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Lessons From "The Yankee Years"

April 2, 2009 - John Whittaker

Quick Thoughts On The Yankee Years

On Feb. 5, I wrote that people needed to settle down about Joe Torre's book until they had read it.
Thanks to the News Gal, who bought the book for me for my birthday, I can tell you what the fuss was all about. It's a wonderful book that any Yankees fan should add to their collection, along with Birth of a Dynasty by Joel Sherman and The Last Night of the Yankees Dynasty by Buster Olney. It fits in beautifully with those books to form a nice 12-year history of the franchise.
Here's five things you should know if you're about to go buy The Yankee Years.
1. Tom Verducci's name should be above Torre's on the book. The Yankee Years is absolutely a chronicle of Torre's time with the Yankees, and a nice timeline of those 12 years. It is not, however, written in the first person from Torre's point of view. It is not solely about the Yankees. Instead, Verducci weaves Torre's recollections into a vignette about how the Yankees and Major League Baseball changed over 12 years and almost is a case study of why the Yankees 1996-2001 dominance is almost impossible to repeat. It's a fascinating read, but does not get much into Torre's personal life and is not a reflective story about Torre.
2. This book is a fast read. I'll admit that I read quickly, but The Yankee Years was impossible to put down (let's just say there were a couple of 1:30 a.m. bedtimes in the last week reading the book) and is incredibly well-written. Verducci is at the top of his game, and I'll say he has overtaken Peter Gammons as the best baseball writer covering the sport now.
3. People who thought Torre broke some sort of clubhouse covenant are idiots. What Verducci basically did was get the information from one source, and then, if applicable, have Torre comment almost as an analyst would. The only person who really took a shot across the nose was Brian Cashman, and I think it may have been deserved.
4. Mike Borzello needs his own reality show on the YES Network. The longtime bullpen catcher during the Torre years, Borzello has the best quotes in the entire book. He was the first to catch Kei Igawa in spring training, and knew after 30 pitches that Igawa would never help the Yankees. "I hope he's either seriously hurt or badly hung over, so there's an explanation for throwing like that,' Borzello said in the book. Right on, my man. He was the one who said the most damning things about Alex Rodriguez in the book, not Torre. I would love to hear more of his stories. Tell me any Yankees fan wouldn't watch this show when TV Land is going air a show about how to nail a cougar, which shouldn't be confused with a similar show on Animal Planet.
5. You'll learn the value of team chemistry. The thing that separates real baseball from fantasy baseball is the way personalities influence on-field production. The 1996-2001 teams had great chemistry -- even disruptive influences found ways to fit into the fabric of the clubhouse. But, when the team started running down free agents (some of whom, like Mike Mussina and Jason Giambi, are great guys in their own right) chemistry and the 1996 blueprint went out the window. Instead of a team fitting together, the team became less than the sum of its parts. Stars at every position don't advance the runner from third base with less than one out, or not grumble when they're not in the lineup, or care more about their stats than in eating up innings. And, don't underestimate the toll it takes on a team dealing with too many prima donnas. This book is a great case study in the value of team chemistry.

We've already established in this space that I'm probably a little too passionate about sports.
That's a lesson the News Gal learned a long time ago.
And, she had to know that, when she bought me "The Yankee Years" for my birthday, I'd probably have some pretty strong opinions by the time I finished reading the book.
Let me just say, for the record, "The Yankees Years" is only one side of the story about the 12 years Joe Torre managed the Yankees.
For example, nowhere in the book's 470-plus pages are Torre's absolute mistrust of young players not named Joba Chamberlain or Derek Jeter mentioned. Nowhere is his inability to run a bullpen without their arms falling off mentioned (see Proctor, Scott). Verducci never included anything about Torre's seeming inability, in his later years, to not take a pitcher out one or seven batters too late or to better facilitate Alex Rodriguez' transition to the Yankees.
When I first read Torre's book, I wanted to string Brian Cashman up by his marbles. It took me almost a week to cool down and remember how things are with the Yankees -- their best teams are put together when the general manager has no interference from ownership. With George Steinbrenner's declining health, the ownership situation is more fractured than ever, which makes it nearly impossible for Cashman to do his job. It's tough enough satisfying one boss much less six bosses.
Still, here are some issues that began developing during Torre's tenure that will leave a mark on the Yankees for the next decade.
1. The team has no sense of institutional loyalty, which is what Cashman's hiring and subsequent power struggle with George Steinbrenner's lieutenants, which Cashman allegedly won, in Tampa was supposed to keep.
Bernie Williams won four world championships as the starting centerfielder of the New York Yankees. He was a homegrown player who had shown he could play in New York. Ideally, he would have been around to train Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner how to take over the job. Instead, when Cashman was putting together the 2007 Yankees, he had the opportunity make Williams a one-year contract offer that Williams likely would have accepted. Instead, Cashman invited Williams to spring training on a minor league contract, a major slap in the face to a player with Williams' Yankee pedigree. Now, I always thought that decision was a Johnny Damon-or-Bernie Williams decision. But, according to Torre, it was a Josh Phelps and Doug Mientkiewicz over Bernie Williams decision.
