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BOOK REVIEW

'The Yankee Years' by Joe Torre and Tom Verducci

A thoughtful history of Torre's years as New York Yankees and of Major League Baseball during that time.

February 02, 2009|David L. Ulin

Last week, as the controversy over Joe Torre and Tom Verducci's "The Yankee Years" was ratcheting up, I got an e-mail from my brother, who, like me, is a lifelong New York Yankees fan. "As I understand it," he wrote, "Torre is saying NYY is a tough place to work, very 'What have you done for me lately?' and if your name is not Piniella or Jeter, everyone is out to get you. No news there."

This is the reality for the Yankee faithful and has been since George Steinbrenner took control of the team in 1973. As for Torre's revelations that Alex Rodriguez is high-maintenance (No!) or that General Manager Brian Cashman failed to stand by him after the 2007 season . . . tell me something I don't know.

As it turns out, that's precisely what "The Yankee Years" does, providing an unexpectedly thoughtful, even nuanced, history not only of Torre's 12 years as manager of the Yankees but of Major League Baseball during that time. It's a period ripe for just this sort of overview: the steroid era, the rise of moneyball.

When Torre took over the Yankees in 1996, baseball was less than two years removed from the catastrophic strike that stopped the 1994 season, forcing the cancellation of the World Series for the first time since 1904.

By 2007, when he left the team after losing the American League division series to the Cleveland Indians, baseball was huge business despite the exposure of some of its biggest stars (Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds) as alleged cheaters, transformed by a new generation of executives who made decisions based on advanced statistical analyses.

On the surface, none of this appears to have much to do with the Yankees: Although Clemens and others on the 2000 team have been embroiled in the steroids scandal, the team never had an ingrown culture of cheating, while the new age, numbers-crunching style of management demands a patience Steinbrenner lacks.

And yet, "The Yankee Years" masterfully interweaves these larger issues into a detailed account of the rise and fall of Torre's dynasty, a team that won four World Series in the first five years he was managing -- and then did not go all the way again.

The credit for this belongs to Verducci, senior baseball writer for Sports Illustrated and SportsIllustrated.com. He is, if truth be told, the real author of "The Yankee Years," which is not a memoir, regardless of how it's been portrayed.

Written in the third person, the book is more an extended piece of reporting interspersed with long quotes from Torre and many others, which at times makes for an interesting tension between the manager's recollections and Verducci's broader point of view.

This is especially true when they address the steroid issue, which Verducci condemns as a baseball Watergate even as Torre offers a less definitive response. "You had two guys from New York doing all the talking in the Mitchell Report," he says, somewhat defensively. "That's why you have more information on New York players. . . . One thing I've learned is that people are going to feel the way they're going to feel, regardless of what happened. You can talk until you're blue in the face and there's no answer that's going to satisfy everybody."

That's true enough, I suppose, but it's also the case, as Verducci points out, that baseball turned a blind eye to steroids for the better part of a decade, even going so far as to stage a 1998 presentation to "baseball executives and physicians about the benefits of using testosterone."

Torre's reaction to the steroids question is the one instance in which he pulls his punches; otherwise, he comes off as reflective and forthright. He's terrific on the day-to-day dynamics of the Yankees, the way the selfless, win-at-all-costs culture of the championship teams dissipated with the departure of Paul O'Neill, Scott Brosius and Tino Martinez after the 2001 season, leaving a void filled by selfish superstars.

Such a trend began with the 2001 signing of Jason Giambi -- a move Torre opposed in writing, so he couldn't be held responsible if it didn't work out -- and it's personified by the contradictory figure of Rodriguez, perhaps the most talented and least endearing superstar in American sports, an insecure stat machine utterly unable to hit when it counts.

Much of the media buzz around "The Yankee Years" has involved reports that Yankee players called Rodriguez "A-Fraud" or that the player was so obsessed with shortstop Derek Jeter that it "recalled the 1992 film 'Single White Female.' "

In the context of the book, however, these lines are throwaways, not even written in Torre's voice. Far more interesting is the manager's assessment that Rodriguez could not succeed as a team player because he is unwilling to fail.

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