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The Yankee Years

1 rating: 3.0
A book by Tom Verducci

In 1996, when the New York Yankees named Joe Torre as their new manager, the most storied franchise in baseball history had gone almost 20 years without a championship. In his 12 years with the club, Torre and the Yankees made the play-offs every season, … see full wiki

Author: Joe Torre
Genre: Sports & Recreation, Biography & Autobiography
Publisher: Random House Large Print
Date Published: February 03, 2009
1 review about The Yankee Years

Torre's Heroes

  • Oct 13, 2009
Rating:
+3
Pros: Magnificently details the pressures of managing the Yankees

Cons: Not enough detail on actually building the dynasty

The Bottom Line: The Yankees have history to live up to also.

Joe Torre was an underdog. His detractors during his tenure with the New York Yankees had one major knock against him when he was hired: He wasn't a very good manager. At the age of 55 and with a managerial record known mainly for how bad it was (894-1003), "Clueless Joe" was looking at being managing casualty number 22 in George Steinbrenner's 23 years of owning the Bronx Bombers. Steinbrenner's first three choices were managing luminaries who all had considerably higher profiles: Sparky Anderson, Tony La Russa, and Davey Johnson, all proven winners with World Series rings in the field marshall role. And Torre? A single division title in 1981 with the Atlanta Braves.

12 years after The Boss took this gamble, the Yankees were four titles, six pennants, twelve division titles richer. Joe Torre had won over 2000 games with the Yanks, a number surpassed in Yanks lore only by the brilliant Joe McCarthy. And he was STILL being criticized - with a $200 million payroll and talent including Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Hideki Matsui, Roger Clemens, Jason Giambi, Bernie Williams, Alex Rodriguez, and Gary Sheffield, how would one NOT have been able to lead the Yankees to glory year after year after year? Why, maybe Torre should be kept out of Cooperstown because with talent like that bursting at the seams, he won merely four championships!

Well, after his stint in New York, Torre has now turned the Los Angeles Dodgers from upstarts into a dominant team. But we've also got Torre's personal memoir, The Yankee Years, describing what the job in The Bronx was really like. In any sport, there's a line of thought which says that if the talent is good enough, any coach can look brilliant. The Yankee Years just kills that line of thinking. The book, by Torre and Tom Verducci, argues pretty conclusively that Torre was nothing less than a miracle worker. 

Among the things The Yankee Years reminds us of is that while the Yankees were the richest team in baseball at the time of Torre's hiring, they were not yet at the point where they were running away with the dough. Alex Rodriguez may be posting numbers like a Hall of Famer, but Paul O'Niell, Scott Brosius, and Jimmy Key weren't. The Championship teams of the Jeter/Rivera/Torre dynasty won because they were hungry. They had an insatiable hunger for victory and would fight for it by any means necessary. After the loss in Arizona, the Yankees' payroll began to skyrocket because the team began a crashing approach of grabbing the big names. These marquee players are all described as basically believing donning the pinstripes automatically entitles you to a ring. They never appeared to realize that a storied and successful uniform is not a magic uniform. 

Although Torre's name is the big name on the cover, The Yankee Years is more Tom Verducci's book than his. Verducci's name is given just as much prominence on the cover as Torre's, it is Verducci's photo in back instead of Torre's, and the book is written in the third person. There aren't any scenes in The Yankee Years which don't feature Torre, but the book is clearly written in the careful and steady prose of a legendary baseball writer. Statistics are thrown about very regularly, and stat lines are more the knowledge of journalists than the people who are paid to do the field work. 

The first few chapters of The Yankee Years bandy about various points in the personal relationships between Torre and his co-workers. They threw me off repeatedly. They kind of bounce back and forth through the periods of time, chronicling various scenarios and big picture happenings. There is one chapter about steroids, which of course seems to be a necessity in every baseball book written in the current time period. There is another chapter strictly about George Steinbrenner. The Yankee Years doesn't begin to take a proper chronological form until four or five chapters in. But before that happens, the jumps in and out of topics and the lack of a narrative flow are throwing and pointless. They get to the point where you begin to wonder when the setup stops and the story actually begins.

Unfortunately, those early chapters contain the only details about the early years of the dynasty. This doesn't work because you don't get a very exacting description of how the dynasty was built. You get the occasional hints about attitudes and teamwork and other standards, but there's nothing solid. We know the 1998 team won 114 games in the regular season and the 2000 team won only 87, but the dirt is kept from us. It's almost as if the purpose of the narrative story - which is most of the book - was to give Torre's explanation of just why the dynasty came tumbling from the top of the totem in a dizzying spiral. Fortunately, the story of the Yankees' trip downward is engaging and well-written. 

It's in the last three-quarters of The Yankee Years that Verducci begins giving us details about why the Yankees performed the way they did. He talks about how the Boston Red Sox utilized the new methods of team building to overtake the Yankees and the best team in baseball. He talks about the various ways the Yankees slipped up, the difficulty in managing the more difficult players, and how the culture of the Yankees dynasty shifted when the team began collecting all-stars like baseball cards. Through it all, Verducci maintains a loyalty to Torre which nearly crowns him with a halo. Verducci succeeds tremendously in describing the pressures which come with managing a team in New York City, and we get the sense the despite Torre's love for his job, he began to feel overwhelmed.

Torre's relationship with George Steinbrenner has a minor spotlight focused on it. Torre, according to Verducci, was a baseball rarity in that he was not afraid to stand up and challenge Steinbrenner. Whenever Steinbrenner makes a move Torre doesn't like, Torre gives Steinbrenner his objection. The 2004 American League Championship Series - the infamous series in which the Boston Red Sox came climbed out of an 0-3 hole to beat the New York Yankees - shows just how gutsy Torre was in standing up to The Boss: Torre tells Steinbrenner that he wouldn't have changed the way his team played because he was out of viable options. There are many moments like that between the two of them in The Yankee Years. 

One of the other great moments in The Yankee Years is how vividly Verducci describes the bug swarm in Cleveland which closed Torre's final game as a Yankee. It is very descriptive in how it gives the feeling of really being in the middle of a swarm of madges. 

The Yankee Years is very much biased. But in describing the mentalities of the various teams and players Torre managed, it is an important book because it gives a positive argument for Torre's management. You may think Torre gets a free pass from baseball writers because of the talent he managed, but a lot of this talent - most notoriously Alex Rodriguez and Johnny Damon - came with a lot of head baggage. And through everything, in situations where the team kept appearing to fall apart early, through situations where the Yankees looked like the surefire failures, and through divisional race gaps and terrible pitching, Torre managed to guide even the most unstable teams and players to a dozen division titles and winning records. It is a great book in that it describes just what Torre had to endure.

This review will soon appear on my new blog, which revolves around baseball literature. So will many of the other reviews I've written about baseball books. I plan to have the blog up in a couple of weeks. 

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