That might be one of the dumbest things I've ever heard. In 20 years, will anyone other than their parents and spouses know who Josh Phelps and Doug Mientkiewicz are? Probably not. Decent players, but they don't have Williams' pedigree. Yet, Cashman decided they were a more productive solution for the bench than Williams.
How'd that decision work out?
In addition, Cashman and the Yankees front office did virtually the same thing to Andy Pettitte in 2003, not even making an offer until Pettitte had already told Drayton McClain that he would move on to Houston. It's almost like not tendering Whitey Ford a contract, or telling Mickey Mantle that he was going to be traded to the Mets, or even firing Yogi Berra 16 games into a season because the team was playing poorly (Oops, that one actually happened. My bad).
The morale of the story is, though, there is a way you treat players who have done their jobs for you for a long time. Williams deserved better, as did Pettitte. That isn't the way you treat established Yankees, and I think it's a pretty serious problem with the way the team is run right now. It's hard to build a clubhouse when established players feel like they're being pushed out.
2. Cashman/The Yankees' Tampa Bay Office is overreliant on statistics. In the wake of "Moneyball," the award-winning book by Michael Lewis that chronicled how the Oakland Athletics used statistics to find players who fit their system, a statistical revolution swept baseball. If you were on the forefront of the movement, then you found inefficiencies in the market that allowed you to field a better team for less money. That's why the Oakland A's and Minnesota Twins were successful.
The Yankees were on the tail end of that movement, and rather than merge gently into the information superhighway, Cashman got caught swerving across four lanes of highway right into the path of a Mack truck. The Williams decision was made on the basis of statistics - because Phelps and Mientkiewicz would supposedly produce a better OPS than Williams would. Statistics said picking up Kenny Lofton would make sense, even though he couldn't outproduce Bernie Williams and became a clubhouse distraction.
And, Cashman began making lineup suggestions based on statistics -- the best example being Cashman telling Joe Torre to use Mike Myers for full innings rather than just against left-handed hitters. Now, Myers, at that point of his career, wasn't even that good against good lefthanded hitters (see Ortiz, David). Against righthanders, well, let's just say Myers might be able to get out high school kids - in France. Bill Simmons, ESPN's Sports Guy and avid Red Sox fan, even knew Myers couldn't pitch against righties, but the Yankees general manager, based on 20 at-bats in non-pressure situations, was telling the manager that it would be smart to let a guy whose fastball tops out at 85 miles an hour and whose frisbee slider stays in the hitting zone against righties for about six years, should be facing righthanders. Myers shouldn't even have been on the team, much less pitching significant innings.
He didn't pass the eye test.
Torre often said there is a heartbeat in the game. If you want to focus on statistics, run a fantasy baseball team. Statistics are a good guide. Just take a look at the Yankees falling strikeout rate from the mid 1990s to now. It's a sign that the Yankees pitchers rely too much on having balls put in play and can't make hitters swing and miss in key situations.
That's a good statistic, and emblematic of a need to add pitchers with better stuff. Here's the problem. Adding pitchers good strikeout rates led to Javier Vazquez - a guy with a great arm and a 5 cent head. He was the Hispanic Nuke LaLoosh.
It led to Randy Johnson, who couldn't handle New York City, lost miles an hour on his fastball and was convinced he couldn't be caught by Jorge Posada. It led to Jose Contreras, a guy with a 95 mile an hour fastball who became unhittable as soon as the Yankees traded him.
Statistics can't tell you how a guy fits into a clubhouse. How would statistics tell you that A-Rod would be the clubhouse issue he has been, or that Lofton would whine about not starting, or that Gary Sheffield is insane, or that having three first baseman/designated hitters is a bad idea, or that Carl Pavano would completely alienate his teammates because he wanted to make his money without pitching?
Statistics are great, but at some point, they have to be married to what people see and sense about a player. In that area, Cashman and the rest of the front office have been inadequate.
3. For too long, the Yankees have been reacting instead of setting trends. This is more an indictment of drafting and the way the minor leagues are run, though it leads to problems at the major league level because the inability to generate players from the minor leagues forces a team to spend too much to acquire big league talent.
From 1980-1989, the Yankees were a rudderless ship. One year, the team had no speed. In the offseason they find a bunch of speed guys and plug them into the lineup regardless of how those speed guys fit with mashers like Don Baylor and Steve Balboni, and without thinking about whether or not those guys could play defense. Acquiring young pitching was an afterthought, and what young pitching the Yankees did develop was sent away to fix what the front office felt were more urgent needs.
Because the team's focus was being changed on a yearly basis, it was nearly impossible for the team to find its own identity. Were the Yankees a small-ball, speed and defense team or a mashing, wait for a three-run home run team? Were they going to build around pitching or were they going to build around offense? Nobody ever knew, and the pieces never quite fit together as well as they did from 1995-2001.
Well, sports fans, it's happening again.
