This being the time of year when we count our blessings, let me say that I'm fortunate to have a guy as gifted as Christopher DeRosa contribute the occasional piece to Bronx Banter. For real. DeRosa, a professor of history, assembles a terrific review each year called the "Baseball Procrastinator" which he sends it off to his friends. I'm fortunate enough to be on the list and "The Procastinator" is just tons of fun. One portion that I especially enjoy is DeRosa's book reviews. So with his permission, I'm going to reprint his 04 reading list here in this space over the Christmas weekend. I hope you enjoy em as much as I have. And hey, here's wishing everyone a safe and heppy holidaze.
By Christopher DeRosa
Buster Olney, The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty (2004)
Here is the first good book about latest Yankee dynasty. The title refers to game seven of the 2001 World Series. On the cover, Mariano Rivera stands on the mound, hands on hips, back to the camera. On the back, Paul O’Neill sits in the dirt at second base, head buried in hands. However, they are in their home uniforms, in Yankee Stadium. Game 7 was in Arizona, so I don’t know what that’s about.
Olney provides the sort of insights I crave into the inner workings of the greatest team of all time. Whereas most people portray Steinbrenner as a tyrant, Olney characterizes him as a quitter -- it rings true. He is prey to the same anxieties I have watching a game, actually, but he lashes out at real people. Joe Torre, aptly described by Chad Curtis as a “social genius,” has George somewhat intimidated, “He’s stuck with me, and he’s stuck with me.” Mel Stottlemyre comes off as surprisingly enthusiastic and unpretentious, one of the kindest people around the Yankees.
That’s good. I’m sentimental about this team and I’m glad they were likable. Bernie Williams, depicted trying to comfort families of the victims of the World Trade Center attack, is also the nice guy I want him to be. Clemens has an appealing generosity. El Duque is amusingly paranoid. Mariano Rivera holds “wild thing” closer theatrics in contempt. For a while, he didn’t even realize someone had tagged him with signature entrance music. Tino Martinez often seemed to me like an OK but clearly limited player, but in the clubhouse, he was one of the key motivating personalities. It’s no wonder the press has never warmed to his replacement. The happiest and saddest player was Darryl Strawberry, who lived his Yankee days as if he fully believed the team had saved his life. When cancer prevented him from going north with the club in ’99, he immediately fell apart. The profile of Derek Jeter just confirms the image. What you see is what you get.
I still want to hear more of Cashman’s story, but he gets his due here, as does Gene Michael for steering the Yankees onto the OBP track. I like it when the Yankees get some recognition on this account, but the author is still a bit sketchy on the whole walking thing: “Babe Ruth and Ted Williams drew more walks than other hitters in their respective generations, but primarily because pitchers refused to throw them strikes. By the late 1980s, however, the best hitters were making walks an integral part of their offense. Wade Boggs… had won the American League batting title with a .357 average, but he also drew a league-high 105 walks.” It seems as if Olney thinks that working the count to reach base only became an offensive weapon when he was ready to realize it. A lot of guys from John McGraw to Willie Randolph would be surprised to hear that Wade Boggs invented the idea.
At the beginning of the book, Buck Showalter gets his due for fostering a sense of professionalism and perfectionism. He tried to come up with little things to make his program distinctive, like the strip of dirt in Bank One Ballpark. At the end, Olney returns us to “Buck’s fucking strip of dirt,” tweaking Damian Miller’s bunt as Rivera fielded it.
The use of 2001’s game 7, my worst-ever baseball memory, as a framing device throughout is mostly an annoyance. Every chapter seems to end with Curt Schilling striking people out. After Brosius didn’t try for a double play on Bell’s bunt, we learn, “For the first time in years, Schilling thought, the Yankees might have been playing to avoid mistakes.” Sure, that’s why Rivera tried for the 1-6 on Miller’s bunt only moments before. And who cares what Big Mouth Curt and the Arizona Diamondbacks have to say about the Yankee dynasty anyway?
The passage shows that no matter what aplomb the Yankees had displayed in the past, Olney suspects that only a failure of character can explain the loss of the game. “Lynn [Cone],” he writes, “rooted for the Diamondbacks, seeing the same soul in the Arizona players that had been evident in the Yankees for so many years but now was disintegrating, she thought.” In this understanding, only one team in thirty each year really has heart, and the sportswriters will let you know which one it is right after the last out of the World Series. Had the Yanks gotten two outs luckier, would Olney be writing about the D-Backs’ soul?
Olney’s book represents the orthodox view of the ’96-’01 Yankees. He argues that the Yankees founded their championships primarily on attitude and chemistry. Although it appeared earlier, Dean Chadwin’s Those Damn Yankees might be considered the revisionist position. He described the late ‘90s Yankees as bullies and cheats who owed their titles to unfair economic advantage. The post-revisionist “realist” school, promulgated on sabermetrically-oriented blogs, emphasizes the Yankees’ good luck, and discounts the influence of character. It’s a question of emphasis – everyone agrees that the Yankees had some talent for playing baseball, but it seems four titles in five years requires some further explanation.
Some of the realists assume all players, by dint of having reached the majors, are similarly tough and well-motivated, and therefore all performance results are simply unremarkable deviations from true talent norms. That strikes me as too pat. I believe that the ’96-’01 team did have a special group confidence. But that was only one of their assets. I do not accept Olney’s popular argument that the Yankees have failed to win a 21st century championship because they replaced the gritty players of the late 90s with empty-hearted free agents with pretty stats. Olney cites Raul Mondesi as an indicator of how the Yankees had lost their way, but getting Mondesi really wasn’t so different from getting Strawberry or Sierra the first time around. George would override Cashman in the title seasons too. Malcontents got chances to turn their careers around, and if they didn’t, they got dumped – just as Mondesi did. If the Yankees had lost to the Braves in 1999, sportswriters would have said they’d been foolish to replace tough David Wells with selfish Roger Clemens, and that in their two championship seasons, they’d never have depended on a second baseman who forgot how to throw to first base.
The Yankees’ toughed-out victory in game seven of the 2003 ALCS, so like those of the late 90s, is inconvenient to Olney’s thesis, and he has to sweep it away in two sentences: “… and when Boston took an early lead in Game 7, it seemed the balance of power between the two teams might finally shift. But the Red Sox blew the lead, and Boone hit an extra-inning homer to win the game for the Yankees; Steinbrenner was giddy.” So that time, the Yankees didn’t stage a gutsy comeback, the Red Sox just blew the lead, because the dynasty ended in Arizona.
So I enjoyed Olney’s book a lot, but Derek Jeter had a better perspective on the meaning of the 2001 World Series, “… it was the end of a chapter,” said the shortstop, not “…the end of the book.” A special team was breaking up. The fine team into which it morphed was more than a hollow shell of its former self; it was not a tragedy, but more or less a pleasure.