Buster Olney's new book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty" is the first major look at the Joe Torre years in the Bronx. I recently had the chance to catch up with Buster. The following is our lengthy chat. Strap yourself in and enjoy.
Bronx Banter: What are the origins of this book?
Buster Olney: I think that at some point—I don’t want to say agent because that sounds pretentious—but the guy who represents me said, “You ought to write a book about the Yankees.” And I kicked around some other stuff and he said, “You ought to write a book about the Yankees.”
BB: Was this still while you were on the beat?
Olney: Yeah. And I was just not interested. Then there was a book project being kicked around that would have involved Joe Torre. Harper Collins asked me about that, if I would be interested in possibly doing something with Joe. The New York Times would never approve that, even though I was off the beat. They’ve gone away from the collaborations. But then when I got done with it [covering the Yankees], I said you know what? I ought to write about it. I should write about basically that group of guys.
BB: Did you ever think in the middle of those years that well, this team is eventually going to be written about, why don’t I just do it?
Olney: No. Not really during that time. Because when you cover them every day you get sick of ‘em. And you get sick of the subject. And the idea of taking on some project where you are burying yourself in those people and those stories and those situations on top of what you do on a daily basis, would be just overwhelming. But I knew I was going to cover the [New York football] Giants in the fall of 2002 as the 2001 season was going along—that was pretty much set in stone—so once the World Series was over there was definitely a separation. And I felt like going into that World Series, and even that season, knowing that that group of guys would be gone, that there was going to be a transitional stage for the team. It seemed like a natural place to start writing about.
BB: One of my first reactions to the book was, "What if they Yankees win it all in 2004? Does that mean the dynasty is still over?" But after thinking about it for a while, and seeing some of your comments in the ESPN chat last week, I realized we’re just talking about semantics. Your book is about that specific group of players. But what if they had won it all in 2002 with a new group of players? Would that have changed how you would have written the book?
Olney: Possibly. You know, I can’t answer that. I know this: If they had won in 2001, the hard lines that developed would not have been in place. I don’t think George would have become as obtrusive as he’s become. He wouldn’t have injected himself into a Raul Mondesi situation probably. Simply because those guys would have still had a long leash.
BB: Winning is the great pacifier.
Olney: Right. And he would have left them alone I think. He wouldn’t have screwed with anything. But he was walking around at the end of Game 7 saying, “There are going to be changes, there are going to be changes.” That was the most significant change.
BB: When did you start writing the book?
Olney: I got the contract in February of 2002, and I hadn’t really started covering the Giants. That wasn’t until March of 2002.
BB: From the get-go did you have the concept for the structure of the book, where you essentially tell the story through the prism of Game 7?
Olney: No. I actually didn’t think about that until late April or early May of that year. And then I thought about it and it made sense. It took me about six months to come up with how I would organize it, and what the transitional points would be, and okay, where can you write about this character, how could you keep it in sequence…
BB: Because it’s not chronological.
Olney: No, and I didn’t want to write that. I thought that would be kind of a dull recount if I did it that way. I didn’t like the idea of doing that. Since it was that was the last game, there were a lot of interesting stories. Some had been told in part, like the pre-game meeting with Monahan and Mariano Rivera. We wrote about Monahan speaking in the next day’s paper, but of course you don’t have the full context. I think it was five or six months into writing that Kevin Towers told me about Buck Showalter’s strip of dirt. And then you look at the videotape and you are like “Oh my god.” And then Rivera confirms that the ball almost ran through him it came at him so hard. So at that point, once I settled on the fact that that was how I was going to structure the book I began to look at different points of that game where you can transition and how you can figure it together.
BB: Had Jane Leavy’s book on Koufax come out at that point, because I know she did something similar with Koufax’s perfect game.
Olney: Yeah, well you know it’s funny, because when I came up with the idea I hadn’t read that but the person who was her editor, David Hershey, edited my book. He was one of the three editors. So I said to him, “You know, I’m thinking about structuring it through game 7.” And he said, “Well, I’ve always liked that idea.” And I didn’t know at that time what he was talking about, that he was being ironic. When I read the book subsequently, I’m like, “Oh, OK, now I understand that comment.”
BB: Who is your book for? Who is the audience?
Olney: I wanted to write it for the more general baseball audience, maybe in the same way that I wrote for the New York Times. I always felt that I could slip in enough stuff that would appeal to baseball nerds like myself, but I wanted to write it for people who like characters. I wanted to write about the people. I obviously love to write about Mariano Rivera’s cutter as a baseball nerd, but I loved writing about Paul O’Neill and I love writing about El Duque and I loved trying to draw in the general audience into things like what makes Rivera’s cutter so incredible. And what is it about Derek Jeter that makes him so great in the post season. There were times when I was sitting there and thought, “Oh, I can do some stats,” but I think those thinks would make the eyes of the average fan glaze over. To say they lead the league in slugging percentage, or they increased their numbers from here, to here-to-here…I really tried to avoid numbers. In general I tried to do it in one shot. Like with Tino Martinez, I would say, “Okay, this is what he did. He hit this many home runs.” I think I summed up O’Neill, “In this many seasons, he drove in this many runs.” That type of thing. So you cover that, but at the same time I felt covering that team that other than the number of victories there weren’t many guys who accumulated great numbers anyway.
BB: How did you organize your research materials into a narrative? Did you look through old articles for observations as well as the interviews you conducted specifically for the book? How many old games did you watch?
