Then He Came to the End
If you’re a sports fan based in the New York area, a dash of perspective is a necessity. Consider last year’s release of The Yankee Years, Joe Torre’s account of his twelve years managing the legendary baseball team. Before the book hit shelves, excerpts made the rounds, some of which included Torre criticizing players he had managed, notably superstar third baseman Alex Rodriguez. Of course, everyone in the tri-state area lost their minds, which was good for book sales but bad for readers who expected Torre to spend five hundred pages burning bridges.
Now that the panic has subsided and the Yankees have won their 27th championship, the book can be revisited, and it should. Torre—with a tremendous assist from Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci—offers an unflinching look at the downside of a dream occupation. It turns out that managing a baseball team is like any other job, complete with useless employees, clueless executives, and mismanagement. Sure, Torre may have slammed Rodriguez, but who hasn’t ranted about a co-worker? Who hasn't bitched about corporate policy? The difference is that Torre’s memories and Verducci’s reporting produce a dramatic, insightful account of surviving a job where winning the World Series was the only measure of success. You’ll want to hear about Torre’s day.
Torre was the club’s fourth choice when he was hired in 1995, and with good reason. His career won-loss record was a shabby 894—1,003, and three teams had already fired him. However, Torre’s even-keeled demeanor was perfect for a roster full of veteran talent who sacrificed stats for wins. Adding two future legends—Mariano Rivera, the lights-out closer, and shortstop Derek Jeter, who became the model for playing baseball the right way—didn’t hurt.
In Torre’s first year, 1996, the team won the World Series, adding three more championships from 1998 to 2000. Those teams were built on heady role players, drive, and tremendous pitching. After the Yankees lost the memorable 2001 World Series to the Arizona Diamondbacks, that culture receded. “What changed was a number of players out there are trying to do the job for their own satisfaction, instead of getting the job done,’ Torre says about the post-2001 Yankee teams, which made the postseason six straight years but never won another World Series.
The manager provides the behind-the-scenes details of steering a sinking ship, which is backed by Verducci’s astute reporting. According to Verducci, the team failed to adjust to baseball’s changing times. The Yankees should have replenished the roster with young talent from their farm system, but the club focused on the now, signing big-name free agents to absurd contracts in the hopes of winning it all. The problem is that thanks to Major League Baseball’s increased revenue-sharing system, more money was funneled from rich teams to poor teams, which allowed them to sign their young stars earlier. Instead of finding useful players through statistical legwork—something that their fiercest rivals, the Red Sox, mastered—the Yankees foolishly followed an obsolete game plan of “paying top dollar for declining talent,” explains Mark Shaprio, the general manager for the Cleveland Indians. After 2001, most of the players the Yankees picked up in free agency or trades were either past-their-prime stars (e.g., Jason Giambi, Randy Johnson, Kenny Lofton) or me-first clubhouse cancers like Rodriguez, whom apparently had the Q rating of Hitler.
Rodriguez’s neediness included being liked by his new teammates, but the maintenance of Alex Rodriguez required so much work—the look-at-me mannerisms on the field, the personal clubhouse valet, the phoniness of trying too hard to say things to the media that sounded right or insightful—that it turned off teammates. He was hyperaware of how he looked to others and how he was perceived. It was a self-awareness that crept into his at-bats in clutch situations, causing performance anxiety, and his teammates knew it.
That’s a guy you want in your foxhole! Ditto pitcher Kevin Brown, who Torre discovers “curled up on the floor in a tiny crevice in the corner of a storage area in the back of the clubhouse” after a miserable inning of pitching.
Sadly, meltdowns were common from these players, who replaced Torre’s beloved get-the-job-done guys from the championship teams. As Torre devoted more time to massaging players’ egos, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner’s frail health limited his involvement. Some may consider this a blessing, since the infamous Steinbrenner has always come across as an unholy mixture of Miranda Priestly and Vince Lombardi. Torre claims he could negotiate Steinbrenner’s bluster, even getting him to agree with his line of thinking. At the very least, Verducci notes, Torre knew where he stood with Steinbrenner. But with the gap between championships growing and the old man’s roar quieted, that security vanished as Steinbrenner’s heirs took over.
Then again, people always stay too long in bad jobs, so a firing can be a blessing. That includes Torre, now the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. “I found managing could be fun again,” he says in the afterword to the paperback edition. Torre’s happiness aside, his time in New York is a reminder of the innumerable benefits that come in enjoying a team’s success and not being responsible for it. The Yankee Years provides more than a dash of perspective.
Books mentioned in this column: