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Those Were the Days
2007-02-22 05:41
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

Book Review

By Chris DeRosa

Chris DeRosa has been posting book reviews here for three or four years now. Actually, that's not entirely true. Chris puts out a Yankee Annual each year that he sends around to his friends. The Annaual always contains book reviews, and Chris is generous enough to allow me to co-opt them for Bronx Banter. Here is one that I thought you guys might like...and there is a follow-up essay from Chris that I'll post a bit later on.

Joel Sherman, Birth of a Dynasty: Behind the Pinstripes with the 1996 Yankees (2006)

There's the requisite quote on the back, proclaiming that you don't have to be a Yankee fan to enjoy this book. On the contrary, I'd say you might have to be a Yankee fan. The frequent invocations of the Yanks' championship "destiny" would probably wear out the non-Yankee fan reader before long. But, you know, that's fine. Remember when they used to make Star Trek movies? The studio would always say, "this time, it's not just for the fans," as if there weren't enough friggin' Star Trek fans to pay for their movie. Then more often than not, they'd make a lousy film trying to please a lot of people who were never going to be interested anyway, when they'd just have been better off aiming it right at the people who loved it. So there's nothing wrong with Joel Sherman writing a book just for those of us who would like to wallow in the details of the Yankees' 1996 title season. As such, it does not disappoint.

Sherman's motif is "perfection." Every chapter title is "The Perfect Manager," "The Perfect Resolve," The Perfect Whatever. Sherman knows that the Yankees' flirtation with perfection was a couple of years down the road. What he actually means is that it took a perfect confluence of circumstances for this most imperfect 92-win team to pull it off. And indeed, the author chronicles both the little things that broke right—Jeffrey Maier made "The Perfect Catch (Almost)"—and the real strengths this team sported, including a quality in depth and a terrific cohort of young players: Andy Pettitte, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, and Mariano Rivera.

Some of the best parts of the book are about how those guys broke in and showed their stuff. In the chapter, "The Perfect Formula," Sherman reminds us of the context of Mariano Rivera's breakout season. It was the first full-length season under at the new mid-90s hitting levels, and American League pitchers were lit up for more runs per game than in any season since 1936, include a record barrage of 2,742 homers. Rivera, in 107 innings of stellar relief, surrendered just one of those. He was not only the most effective pitcher in the league; for a couple of months there, it seemed like he was the only effective pitcher in the league.

Sherman compares Torre's quick recognition of Rivera's value in 1996 favorably to Showalter's waiting too long to get him into Game 5 of the ALDS in 1995 (when he had proved so devastating in Games 2 and 3). But here, Sherman's own good reporting contradicts his instinct for the tidy storyline. In spring training, Torre saw "a straight fastball that made Rivera's role murky." Rivera himself is quoted as calling his fastball "straight as an arrow." Sherman writes that that he was working on a change-up because he expected to be a starter. He might have added that it was Torre and Stottlemyre who were instructing him to do this. But as the season developed:

Torre kept defining a more and more vital function for Rivera, from mop-up man when the season began to a hybrid role that united middle and setup relief. Rivera was asked to get as many as nine outs to bail out a rotation that was proving far more unreliable than Torre had forecast.

Case in point, the Yankees led the Royals 5-2 in an April game when David Cone couldn't make it past the 5th and Torre's pen was already fried.

…Torre was staring at nine outs before he could summon closer John Wetteland. A concept was born—what Torre would come to refer to as the Formula. Rivera was asked to not only protect a lead but protect it for an extended period, to become a lone bridge between starter and closer.

In half of his 61 outings, Mo got six or more outs (22 two-inning stints, 8 three-inning stints, and 5 in between). But of course, Mariano Rivera in 1996 was not the first quality 100-inning middle reliever in baseball history. He was closer to being the last. The formula Sherman thinks Torre invented was pretty much the same one Cito Gaston used for Duane Ward in 1990, Sparky Anderson used for Mike Henneman in 1987, Jimy Williams used for Mark Eichhorn in 1986, and Dick Howser used for Ron Davis in 1980, and so forth.