Olney: I had two large notebooks that contained all the notes from the interviews I did, as well as chapter sections that contained stories that related to the subject at hand. I used a yellow highlighter to go over the stories and interviews, noting the important details. I spent a lot of time identifying ways to transition in and out of Game 7 -- and sometimes, there was no simple way, and I just did chapter and section breaks, such as coming out of the chapter on Gene Michael.
BB: This was your first book. Even though you were familiar with the subject, what obstacles did you come up against writing it?
Olney: The biggest thing for me was the editing process. Because they warned me—the editors, David Hershey and Dan Halpern—“Hey, we are going to send you the manuscript back. Give us a call when you get it—”
BB: How long was the original manuscript?
Olney: I think it was 450 pages, 420 pages. It was probably 25% longer than what the book turned out to be. They both made it really clear that they liked it and they both said to me, “Relatively speaking this is a very, very light edit.” They liked a lot of it, and then I got it and I wanted to hang myself. I could not believe how much red ink was on it. And it took me a day to build up the courage to even call them. Because when you see the amount of edits and you see the amount of red ink and you see the amount of suggestions, it just discourages you. You feel like a complete loser.
BB: Was it a blow to the ego?
Olney: It’s not an ego thing so much. It’s more like, “Boy, how could I screw this up?”
BB: You mean, “Did I get this all wrong?”
Olney: Sort of, yeah. And then I began to look at the changes. And they’d say, “You know, you repeat this phrase, or this kind of phrase two pages later. You echo this paragraph fifty pages before.” And then you began to look to at it and think, “Man these are great edits, these are great suggestions.” And I told them that. I said, “Ninety percent of what you suggested was great.” There was some stuff—they weren’t as interested in O’Neill with his explosiveness, and I called them and said, “Look. That is the central theme of O’Neill. That is the central part of him and that’s how fans remember him.” I think they wanted me to cut down writing about Rivera’s cutter and I said, “You know what? I think the cutter is the difference between the Yankees being a very good team and the Yankees being this extraordinary dynasty.”
BB: Plus, you are talking about a great pitcher with a singular gift. The cutter is what has defined Rivera.
Olney: Right. So anytime I said to them that I’d prefer something, they said great. There were no arguments at all. Which is different from what I heard. I heard about the knockdown, screaming fights, that kind of thing. But there wasn’t any of that.
BB: Was there anything that you lost in the final draft that you miss not having there?
Olney: I had a section about Bud Selig and how he conducted himself after 9-11 that I wish had stayed in the book, because I thought that was a window into his management style -- and it wasn't good. So I wanted to write about this because I felt it was some reflection of how he runs the game. It was contained within in the epilogue and one of the editors wrote me back and said, “You know what? This isn’t part of the straight line that goes throughout this book.” And they were right. I couldn’t argue with that. But I still wish it could be out there because it was some really interesting stuff. Maybe it will wind up out there in some form or fashion at some point.
BB: The 2001 season is unforgettable because of the larger social context of the moment, and I know that the 1999 Yankees endured a lot of personal issues, which affected the team. Now looking back, is there any one year that you covered the team which sticks out?
Olney: 1998. ’98 was unbelievable. I started to think about it in context of people going to work everyday. I cannot imagine any person, and group of people, going to work everyday and applying themselves with the same energy and consistency as those guys did that year.
BB: Was that appreciably different in other years with that same group of guys?
Olney: Without a doubt.
BB: What made that year different?
Olney: 97. The devastation of 97, losing to Cleveland. Feeling like they had blown an opportunity to win back-to-back championships. They came to spring training [in 1998] with an absolute mission that year. And they had Knoblauch who really transformed the offense. They got off to a great start and they just came after opposing teams every day. I love Tony Muser’s description of the Yankees that is in the book. You know, while they are just killing the Royals, how he would just watch them and have enormous admiration for them, because they did it in such a professional, head-down, no-posing-at-home-plate-manner. And they just kicked everybody’s ass. What was the run-differential? Something like 330 runs that year? [Note: It was 310 runs.]
BB: You mentioned in the book that Jared Wright and Jerry Hairston were two of the guys who the Yankees had beef with during the 96-01 era. Was there anyone else of note? I ask because I recall a game in May of 1999 (May 11th to be exact) when Troy Percival nailed Jeter in the hand in the process of striking out the side in a 9-7 Angels win. Jeter was not pleased. O'Neill followed and fouled off a bunch of pitches before being called out on strikes. He was furious and the water cooler took a beating. Bernie struck out looking to end the game. I just remember seeing David Cone, his face beet-red, standing on the top step of the dugout. (He was the starting pitcher for the next game.) Did the Yankees really dislike Percival on a personal level?
Olney: Yeah, there were other guys who annoyed them; I remember the Percival game, too. From time to time, they would get mad at other guys. But Hairston and Wright were similar, in that they were both young, generally unproven, cocky and demonstrative -- and for a bunch of veterans like the Yankees, these were abhorrent characteristics. Plus Wright injured Luis Sojo, which was a big deal to those guys.
BB: 1998 was the one year during the run where they simply dominated the league. Record-wise that just wasn’t the case in 96 or 99 and especially 2000 and 2001.
Olney: I remember when they had that awful slump at the end of the 2000 season, and they had played a crappy game against the Devil Rays and Joe Torre came in the clubhouse and just reamed them out. And the players said, “You know, you are right.” And they picked it back up. After 98, in the following years, you got the sense that being the “Yankees” the pressure of having to win the World Series was really starting to wear on them. At the end of 2000, they lost all of those games. In 99—that was a tough year for them—they were trying to live up to 98. It wasn’t until halfway through that year that they talked about it and said you know, “Forget it. We can’t match what we did last year.” And they had so many side issues going on. In 2001, they just began to look old. O’Neill was not as good of a player as he once had been. It’s interesting, the last couple of years that I’ve been around the park, people have told me, “Oh, you know O’Neill wistfully thinks that he may have retired too early.” I don’t think he did. He was getting so ravaged by injuries. Basically he was struggling around .250, .260 for a lot of 2001. I think he quit at the exact right time.
BB: David Justice had a bad year. Knoblauch struggled obviously. Tino…
Olney: And you know what? On paper there is no question but that they made the right choice to move Tino out and bring Jason Giambi in. You are not really going to know how a guy is going to be affected by the pressure of New York until you bring him in anyway. It’s hard to second-guess, especially with the YES network coming into play. Giambi was an MVP…
BB: Plus, he would fill in a need and he seemingly fit their profile well.
Olney: Right. They needed an increase in on-base percentage, just like they did in the early nineties. He was the absolutely perfect guy for that.
BB: After all, who was the last big-time slugging free agent the Yanks had signed before Giambi?
Olney: You could just see that coming all season. They wanted Giambi. But as you said, Knoblauch was destroyed by 2001. Scott Brosius was OK in the first half and he tailed off in the second half. And his defense just wasn’t that good that year.
BB: That was the season that the Mariners made like the 98 Yankees. When you saw the Mariners that year did you get a sense that they had what the Yankees had in 98?
Olney: No. And I don’t know what it was. I watched them the whole year and I never had the feeling that they were as dominant and I don’t know why that is exactly. But when you watched them play they weren’t as scary as I felt Oakland was [when they played the Yankees]. When Oakland won that first game of the playoffs I was like, “Wow.” The Mulder game. You are thinking, “They aren’t going to make it out of this series. They are an old team and here comes Oakland.” As for Seattle, I don’t know. Maybe it was because Edgar [Martinez] was getting a little bit older and his bat speed was slowing down. Brett Boone was such an erratic force in the post season because you knew he just go so hyped up. You could see that between him and Cameron that they were the type of team that could be pitched to in October, as opposed to the 98 Yankees who had all these guys who were so patient. They drew walks. You could see a great regular season team in Seattle. At the same time you were like, “Who is going to be dominant for them in the post season.” You just didn’t have the same feeling.
BB: What was it like in the clubhouse during those 2001 playoffs? Once the Yankees got past the A’s did you get the sense that they felt they were playing with house money?
Olney: They definitely gained a lot of energy, there is no doubt. But it’s almost like the fact that they survived Game 3 with the flip and they managed to hang in that series, it was like suddenly this old team who was in its last run together seemed to pick up all this energy.
BB: I know you are not a psychologist but did you think that they players knew just how important it was for many New Yorkers—discounting Met fans, of course—that they win in 2001?
Olney: They definitely knew it because so many of them were actually going and making appearances on their own. In the HBO 9.11 show, Giuliani said that when O’Neill was rehabbing the stress fracture in his foot he offered to go down and spend a half an hour at some place and he ended up spending the entire day. Everywhere they went and every pre-game ceremony, there were all these firefighters there, shaking their hands, and “Thanks so much, we appreciate what you did.” It was constant. I thought the weariness showed. Between the fallout and the exhaustion of emotion that took place after September 11th, and the fact that they weren’t a very good team, showed. Like you said, when they survived Oakland it was like they found the fountain of youth.
BB: Did you get the impression that players handled the emotions differently? Were some able to channel it into their performance while others—and I’m thinking of a guy like Bernie Williams—may have just been more philosophical like, “Hey, these are only games. In light of what’s happened it doesn’t really matter much who wins or loses.”
Olney: No, I’m not sure if they could. I mean there is no doubt that they played with an enormous amount of emotion in that World Series.
BB: I know there was an incident where Jeter got on Bernie during the Series.
Olney: Bernie was late showing up for Game 6.
BB: Was that something that was completely out of character for Williams?
Olney: Yeah. It was. The rest of the players were on the team bus. He had come from some other place. So he was late and Derek was livid. I think I wrote in the book, he said to Bernie, “You shouldn’t want to be any other place at this time.” And he got on him. That probably was the most unusual moment in the whole post September 11th run. I think the other one was when Pettitte drilled Magglio Ordonez after Bernie got beaned. That was the only time I ever saw Pettitte throw at anybody.
BB: And he was sheepish about it when you spoke to him about it after the game.
Olney: Yeah, because basically he was a conscientious objector and he was ashamed to throw at somebody but it was a very emotionally moment. You know it was the second game they had played after coming back from September 11th and Bernie is there lying on the ground, kicking his feet; it looked like he was seriously injured. I couldn’t believe it when Pettitte hit him. But it made a lot of sense given the time.
BB: Do you know if Bernie and Jeter were able to get past the Game 6 incident?
Olney: Yeah, they were. From what people said, Bernie basically knew that he was wrong and he absorbed the criticism and that was the end of it. In some ways Wells did the same thing when Jeter yelled at him. He absorbed it and they moved on.
BB: Does Bernie command a certain level of respect in that clubhouse given the fact that he’s the senior member of the team or is he so introspective that people just don’t look at him in that kind of way?
Olney: He’s liked. I can’t say that he has the stature that say a Tino did during the run. One of the great things about this group of players was how tolerant they were of each other. And Bernie, for some of the odd things he would do—between the music and his funny sense of humor—
BB: What kind of sense of humor does he have?
Olney: Ah, he was just very quiet, and…it’s hard to describe. He definitely was an odd…he’s not your standard baseball player. He didn’t enjoy getting into the standard clubhouse repartee, and in the early years of course, that worked against him. In the later years, they pretty much rolled with it. Some of the other players didn’t like the fact that they had to cover for him in the clubhouse sometimes because Bernie often liked to get out of the clubhouse as quickly as possible sometimes after games. We’ve seen that with the Red Sox in recent years. It really angers the players when they are left to answers questions from the media for other players. I remember a couple of times Derek with a half-smile on his face, sort of joking, sort of not, looking around and saying, “Oh, Bernie’s gone, huh?” when we were asking him questions that somehow involved Bernie. I think that annoyed some of the other players.
BB: What was Tino Martinez’s stature like?
Olney: What’s interesting is that I learned more about him doing this book than any other player and I told him that. Because when I was on the beat he could be very surly, he could be difficult. And when he was, you were like, “OK, the guy is somewhat of a jerk on some days.” And then as I was researching the book and you talk to more people and you realize it was a bit of an act. He was, in some respects, trying to put us off to protect the other players. What’s interesting is that he didn’t only fool me and other members of the media, he fooled the coaching staff. You know the coaching staff found him to be difficult and found him to unapproachable in some cases, and found him to be a guy, especially when he’s in a slump, to be like, “Boy, he’s so difficult to be around.” And Joe actually wanted him traded in the 2000 season. They had a deal arranged with Atlanta. The coaching staff was like, “Yeah, trade him.” And then they backed off and wound up not doing it. But in talking with the players, they had these great descriptions of Tino working the scenes, sort of fostering the daily look at each game more than any other player. In other words, he’d go out to dinner with Jeter and Posada before a series and would say, “OK, we need this and this and this to happen in this series.” And so if they were playing a playoff series against Seattle then he would sit down with Jeff Nelson and say, “We’re going to need you in the seventh inning against Edgar Martinez. You’re the man.” And he’d pump up Nellie, who he’d known for a long time. And--I love this story, and I didn’t know this before I did the book--but Jeter and particularly Tino would aim his post game interviews at opposing players. Then he’d get on the team plane and saying to everybody, “Hey, wait ‘til you see my post game interview on ESPN, I hope they run it.” Tino wanted to project confidence into the camera, and spoke as if he was speaking directly to players on the other team. If the Yankees were behind in a series, Tino might say, "Yeah, we've been in this situation before and we've responded, and I'm sure we will again.” It was a way to remind the opposing players of how tough the Yankees could be. Tino felt that you could always sense, through the interviews they saw on television, when players on other teams were beaten.
BB: How did he differ from O’Neill?
Olney: Paul liked the other players, supported them, but he tended to his own personal war with failure, while Tino had a broader concern about the others. Tino was the guy who would be monitoring the team as a whole and he had a greater sense of being prepared for each game and each series. Paul fretted about his own failures, in how they affected teammates and the team's ability to win. So yes, he was self-absorbed, but not in a selfish way, if that makes sense.
BB: Was it a fraternal thing for Martinez?
Olney: No, I think it was a competitive thing. I think he’s just a competitive guy. I love that story that Jeter told me about Tino’s mad face. It was after Robin Ventura came over and they were like, “Yeah, Tino gets this look on his face and it gets you all fired up right before a game.” And Ventura said, “Oh, you mean his mad face.” He had played with him in the Olympics. And Jeter and Posada were like, “Yeah, you’re right that’s exactly it!” The way Jeter told the story was really funny.
BB: You mentioned that there was some beef between Posada and Martinez at one point.
Olney: Yeah, Jorge didn’t exactly say what the problem was, but this is the type of thing that existed, I thought. Tino was very wary of the media and they all were very wary of the media’s potential power over what they did. That if things spun out of control, if crisis began to erupt and players began sniping at each other, that in effect it would put pressure on them all and create this extra monster. So they really worked to keep things in-house by in large. Posada and Martinez apparently had some kind of falling out at the end of the ’99 season and the first I knew of it--and the first I think any writer knew of it--was when Posada told me, “We had a falling out. We kept it from you guys.” Both Tino and Posada said, “That’s what we had going, we had a good thing going, we all protected each other in that regard.” Goose Gossage referred to that to. That when he was playing during the crazy years with Billy and Reggie all these side things that happened just added to the weight of each game and each performance. And the microscope just got a little closer to them. He was talking about Torre and how Torre diffused things, but the players did a great job of diffusing it too.
BB: Torre stepped into an ideal situation with a group of players who policed themselves.
Olney: They played hard and you are right: They took care of business. They had the one year in 97 when there was a lot of that [negative clubhouse] stuff and they basically ran those guys off the team. Charlie Hayes and Doc [Gooden]. Anybody who had off-the-field stuff got run off the team. During the season, Gooden got into a scrap with a cabbie over a small fare -- in Texas, I think, and it made the back page of the Post--and Hayes and Wade Boggs were at odds over playing time. It wasn't the type of pub that was good when the team wasn't going well.
BB: What was Boggs like in the clubhouse?
Olney: You know, I didn’t do a lot on him. He’s very much of an eccentric. He’s kind of an odd guy but once the game started, his teammates felt that he was into it. As it was described to me, he was a bit of a neurotic, but to be honest I didn’t focus on him because he was just there for a short period of time.
BB: He was part of the Showalter transition years. What about Cecil Fielder?
