of them, especially that of Daisuke Matsuzaka, brought to Boston by plenty of long green, the basic ingredient for most modern champions.

So hungry does Verducci get for master narratives that he casts a 2007 ALDS, the Joba Midge Series, as the triumph of the brainy, thrifty, sabermetric, Moneyballing Cleveland Indians over the bloated cashbags from the Bronx. A new world order in baseball had arrived! The explanatory value of that contrast lasted about as long as the midge swarm. Two years later, as of this morning, the Indians are 14 games below .500. They are 14 games below .500 because their pitching stinks, and their pitching stinks because they couldn't afford to keep the ace of their 2007 staff, C.C. Sabathia. The Yankees are 34 games over .500, in large part because they signed the same C.C. Sabathia to be their ace. Knowing how to win is important, but having the money to sign players who can act on that knowledge is indispensable.

Torre, Joe, and Tom Verducci. The Yankee Years. New York: Doubleday, 2009.