It was the big hitting 90s that drove the division of setup chores, making the LaRussa bullpens more a necessity than a choice. That Rivera could still succeed in the older pattern was to his enormous credit, and was out-of-place enough that it fooled Sherman into thinking it was something new under the sun. And what is this nonsense about a straight fastball? Rivera may not have been throwing the cutter, but his fastball was explosive and jumpy, with irresistible illusory rise. If you want to see a straight fastball, try watching Kyle Farnsworth pitch.

Bob Wickman initially derided Rivera as a one-trick pitcher who the league would quickly solve. Not exactly mentor material, but he was no Mel Hall. Birth of a Dynasty gives us the fullest account yet of how Mel from Hell tormented the young Bernie Williams:

Hall taped "Mr. Zero" to the top of Williams's locker to signify that he meant nothing to the team. One day Hall nearly brought Williams to tears by saying, "Zero, shut up," every time Williams tried to speak. The more Williams tried, the louder Hall interrupted with repetitive chants of "Zero."

Bernie Williams: five all star games, four gold gloves, one batting title, and four championships; Mel Hall: zero. Luckily for us, Williams got to grow into the job. "I came at the perfect time," Sherman quotes him as saying. "After a while, we stopped letting players like Soriano and Johnson mature. We just traded them. That would have been me." Birth of a Dynasty juxtaposes the Williams-Hall relationship with the friendship between Tim Raines and Derek Jeter. Raines went out of his way to help Jeter find his way in the clubhouse, remembering, "I knew I would be a guy who could influence him and make him feel at home." Sherman counts the 1996 Yankees' maturity and selflessness as significant advantages over their rivals, Davey Johnson's Orioles. Or rather, as the book reminds us, Cal Ripken Jr.'s Orioles.

Sherman portrays Baltimore as being the big-money, no-heart team the Yankees are now accused of being, describing Roberto Alomar, Brady Anderson, Bobby Bonilla, and Rafael Palmeiro as self-centered, no-hustle veterans who didn't respond to Johnson. Worst of the lot was arrogant superstar Cal Ripken, who at any point, "could have embraced his manager and unified the club." Instead, the same determination that fueled his streak "made him inflexible to believe that anyone knew what was better for the team than he did."

The characterization of Ripken rings true, but the portrayal of Johnson's managerial tenure as a failure misses the bigger picture. Johnson took over after a 71-73 season, won 88 games and the wild card, then won 98 games and the AL East crown, which as of this writing is the only time any team has ever beaten out Joe Torre's Yankees for the division title. Then he was gone, and the Orioles ran off nine consecutive losing seasons. The two years Johnson was at the helm were the only ones in about a twelve-year stretch when the Orioles seemed to prioritize winning the pennant over the maintenance of the stardom of Cal Ripken Jr.

Sherman's grasp of the Yankees' place in history is better. He argues, correctly, that what was "arguably the greatest run by a major league team ever" has been given short shrift because:

They were cast as villains by a Commissioner's Office that saw the advantages of portraying them as a prop in a strategy of to win salary concessions from the players in collective bargaining. Thus, the Yankees of this era do not receive near the credit they deserved for what they accomplished….

It would be difficult for an All-Star team to win three rounds of playoffs as regularly as the Yankees did from 1996 to 2000.

And as Sherman notes, "Torre did not have an All Star team at his disposal." Rather, the Yankees' title teams whose salary was not so much larger than those of their rivals, rode a great postseason record in one-run games and scored a "staggering" number of late-game comebacks, feats Sherman attributes in no small part to the Yankee bullpen, and Mariano Rivera's 27 postseason saves of four or more outs.

In the main, Sherman aligns himself with Buster Olney and other critics of the bloated-salary 21st century Yankee teams. But it is gratifying to also have him join with Allan Barra to refute baseball's big lie, and to help prevent the reputation of the late-90s team from being subsumed by jealous crybabyism. In so doing, he also reminds us of how different it was to watch the team relatively unburdened by expectations, and before all the anti-Yankee negativity militarized my fandom.