Olney: Yeah, I didn’t even ask about Fielder to be honest with you. Except in regard to what happened with Tino during the 96 World Series, which was a classic case. The reason why Tino didn’t openly complain about being benched in the 96 World Series—and he was openly mad—was not because he didn’t want to make himself look like a complaining jerk but by coming out and complaining about the fact that he wasn’t playing, the inference was, “I’m better than my teammate.” And the guys I interviewed talked about that. Tino and Cone and Jeter talked about that sense of, “That’s why Joe Girardi didn’t complain, that’s why Tim Raines didn’t complain, that’s part of the reason why Darryl Strawberry didn’t complain about playing time.” Because they knew that by complaining they would be dumping on a teammate.
BB: How big was the presence of Rock Raines and especially guys like Cone and Strawberry, seasoned veterans who had experienced their fair share of highs and lows over the course of their careers, on their teammates?
Olney: The interesting thing is that I don’t think anyone necessarily sat down and drew up a plan of how to put together a team that fits together perfectly in its personalities. But what’s amazing when you think about it is how many guys fit so many roles perfectly. Cone. The fact that he had such a mastery of how to deal with the media was extremely useful to all of them. The fact that he could mange things like giving money to the minor league coaches, and knowing how big of a deal that would be, and how great it would be viewed, was huge. And it wasn’t only, “This is the right thing to do,” it was, “This is the right way to handle this for our benefit.” He was great at that. Tino was great at the day-to-day preparation. I think Derek and Rivera brought an unflagging sense of confidence; it just never wavered. Then you throw in guys like Raines and Sojo, whose sense of humor was big. They talk about Raines as being one of the few guys who could ever approach O’Neill in the midst of those games when he was throwing his helmet all over the place. He’d walk up to him and say, “O’Neill, what’s the problem?” “Get away from me Rock, come on!” Those two guys were just perfect for that group. The over-riding theme of the book is those teams, because they had a lot of guys who had played for a long time, could develop that kind of a thing. I don’t think it was planned, but if you wanted to construct clubhouse chemistry, they had all of the perfect parts. They policed themselves and they trusted each other and they protected each other. They had so many guys that helped them deal with the pressure of playing for Steinbrenner in such subtle ways. Raines described what they would think about when they came up to bat after a teammate had screwed up. It wasn’t, “Oh my god I’ve got to get a hit. There’s second and third and one out.” It’s, “I want to pick up Paulie. I want to pick up Tino because he just popped out.” And it was such a wonderful way to illustrate how they thought of each other.
BB: Is that kind of attitude abnormal on the teams you’ve covered?
Olney: Oh yeah. Compared with the Orioles in 95 and 96, yeah. I don’t think Robbie Alomar had great trust in Cal [Ripken] and I don’t think Cal really invested in what the coaching staff wanted to do. He was invested on his own terms, only on his own terms. There was no self-policing at all. They had the Iron Man, the man who played everyday and they were the biggest dog team in the league. I mean, it made no sense.
BB: Covering baseball from the inside like you have, how would you quantify chemistry? Because you can look back at the Swinging A’s of the 1970s or the Bronx Zoo Yankees as teams with notoriously "bad chemistry" who were successful on the field.
Olney: You can’t quantify it. I think in some cases that type of thing really depends on the time and place. Playing in Oakland at that time there wasn’t really a lot of pressure. You are probably getting seven, eight thousand people per game and you were dealing with an extraordinarily talented team. They had a lot of stars. In some ways they were like the team in “Major League” where they all banded together against an owner that they all hated. I think in some places it may not be as important but I think that in New York it is huge. Because there is no way that any other team plays under the same kind of pressure that these guys do.
BB: How do you explain the 77-78 Yankees then?
Olney: Having not covered the team it is hard for me to talk about it, but hearing Gossage talk about it, I think that he found it remarkable that they could overcome the crisis that were created every day. It wasn’t only that they had to beat the Royals and the Red Sox, but they had to beat the bullshit and the distractions of Reggie and Billy and George. Gossage talked about it like it was tangible. Like it was beating Randy Johnson, and beating Curt Schilling. Beating this bullshit. That’s why he spoke so highly of Joe and the players and how they handled it, knowing how many flashpoints there are playing for George, playing under these expectations.
BB: You talked about how well the Yankee teams you covered picked each other up, and protected each other. How much influence then did Torre have on them? How much of a connection did they have with him?
Olney: I thought he framed it. I think that since George came back from the second suspension he hasn’t been as openly critical of the players as he once was. You know, I wrote about it in this magazine piece I just did for ESPN the magazine. At one point during those years 96-2001, they had three layers of protection from the Steinbrenner Doctrine. The first layer was Stick and Cashman keeping George at bay from trading a Bernie Williams or from over-paying to get a player at certain times. The second layer was Joe, who was hugely important. The third layer -- the thickest layer -- was the players protecting each other. But Joe threw himself-- when necessary--in front of players. The great thing about Joe is that he didn’t pretend that something wasn’t taking place. Like Art Howe will talk about a guy with an 0-10 record and he’ll tell you, “Oh, that guy was throwing really well.” And you just roll your eyes. Joe would say something about O’Neill like, “Yup, Paulie’s not hitting, but I think that he’s trying so hard, he’s pushing himself, and he’s not getting the results, but I’m sure he will one day.” He did it directly and in such a great way that I think that it took pressure off of his players. He did that with Clemens all throughout 1999. He completely protected Roger.
BB: How much of that quality do you think Torre picked up working in the TV business?
Olney: He talked about this a lot. I think that he got a better understanding of the media, of how questions are posed and what the goals are in the answers you are giving. And he’s smart enough to know that you can’t run away. I think that had a lot to do with having worked in the media and having grown up in New York. He knows that the media is going to be there. It’s not like working in San Diego where there is one beat writer where if they tell you to screw off you are stuck. In New York, if you tell a couple a couple of writers to screw off then you’ve still got fifteen columnists standing behind them. It is the beast that you have to deal with and Joe understands that. I think Bobby Valentine understood that. I’m not totally sure if Art Howe understands it.
