Saturday, October 17, 2009

Joe Torre & Tom Verducci - The Yankee Years [book review]

* Published in February
I hate the New York Yankees. I respect them and envy them, but as a lifelong diehard fan of the Toronto Blue Jays, a team competing in the same division as the Bronx Bombers, it's virtually a requirement that I dislike them. Actually, unless you're a fan of the Yankees pretty much most baseball fans hate them as well.
When I heard that former Yankee manager Joe Torre had co-authored a book with Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci about his twelve year tenure with the team I was mildly interested. I'd always respected Torre - he seemed like a straight shooter and easy to like. His accomplishments in New York spoke for themself: twelve straight playoff appearances, six pennants and four World Series championships. Plus, he managed to survive notorious Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who had fired seventeen managers in the previous eighteen seasons before Torre was hired in 1996. In that span the team failed to win any World Series titles. Cynics will point to the fact that Torre had reams of Yankee money to help stock his team with free agent superstars, which is true. Still, superstars bring with them egos that need to be massaged and Torre appears to have been highly skilled at doing just that. Add the intense media scrutiny and high expectations to win and Torre's accomplishments look that much more impressive.
The book is delivered with a third person narrative, with Verducci appearing to have more of a voice than I expected. Torre offers up intermittent anecdotes, behind the scenes stories and frank reflections of his time with the team, but there are passages where the book takes side journeys on topics like the steroid issue or sabermetrics (a fairly new complicated system of analyzing player stats in an attempt for teams to get the most bang for their buck). During these passages Torre can, at times, totally disappear as far as his acknowledged input. That's not a criticism - the book rarely lags, amply devoting sufficient time to different subjects without feeling either drawn out discussing them or falling short of the mark.
Some interesting revelations:
- superstar third baseman Alex Rodriguez appears to be the most insecure, selfish athlete alive. This was a real source of friction between him and his teammates, specifically shortstop Derek Jeter. While the two were at one time friends, lingering tension dominates their relationship after Rodriguez joined the Yankees. Behind his back, teammates refer to him as "A-Fraud" (a play on his "A-Rod" nickname). Even one of Rodriguez's friends in the organization acknowledges that he isn't a genuine person, a fact that the man himself is well aware of. A hilarious anecdote from Torre tells of the time he mentioned to Rodriguez that he should make a small gesture to come across as just "one of the guys", perhaps even as small as getting his own cup of coffee one day instead of getting a clubhouse attendant to fetch it for him. You can practically see Torre's eyes roll as he describes Rodriguez walking by his office and sticking his head in, proudly telling his manger about and displaying the cup of coffee he had gotten himself. "He just doesn't get it", Torre says.
- A-Rod had a bizarre, almost obsessive interest in Jeter and why he was so beloved by the fans, media and Torre. Some Yankee players likened it to something from the movie Single White Female.
- Torre was not impressed by the fact newly signed free agent pitcher Roger Clemens and slugger Jason Giambi insisted on having their own personal trainers accompany their every moves with the team. Every organization already has a training team so the request was highly unusual, but the players were highly sought after (Clemens was coming off two Cy Young Awards in Toronto) and management relented. The players' individual trainers were most certainly not welcome in the Yankees clubhouse. Clemens' trainer, Brian McNamee, turned out to be a central figure in the steroid scandal that tainted the game in recent years.
- another free agent pitcher, Kevin Brown, was such a mess that after being shelled during a particularly bad outing he left the field between innings and Torre found him curled up in the fetal position in the clubhouse, his jersey ripped off and Brown refusing to return to the mound.
- Torre's sad accounts of the declining health of Steinbrenner. Torre had a good relationship with the mercurial and unpredictable owner, with a mutual respect previously unheard of in the Yankee owner/manager dynamic. Regular conversations between the two begin to disappear, with recent interactions between the two arousing a sense of alarm in Torre at the weakened state of the once mighty lion, now reduced to wearing dark sunglasses even indoors and having little input at occasional meetings with other management.
- Torre pulls no punches in his dissection of how he came to leave the team, disgusted that even after all his success he was only offered a short-term contract by General Manager Brian Cashman that was incentive-laden.
It's a compelling read, even for non-Yankees fans. Torre and Verducci give an honest, thoughtful recount of his time with the team, which is interesting enough on its own. The wider look at issues involving the sport as a whole provide an extra depth that was unexpected and highly appreciated.
Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