* * * *

There are 25 substantive references to Kenny Rogers in the book, and 21 of them concern what a gutless choker he is. Now, I must admit that Kenny Rogers has for the last ten years also been my personal exception to the rule that failures in major league baseball are probably not failures of nerve. Nevertheless I found Sherman's characterization egregious; he even mocks Rogers for how he celebrated at the ticker-tape parade, after having pitched poorly in the Series. Did he make any effort to get Rogers's side of the story? If so, it didn't make it into Birth of a Dynasty.

Rogers seemed solidly on track to uphold his choker rep this year, getting roughed up in the All Star Game and then coughing up the division title at the end of the season (in a relief appearance reminiscent of his implosion in 1999 NLCS Game 6). Then came ALDS Game 3, and what do you know, there was Kenny Rogers, crumpling up the pages of Joel Sherman's book one by one and shoving them down the Yankees' throats.

Comments
2007-02-22 06:08:55
1.   Jim Dean
Excellent! Thanks Chris (and Alex).
2007-02-22 06:35:55
2.   jayd
I just got through reading the Sherman book and really enjoyed it -- always a different perspective after 10 years. The "Boss" stories never fail to entertain. In the movie version of the book I see the Boss being played by Steve Martin -- recall the agonized fury in Planes Trains and Automobiles, the perfect Steinbrenner.

The main story line for me was the quixotic nature of the 1996 Yankees and how it all came together from Grahamm Lloyd (I will never learn to spell his name, I need more "e"'s somewhere or is it another "m"?) to Cecil Fielder hitting to all fields and Daryl Strawberry, the elder statesman. So different from our recent attempts to stock an all star at every position.

It's really all in the 25 players; which is why I still have trouble with Bernie sitting home this year. Everyone says it's a "business" of course; but it's not and you would have to be a nitwit to believe that. In fact, when Posada and Mariano say "business" you can almost substitute "nitwit". Since when has Minky been beloved for his team contributions and locker room presence? Hey, it's a business, right?

2007-02-22 06:49:01
3.   Sliced Bread
Kenny Rogers... grrrrr.

Thanks for the great read, Alex, and Chris.

2007-02-22 06:52:01
4.   rbj
Nice review.

And I'm sure it was part of the baseball culture he came up in, but Mel Hall sounds like a jerk.

2007-02-22 07:12:19
5.   Shaun P
I just finished the book myself not long ago, and you pointed out some things I either missed or didn't realize. Thanks, Chris!

4 Whatever happened to Mel Hall? I hope he's repented and changed his ways.

2 It is a business, and the book proves that through and through. Mike Stanley was the greatest Yankee catcher since Munson, and he was dumped. Wetteland, Serious MVP in '96, was let go. Wade Boggs, who solidified the hole that was 3B - and helped introduce the 'grind it' attitude that helped the Yanks win for so long - became part of a platoon and then was jettisoned.

And then there's franchise icon Donnie Baseball, who was replaced by Tino Martinez in cold, business-like fashion. "Sorry Donnie, you were a force for years, but you aren't as good as you used to be, and we need to win, so its time to move on."

If that isn't a damn close approximation of Bernie's situation, I don't know what is.

2007-02-22 07:18:26
6.   Jim Dean
Quick question for folks here: Has Jeter ever attributed his better defense since 2004 to having A-Rod on his right?

When you look at the numbers:

http://www.baseballprospectus.com/dt/jeterde01.php

His putouts, assists, and doubleplays all spiked upwards in 2004 and have stayed there since. But does Jeter attribute it to A-Rod?

2007-02-22 07:21:38
7.   williamnyy23
5 Mattingly wanted to retire, while Bernie doesn't. Also, Stanley, Wettleland and Boggs played 11 years with the Yankees...combined. Bernie has played 16 seasons and been in the organization since he was a kid. Those cases don't even bear a close approximation to the present day Bernie situation.
2007-02-22 07:32:37
8.   williamnyy23
6 By attribute, do you actually mean that as a backhanded complement? After all, many people attributed Jeter's defensive numbers to Scott Brosius' superior range.