BB: How much influence, in terms of in-game strategy, did Don Zimmer have? Do you think you could have called him a co-manager with Torre during any of the years they spent together?
Olney:Bob Watson would be much better qualified to answer that than I would. He felt that absolutely, Zim had a huge influence on Joe. Joe took a lot more chances with Don there. He was more willing to gamble. I think that the basic thing about Joe is his calm demeanor because he really manages desperately. He manages in such a way that you know that he understands what a two or three game losing streak can do in New York. Along those lines he also has a great sense for the juggler than I don’t think a lot of other managers have. He can pick out a key moment in the 6th inning, and I think a great example was when he pinch-hit Darryl Strawberry in the World Series against the Braves and forced them to deal with Strawberry before the bullpen was ready. Knowing that if he had held Strawberry until the ninth inning they would have just pitched around him or brought in Remlinger or Rocker--I forget who they had that year--to face him.
BB: It is easy to speculate that the man who replaces Joe Torre will be in a virtually no-win situation. But what about the man who replaces Brian Cashman? What has Cash brought to the team that will be hard to duplicate? And do you think he will be missed when he's gone?
Olney: Damon Oppenheimer might be the next GM, or Mark Newman, or maybe George would try to get Stick to take it. But I think it would be somebody from within the organization. If George goes outside to make the hire, he would return to his old cycle of hiring smart people and then mentally beating the heck out of them and overriding them. Brian's greatest contribution has been his ability, believe it or not, to cope with George. He has challenged him at the right times, he has forced him to back down on occasion, and with his integrity, he has managed to sustain a workable front-office structure. Brian has always wanted what is best for the organization, even in the face of the withering George rants. Somebody else might take that job and begin, reflexively, to start worrying about how to cover his/her ass.
BB: Do you view the Yankees failure to win the championship in 2002 and 2003 as a failure on their part or it is simply just the rest of the league catching up to them? After all, how much longer can a team be expected to keep winning it all?
Olney: In some ways. They’ve made certain moves—and most of them came from George—that just didn’t work out. They are able to spend. I don’t blame them for spending the money. I think it would be more of a tragedy if they didn’t spend the money when they had it. You try to do everything you can to win within the system. But for them to be in the position they are in now--and that they’ve been in for the past couple of years--where they clearly have an old team, has worked against them. To see a guy like David Wells…He was a terrific regular season pitcher last year. George was vindicated by what Wells did in the regular season. The bottom line is that they needed to get younger. To go out and sign David Wells at that time instead of focusing and concentrating on making the team younger was a mistake. Last winter—and I wish that I had known this when I was writing the book—when Sheffield wanted to go back on his handshake with George—the Yankees got 95% on the way to signing Vladimir Guerrero. The baseball people were absolutely desperate to get Guerrero. They were like, “We need to get younger.” Sheffield came back, capitulated and George had his choice between the two players and said, “You know, I love Sheffield. I want that guy, I want that guy, I want that guy.” Now, this year, how could you possibly question what Sheffield has done? But in the larger scheme of things to have a 35-year-old guy instead of a 27 year old guy. It’s not good if you talk about prolonging success.
Olney: I don’t know if you can make up for it. You could have signed Guerrero and then Beltran.
BB: What about the move they made when they traded Ted Lilly for Jeff Weaver and tried to stay young at that position?
Olney: That was Cashman. That was not George. And that was Cashman’s mistake. The other thing, in serving their needs in 99, 2000, 2001, they traded away some serviceable prospects. We know that their farm system isn’t in good condition now. But they are the Yankees and you can spend a lot of money and you can take chances in the draft and sign a lot of international players. It’s inexcusable that they are in this state.
BB: Do you think they will just have to suck it up and say, “We might have to take a step back for a year or two, but it will help us in the long run?”
Olney: No. George will never think that way. To his credit, to a degree. But they probably have to go through that cycle. To get a little better draft picks, to cultivate the system, but they don’t ever think that way.
BB: Yeah, the reality with George is that he may not be around for the long-term. Why would he build for the future is he isn’t going to be around to enjoy it?
Olney: It’s kind of interesting. Some of the people in the organization think that part of the problem is that he has made his employees, especially in Tampa, very defensive. Rather than make the best evaluations possible, they try to make sure that they don’t make mistakes and that they are not in the firing line.
BB: How is that different from the way George has traditionally operated?
Olney: He took over completely in the eighties from what everybody says. He completely micro-managed the thing. The best story in recent years is the one about Jose Contreras, where [Gordon] Blakely goes into a hotel bar and tells another executive, “I’ve got to sign this guy no matter what. If I don’t I’m going to be fired.” And the executive is sitting there thinking, “Well, I have no chance, I’ll just tell the agent, I’ll match every offer the Yankees make.” They basically drive up the price 40%. Rather than make a sound judgment and say, “Boss, this is why I want this guy, this is how good I think he is, this is his ceiling, and go from there” it’s, “You’d better sign him or you are in deep shit.”
BB: So are you suggesting that the Yankees inability to win a World Series over the last two years is not a question of chemistry over talent, but it’s George getting in the way of everything once again?
Olney: I think they are all part of it. Trading for a guy like Mondesi was a devastating mistake at the time they did it. He was the complete anti-Yankee and it was ironic that he replaced O’Neill. He didn’t make adjustments; he’s the type of guy who gets exploited in the post season. He’s a bad guy. That was all George. Enrique Wilson screws up a fly ball against the Mets and they took on a $13 million bust. As opposed to waiting for a guy like [David] Justice to appear.
