The Yankee Years
512 pp., $26.95
The Postwar Yankees: Baseball's Golden Age Revisited
David George Surdam
University of Nebraska Press, 2008
438 pp., $45.00
Ed Barrow: The Bulldog Who Built the Yankees' First Dynasty
Daniel R. Levitt
University of Nebraska Press, 2008
456 pp., $29.95
Michael R. Stevens
Kingdoms Rise and Kingdoms Fall
This latter phase of Torre's career with the Yankees, which takes up the lion's share of this book, makes for a story as disheartening as the first part is inspiring. Verducci offers a lengthy transition section on the explosion, first under the radar and then in ugly exposure, of the Steroid Era. Of course, figures such as Roger Clemens and his personal assistant (and hence Yankee employee) Brian McNamee played a huge role in this scandal. I've pondered why this section of the book depressed me so sharply. It's not just the rampant performance enhancement (we've all know about that for awhile) but also the disingenuous naivete offered up by so many players in the midst of this bastardization of the game. Verducci captures well the implications for us as fans, and does so with Torre's key phrase in mind, when he notes that "The Steroid Era was baseball's Watergate, a colossal breach of trust for which the institution is forever tainted." Seeing the truth there, feeling the weight of the analogy, I want to resist and resurrect the baseball of yore, the integrity of Roy Campanella and Phil Rizutto and Preacher Roe. But the stain won't go away.
Despite all the scandal and censure of the performance enhancers, that alone didn't take the shine off of Yankee baseball in the second half of Torre's run in New York. Deeper issues, having to do with increasingly fragile player psyches, increasingly selfish player behavior, increasingly rationalistic and statistical GM work—all of these forces chewed away at the legacy Torre helped to foster, until he himself was chewed up and all but spit out in the process.
The tragedy played out in the bulk of this book is against the backdrop of that early trust and those early grinders and warriors. The parity in the league brought about by the "think-tank culture" of high-tech, sabermetric baseball executives like the A's Billy Beane and the Red Sox Theo Epstein (and eventually the Yankees own Brian Cashman) is cast as a dehumanizing, even despiritualizing force in the game. Sure, Epstein helped construct a Red Sox team that finally tore down the Yankee mystique, but he did so with a good measure of imitation thrown in—he picked up a foundering David Ortiz and made him an everyday grinder, and found in Curt Schilling the warrior ace who could own a post-season. Ironically, Cashman's decision to increasingly imitate the statistically savvy modes of Beane and Epstein led to the dissolution of his tight and fruitful relationship to Torre.
The jettisoning of Bernie Williams, one of Torre's original warriors and a cog in all four Yankee championship teams, finds Torre playing Plato to Cashman's Aristotle: " 'Cash, listen,' Torre said. 'I don't know how long we're going to be together. But do yourself a favor: never forget there is a hearbeat to this game.' " The heartbeat—yet another heart allusion, and it won't be the last!—pinpoints the emotional, intuitive, simple but not simplistic style of baseball which Torre embodies throughout the book, in his earthy rebukes of players, his bluntness with Steinbrenner, his fierce trust and loyalty. By contrast, the new wave of Yankee free-agent acquisitions after the final World Series win in 2000 reveals a set of players who, amidst their many technical and interpersonal flaws, suffer from an endemic lack of heart. Torre makes this clear especially with the pitchers who become his bane. Of the talented, tantrum-prone Kevin Brown, a high-paid bust: "He never was a fighter. He never wanted to fight you. Neither was Randy Johnson, for that matter." Johnson gets a further, more nuanced critique from Torre late in the book: "He never took the ball and said, 'All right, guys. Follow me.' You never had the feeling that was what you were going to get" (330). Of Carl Pavano, he of the four-year, $40 million contract that produced exactly 26 starts, Torre could barely mask contempt: " 'The players all hated him,' Torre said. 'It was no secret.' " Mike Mussina, who pitched for the Yankees through this same era, and who comes across as pleasantly candid in the book, says that the term "the 15 Day Pavano" had come to replace "the 15 day disabled list" in Yankees parlance! Not all problematic players receive such censure from Torre; for instance, he says of Gary Sheffield, with whom he clashed many times, "He was a team player. He finished a couple of games at third base for me, when we had to take guys out and move people around. He was willing to do anything. He'd even catch. 'I'll do anything,' he told me. He came in one day and brought in a VHS tape of when he caught in Little League. He was a great teammate. He was just inconsistent with his moods."