Personally, I think Jeter's defensive numbers have improved over the last two season as the quality of the pitchers has decreased. I don't know exactly how to articulate it, but I think the effect could extend beyond numbers (i.e., number of balls in play). For example, if you have Roger Clemens on the mound, the game plan might pretty much be to stand at your position and react, On the other hand, with Chacon/Small/Lidle/Wright on the mound, the importance of and attention to positioning might be emphasized more, given that those lesser pitchers would rely much more on hitting spots than going right at batters.

2007-02-22 07:51:02
9.   Jim Dean
8 Look at the stats - everything spiked up in 2004 from advanced metrics like RATE to more common ones like put outs, assists, and double plays.

Quite simply, Jeter became a better SS with A-Rod next to him. The question for me at least: Would Jeter ever say it's because of Alex also being very good?

2007-02-22 07:52:53
10.   tommyl
It will be very interesting to juxtapose this book with Morrissey's soon to be released take on the 2006 team. I wonder how the clubhouse dynamic compares.
2007-02-22 08:00:03
11.   markp
I don't get it. Doc Gooden, Straw man, Cone, Raines, Wetteland, Wade Boggs, David Wells, Chuck Knoblauch, Chili Davis, Roger Clemens etc all played for other teams and were considered stars before coming here.
The 96 starting lineup has Jeter and Bernie and all the rest imports.
The rotation had Andy Pettitte. Period.
The closer was an imported star from LA via the Expos. Nelson was from the Mariners, Stanton from the Braves, Lloyd from the Brewers.
That team bunted less than the 2001-2006 versions.
They won important post-season games with big HRs, not hitting to the other field. Often pitchers who had been clobbered in their first appearance in a series would pitch much better in their second opportunity.
Talking about that team winning because they were "less selfish" than the current Yankees or had more homegrown stars or better pitching all flies in the face of the facts. They were a team consisting of a lot of imported stars who got incredibly lucky (the ump not calling strike three on Tino before the HR, Leyritz improbable HR, Jeter's gift from a young fan, the Mets baserunners in 2000, etc.) and that got some great performances from Mo to seal the deal.
Why can't anyone refer to those teams without either ripping the current version or romanticizing guys like the ultimate mercenary (David Cone), Boggs, Wetteland, Fielder, Raines, or the ex-Mets? Of those, only Raines could be considered as having an "unselfish" style of play, but he had zero sacrifice bunts (Girardi, an awful hitter, led the team with 11. Jeter had six in 96 as opposed to 16 in 2004 and 7 each of the past two seasons)?
2007-02-22 08:25:05
12.   williamnyy23
11 Agreed completely. It is ridiculous to suggest that youth, homegrown talent and unselfish play were the keys to winning World Series, and that the current team hasn't won because it is a group of overpaid, selfish egos. Since the dynasty "died", the Yankees have managed to win 103, 101, 101, 95 and 97 games (compared to 92, 96, 114, 98, 87 and 95). What's more, the team did make the World Series in 2003 (and probably would have won if not for the hangover from the ALCS) and, on several occasions, was inches away (literally) from making it back in 2004. Clearly, losing in the ALDS the past two seasons has been a disappointment, but hardly cause for crucifying the current team. Personally, I'd rather blame the relative lack of post season success on a much less dominant starting rotation than on the salaries and selfishness of the players.
2007-02-22 08:30:02
13.   williamnyy23
9 I am not disputing your point. I think it is just as likely, however, that one could make an argument suggesting Arod's presence as a "poor fielder" has led to Jeter's improvement (i.e., he has needed to compensate). The same argument has been offered in reverse to explain Jeter's poor fielding numbers before 2004, namely that guys like Brosius and Ventura lessened the need for Jeter to make as many plays.

I don't know if either argument holds up to scrutiny, but am just throwing it out there.