BB: Do you think Weaver was a situation where Cashman thought, “OK, we can plug anyone into this team and they’ll work out?” Or is it just a mistake in retrospect because he didn’t perform to expectations in New York?
Olney: Cashman doesn’t think that. Brian will let people come here and give them the opportunity to find out if they can succeed in New York. At times he’s done that, and I’ve thought, “Why is he doing this?” Like when he brought Mark Wholers in 2001, I thought he was crazy. Here’s Wholers—who is a great guy—who already had some problems throwing. To stick him in New York, it just didn’t make any sense. But to a certain degree, you have to take a leap of faith at some point and hope that these guys can handle it.
BB: And Weaver just happened to be one that just didn’t work out.
Olney: Yeah, it turned out to be a big mistake. That was probably Brian’s second biggest mistake.
BB: And the first?
Olney:Mike Lowell. No question. That was a huge mistake. And it’s funny but the big mistake that they all wanted to make and got rescued from was Albert Belle.
BB: Do you feel that the organization looks at the Giambi signing now as a mistake?
Olney: I don’t any of them would say it publicly, but I don’t think there is a great deal of expectation that he’s going to be a great player again.
BB: He had two productive years in New York. He’s been murdered by injuries. Have you ever seen a guy fall so far so quickly?
Olney: Knoblauch. I think it’s become a mental thing with Giambi. And I think a lot of the others players think that. I think a lot of the people in the front office think it too. In this story I did for ESPN the magazine, one of the guys I talked to was Chris Hammond and he talked about how deeply Giambi was affected by the booing. There is definitely a perception within the organization that he can’t handle it. And you know what? There are a thousand reasons why you think he could have. One of the other factors is underrated. The 800-pound gorilla in the room, which none of us can substantiate, is steroids. Maybe that doesn’t play in at all. But the thing is he’s not a very good athlete. I think that when they gave him the seven years, I’d be willing to bet that if you put a gun to the head of the executives they would say, “You know what? He’s probably only going to be a productive player for five, maybe six of the seven years.” Because unlike Barry Bonds, or even Sheffield, he’s not a great athlete. He’s a great hitter. You watch him run; watch him move, he’s not a very good athlete. You watch David Wells run and move and you know he’s a great athlete.
BB: Do you think that Alex Rodriguez will react in a similar fashion to the pressure of playing for the Yankees?
Olney: I think it’s going to take him a while to get adjusted. We’ve seen parts of it this year where he struggled in the beginning of the year, struggled early against Boston and the Mets. I think he’ll struggle in the post season this year, but I think that in the seven years that he plays with the team, he’ll eventually be great. Clemens was like that. Clemens needed some time to get adjusted to the whole thing and I think Alex is going to be like that too.
BB: Rodriguez made a throwing error when the Angels were in New York recently and he pounded the water cooler after the inning. He’s got a different disposition than Paul O’Neill, but of all the Yankees this year, he is the most demonstrative, he chews himself out in a way that reminds me of O’Neill.
Olney: There’s no doubt. I mean he’s deeply concerned with how he’s perceived. He’s not going to take failure lightly. I think eventually he’ll figure it out, but it could be a rough first post season for him. The longer the Yankees last in the post season, the better he’s going to be. If they were to play in the World Series I’d bet before it was over he’d be playing terrific. And if they were to get knocked out in the first round, I’d bet his numbers would be terrible.
BB: What’s your feeling about Hideki Matsui’s ability to handle the pressure of New York?
Olney: Great. In some ways he reminds me a lot of O’Neill. That’s not a revelation; I think everybody has noticed that. In the way he plays. He just doesn’t throw the helmets as much. I think he’s fine under pressure. He always manages to put the bat on the ball and in the post-season that’s such a huge factor.
BB: Derek Jeter has been sacrifice bunting an inordinate amount of times this year, and most of them have come early in the game. Do you think it makes sense for him to do that in the situations he’s doing it in with guys like Sheffield, Rodriguez and Matsui behind him?
Olney: I think it totally depends on who is pitching that day. If they are facing Curt Schilling? Absolutely. More recently, it also depends on who is pitching for the Yankees. Right now, I don’t think it makes a lot of sense because their starting pitching is getting their brains beat in. Now if Roger Clemens or David Cone are out there and you know have a reasonable chance to keep the opposition to two hits, no runs in seven innings, it makes more sense. It makes more sense in 1999, 2000 than it does in 2004.
BB: Jeter started doing this during his early-season slump. Do you think he’s resorted to the early-inning sacrifice because of a lack of confidence in his offensive game?
Olney: No. The Yankees do have the “move ‘em over” sign. I don’t know if that’s what they’ve been giving him. It’s “advance the runner, anyway you feel comfortable.” They give them the option of doing a hit-and-run, or bunting or swinging away, but the priority is advancing the runner under any circumstances.
BB: Which would all fall under the category of the statistic you introduced this year called a “Productive Out.”
BB: How did you develop the stat?
Olney: I think it was just watching games over the years and seeing situations that would come up that weren’t quantified. You’d say, “Boy, Scott Brosius is really good at advancing the runners.” But you only had a sense of it; there was no statistic to show it. So I began to think about it and it’s a fairly simple formula.
BB: Was it something that you talked to other people about?
Olney: Yeah. I talked to a lot of writers and asked them if they thought it was an applicable formula. Part of it of course, is that there is a huge discrepancy between the American League and the National League. National League teams bunt a lot more and pitchers are involved. What standards should we apply for the pitchers because pitchers are apt to bunt with one out? Some of the standards aren’t perfect, but I guess it’s like the DH and the non-DH.
BB: Do you feel like the stat is a work in progress? It is something you want to keep tabs on and refine as time goes on?
Olney: Ah, I think it kind of is what it is. It’s a small measure of one element of what teams do. It applies sometimes and other times it doesn’t apply. Depending on the hitter, depending on the score, depending on the pitchers, depending on how a team’s going, how a certain hitter is going. There’s definitely a place for it and there’s definitely times where there is not a place for it, just like there are some hitters who should do it and others who should absolutely not do it. For certain teams there shouldn’t be a place. And I think that’s the elastic part of the stat.
BB: I read a study by Larry Mahnken which was presented after your initial article came out that found that the 2002-03 Yankees actually had a higher POP than the Yankees had in 1998, 99 and 2000. Do you feel that there is a correlation between having a high POP and winning ball games in a short post-season series?
Olney: The numbers that Elias ran said that if you win your series in productive outs, that you have more productive outs, you’ll win, I think the number was 62.3% of the series. Which was as high as singles, wasn’t as high as walks, and it wasn’t as high as home runs. So that’s not to say it’s a more telling stat, but it’s one element that comes into play. Especially because when it comes to October the pitching is so much better. I read a lot of the things that were written about it, and it’s one of those things where you feel like you’ve stepped into the middle of the crossfire of a holy war. In some ways it reflects the political discussion that goes on. You’ve got the old guard that thinks that all of the numbers, the saber guys, are off their rocker, and you’ve got the saber guys who think that the old guard has no clue. And the truth lies somewhere in between, and you can take bits and pieces of both. I think the extreme wing of wing of both sides think that anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe are complete idiots. That’s what’s really kind of funny about it.
BB: I came late to Bill James. I didn’t read any of the Abstracts until a few years ago. Did you read James in the eighties?
Olney: Oh, yeah. I read a ton of stuff by him. I loved his stuff. Hell, I played Strat-o-Matic, so I knew about on-base percentage. You know, Gene Tenace: get players who can draw walks. That’s how you won Strat-O-Matic. I have all my Strat-O-Matic sets. I love that stuff.
BB: You know one of the things that surprised me a little bit in “Moneyball” was that Michael Lewis never mentioned the Yankees’ attention to on-base percentage. Even though they are at the opposite end of the spectrum from the A’s financially, I always thought it would have made sense to note it anyhow.
Olney: That’s funny, because the very first chapter I wrote for the book was the one on Gene Michael. A few months later “Moneyball” came out and on-base percentage grabbed all of this attention. It was almost like in some ways it was invented publicly. And I’m thinking, valuing guys who draw walks has been around for a long time. Bill James was writing about it in the early eighties.
BB: And Branch Rickey obviously believed in it when he built those Dodger teams in the fifties.
Olney: Right. You know the closer thing, and the discussion about whether anyone can handle being a closer…you know what? I’ve been around a lot of great pitchers and some guys can do it and some guys can’t. And I don’t care what the numbers are: You know it when you see it. I’ve read some things that say that statistics show that Derek Jeter is not a clutch player. You know what? I’ve watched him be clutch. And if you say that there is no such thing as a clutch player then you are also saying that players don’t choke. God knows we’ve seen that. At some point there are indefinable elements that come into the game. Derek Jeter is not afraid and Jay Witasick was scared to death. Kenny Rogers is scared to death and I don’t care what kind of numbers he generates, he couldn’t pitch here.
BB: So do you think the reason Rodriguez hasn’t performed well with Runners in Scoring Position this year is because he’s scared?
Olney: He’s pressing. I just think he’s pressing.
BB: Do you think it’s a flexible thing? Meaning that a player can press one year and be fine the next?
Olney: No question. With certain guys it’s just not that much of a factor. Certain guys aren’t as concerned about big picture numbers. I don’t think that Derek gets worried about that stuff. Yeah, he worries about it, but not as much as Alex worries about it. Knoblauch was devastated by it. Denny Neagle was, within a month, oh my god. He just couldn’t deal with it. I think that’s slowly what happened to Giambi. I think that Giambi loves to be in a place where he is loved and has the support and is surrounded by his guys and he’s like the fraternity president. And he doesn’t have that here. You’d go into the Oakland clubhouse and he’d always be in the middle of things. It was a loud clubhouse and he seemed to be enjoying himself. You go into the clubhouse now--obviously before he got ill--and he’s nowhere. Chris Hammond said for the story I did, it took him the entire year to get to know teammates because everyone disappeared. You had a lot of stars and they’d basically go and find hidden corners of Yankee Stadium because of the huge number of media that are in the clubhouse.
BB: I know that you are not around the team on a daily basis, but from what you have been able to see, and from what you have heard, has the environment around the Yankee locker room changed for the better this season?
Olney: It's better in the clubhouse, from what I understand, with Sheffield and Gordon and Quantrill, a lot of good veteran guys. But they need to win a World Series championship together to make this situation more stable, and to win some shared history together. You can't say for sure, but you could speculate, that if the Yankees hadn't won the Series in 1996, George might have applied the hammer much sooner, making moves...That first title bought them all time.
BB: Lastly, do you ever think we'll see a run like the 96-01 Yanks enjoyed again any time soon? Looking back, what were the most remarkable aspects of their success?
Olney: No, I don't think that they'll accomplish what they did from 1996-2001 -- not in this generation, anyway. I think the pressure is too g