2007-02-22 08:37:34
14.   Bama Yankee
Speaking of Kenny Rogers, will the umps (and maybe some opposing managers) be watching him more closely this year (especially with the new rule changes) and if so, how will that effect his performance?

Shameless Plug Alert
Also, for those who might have missed my Gambler song parody (hey, I know it's not that great, but it sure beats reading about the A-Rod/Jeter soap opera):
http://bronxbanter.baseballtoaster.com/archives/571956.html#286

2007-02-22 08:52:24
15.   markp
I think Jeter's improved defensive numbers are more a factor of him not having nagging injuries the past couple of seasons than anything Arod's done.
2007-02-22 08:57:20
16.   Shaun P
My point was , in contrast to jayd's 2, that baseball is a business, and when it comes to the Yankees, it always has been. Stanley, Boggs, and Wetteland were the examples I used to illustrate that point.

The only person I compared to Bernie was Mattingly, and let's be honest, their situations are almost exactly the same.

Frankly, I'm pretty damn tired of talking about Bernie.

2007-02-22 08:59:11
17.   Jim Dean
13 That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. Over the many, many years Jeter has been playing shortstop, the balls have been hit everywhere. But now he's getting to more of them.

Before he simply didn't "have to", and was a below average SS, whereas now he "has to" and suddenly becomes an average SS? Sorry, that's silly, especially since Jeter was getting worse each season leading into 2004, even as the defensive abilities of his 3B's were pretty constant. What Jeter, the field general and all, just got used to being lazy?
Then 2004 hits, and it's "Shit! I have to work again!".

15 He's better now than at any other point in his career, and at an age when he should be losing a step or three.

2007-02-22 09:09:21
18.   Sliced Bread
14 Nice work there, Bama.
Rogers should record your version, and/or perform it at the All-Star game.
2007-02-22 09:10:15
19.   williamnyy23
16 Mattingly's situation is not even close to Bernie's. As early as November, Mattingly announced that he was going to "try out" retirement, freeing the Yankees to make the deal for Tino. I also found the following from a 11/20/1995 Newsday article:

"One club official indicated the Yankees were willing to give the first baseman a one-year contract worth $2.5 million, an attractive offer for a 34-year-old player with back problems, but money does not appear to be the issue."

In other words, Mattingly wanted to retire even though the Yankees offered him a guaranteed contract. Bernie, on the other hand, wants to come back and was only offered a spring invite.

Regardless of how you feel about his role on the team, there is no case to be made for Bernie's situation paralleling Mattingly's.

2007-02-22 09:14:40
20.   williamnyy23
17 Silly? Perhaps, but still possible, along with a myriad of other possible reasons (including the possibility that fielding statistics are inherently flawed).

Besides, what logic would be behind the notion that Arod has made Jeter better? Competition that inspired a previously lazy captain to step up his game? That theory seems to fall into the same category as the one derided above.

2007-02-22 09:31:07
21.   Jim Dean
20 Competition suddenly makes him better than he's been his whole career? And not just a little better, but significantly better.

Or a former Gold Glove at SS still in his prime moving over to 3b.

Take your pick.

2007-02-22 09:33:08
22.   yankz
Who cares who Jeter attributes it to? He's never been asked. Seems like some people want to stir this never-ending controversy.

"crybabyism"- Red Sox fans, meet your new diagnosis.

2007-02-22 09:36:41
23.   Count Zero
I read this book last summer, and I have to say I loved it. Not so much because it's a great baseball book -- but simply because it was fun to relive that 1996 season as I read. To me, that totally unexpected Championship in 1996...especially after those two dismal home losses against the "better-on-paper" Braves to start the Serious...was the sweetest of all of them. I could watch a recap of that year over and over and over again. :-)
2007-02-22 09:37:48
24.   yankz
I'm just echoing the other sentiments- I really enjoyed the book. As Count Zero said, the chapters about the 96 WS were amazing.
2007-02-22 09:46:47
25.   Bama Yankee
18 Thanks for the kind words, Sliced. That means a lot coming from you, since around here it goes like this:
Sliced Bread is to comedy as
Alex is to creative writing,
Cliff is to player analysis,
Knuckles is to Comix,
Chyll Will is to puns,
and Jim Dean is to BUC debate ;-)
2007-02-22 09:47:18
26.   Jim Dean
22 That was my question 6 - has he ever been asked?

Me, I could care less about stirring trouble. But if Jeter was ever going to give Alex crddit for anything, it would be in the improvement to his own defense.

Just an interesting question to me as the results are very clear. He went from being very much below average to just a tick over it in 2004-06. Why?

2007-02-22 09:58:31
27.   mehmattski
I remember reading somewhere that the reason Mel Hall hated Bernie was that Bernie prevented Hall from completing a cycle. In Bernie's rookie season. The worst part was, Hall was mad retroactively. Here's the game:

http://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1991/B07240NYA1991.htm

Bernie stopped at third on Hall's double, and later in the game Hall went on to hit a single, another double, and a homer, before being walked intentionally in the ninth inning. And Hall was mad at Bernie because he could have gotten a triple in the first.

Seems pretty symptomatic of the early-90s Yankees teams with players only concerned with individual accomplishment. As for Hall, I'm pretty sure he ended up in Japan, but no idea what he's done since then.

2007-02-22 10:08:11
28.   Bama Yankee
27 From Wikipedia:
"Hall now (March 2006) coaches girl's fastpitch softball in Dallas, Texas. He has organized the Wicked Softball Organization for 16 and 18U softball."

They also add the following line to the Bernie/Mr. Zero story mentioned above
"Williams went on to win four championships, while Hall won zero."

2007-02-22 10:29:19
29.   Chyll Will
25 Hear Here! But I'm also ignored for my homespun folk tales, too >;)
2007-02-22 10:35:21
30.   Chyll Will
27 I'm fairly certain he's touring with Don Oates on the college circuit right now. In a few years he could maybe open for Bernie? That way he'd finally get his cycle.
2007-02-22 10:40:58
31.   Raf
27 I remember Hall briefly playing for the Jints after leaving Japan. He & Bonds on the same team, imagine that!

As for the early 90's Yanks, given the caliber of those squads, maybe it was best to take solace in individual accomplishments? :)

2007-02-22 11:53:16
32.   williamnyy23
26 You still haven't explained your theory about how Arod's presence led to Jeter's improved defense. If anything, I'd think a 3B with great range would "steal" balls from the SS. I am not being confrontational, but am curious to hear your theory.
2007-02-22 12:58:08
33.   Jim Dean
32 I honestly don't think it's a theory. By every metric Jeter has gotten better by having A-Rod to his right. And I can't see how that's just a coincidence given how much Jeter sucked before 2004 and not so much afterwards.

Now, exactly how it's happened, I'd venture having A-Rod allows Jeter to cheat up the middle. Thus he not only gets to more of those balls but turns them into outs. That I think is the reason the DP's spike so noticeably. It's alot harder to turn two going into the hole than if you're going up the middle.

Further, if he's now getting to those balls whereas before he didn't that would perfectly explain the huge spikes in put outs (unassisted at 2B) especially in 2004 and 2005.

In fact, I think the dip in Jeter's 2006 numbers nicely coincides with A-Rod's difficulties. It wouldn't be suprising if Jeter lost a bit of his confidence in A-Rod and he cheated less. Thus he got to fewer balls up the middle - as seen in number of put outs and double plays. That's not random variation - those are significant dfferences.

2007-02-22 15:43:03
34.   bartap74
Honestly, I got through 150 pages or so and had to stop. The subject matter is obviously interesting to me as a Yankee fan who lived through not only the rebirth of 1996, but also the dark years that preceded it. That said, the book is terribly written. A section will start off talking about Jeter, but will veer off into a tangent on Don Zimmer, which is then suddenly interuppted by something about Paul O'Neil, only to suddenly return to Jeter. The stuff in the book is worth knowing, but the terrible structure put me off. I'll get back to it eventually, but I need to spend time with authors who can write.

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