The team doesn't have enough speed - let's sign Kenny Lofton even though he's a duplicate part to what is already here. Let's sign Tony Womack even though he's never been a full-time starter anywhere and has tormented a certain Whitless Wonder's fantasy baseball drafts for the last five years. What did the Yankees see that Pittsburgh's scouts didn't?
Finally, with the focus on young pitching, the Yankees seem to be building toward an identity of having young, power arms who can pitch deep into games and strike people out. That's a step in the right direction, and a step that falls into Cashman's lap. But, it should have happened 10 years ago. And, offensively, the pieces still don't fit well together. Where's the hitter who can get a runner in from third base with one out? Where's the gap-hitting player who gets on base at a good clip and doesn't strike out much?
That needs to change.
4. End the coaching carousel. Yes, the Yankees have been remarkably stable managerially. But, the team still changes pitching/bench/bullpen coaches like Michael Jackson changes faces -- and the problem has only gotten worse the longer the Yankees go without winning a championship.
If the voices keep changing at the major league level, then what's happening in the minor leagues, where nobody is paying attention?
When the crop of young talent that led the Yankees to all those championships was coming through the minor leagues, they were brought up according to The Yankee Way, a 500-page manual developed by Buck Showalter and his coaching team that taught minor leaguers how do to everything -- eat lunch, polish their spikes, lift weights, inject steroids, how to put on a cup and how to avoid paternity suits. The manual had everything. Who knows where that book is now or if it's being used, but the way coaches are being changed, there is no way its messages are getting through to minor leaguers. That's why Melky Cabrera comes up and can't bunt to save his life and has no idea how to steal a base. It's why kids come up and make boneheaded baserunning mistakes. It's why pitchers come up inadequately prepared for the rigors of major league life.
If you want to keep The Yankee Way, then you need to create and keep a stable of coaches who are disciples of the plan. You can't hire an ex-Red Sox manager as the bullpen coach, or want to change pitching coaches every two seasons, or be sending struggling pitchers to work with Nardi Contreras or Billy Connors, pitching coaches who work outside the Yankee farm system because they're friends of George Steinbrenner.
One voice is what is needed, not 70 voices shouting at young players from all different directions.
5. Stop expecting a World Series championship every year. I'm looking right at you, Yankees fans. Appreciate that 1996-2001 run, because Paul O'Neill isn't walking through that door. Scott Brosius isn't walking through that door. David Cone isn't walking through that door, unless he's got a microphone in his hand.
The late 1990s were a special time that Yankees fans didn't truly appreciate until they were over. It's not normal for a team to dominate a sport like the Yankees did, and The Yankee Years shows just how big a confluence of events is necessary to win a world championship in four out of five seasons. The Yankees got every possible break, came out ahead in every personnel move and stumbled upon the perfectly built team. Those things just don't happen.
To make matters worse, the Yankees haven't hit upon that perfect confluence at a time when expectations are the highest they've ever been. Do you realize what Yankees fans were talking themselves into to believe the 2006 Yankees were a contender? These are things actually heard said by Yankees fans before that season.
1. We're going to have great pitching this year. We can match up with anybody. Yeah, how'd that work out for us? Guys who started games for the Yankees, and their career ERA, include Jaret Wright (5.09), key in-season acquisition Shawn Chacon (4.99), key in-season acquisition Cory Lidle (4.57), in-season call-up Jeff Karstens (4.89) and Aaron Small (5.20) could actually win in the playoffs.
And, Randy Johnson posted a 5.00 ERA in his first run in the Big Apple, which is exactly what you want out of your number one starter. Only Chien-Ming Wang and Mike Mussina had good years - and you don't win a world championship with two good starting pitchers.
2. We just need people to stay healthy, and our offense will be awesome. Um, they didn't. Not only is Gary Sheffield insane (remember, this is the year he almost fought fans in Boston), but he got hurt and only played in 39 games before whining, when he did come back, that he wasn't in the lineup. Hideki Matsui only played in 51 games. Jason Giambi missed 20 games in the middle of the year with an injury. Those injuries led to trading for Bobby Abreu, who hit well when the Yankees got him but was what they didn't need -- another old outfielder. Here's a tip - you don't build championship teams with old players. The odds are against you. But, because of high expectations, Yankees fans talked themselves into thinking 37-year-old outfielders would stay healthy for an entire season.
I could go on, but, frankly, I feel sad now.
The lesson for Yankees fans is to enjoy baseball, enjoy the team and don't expect a championship every year. You saw something special, it was unbelievable, and it's not happening again for a very, very long time.
Such expectations aren't just a burden on the players and coaches -- they're a burden on fans, and it's a burden fans shouldn't carry. Root for the team, be ticked off when they do stupid things, and then let it go. Because, honestly, the chances are the 2009 Yankees aren't winning a championship, either. Honestly, there's a 50-50 chance they won't make the playoffs.
The rest of the field has caught up to the Yankees. Other teams are working smarter and doing more with less money, which negates the Yankees monetary edge. They're looking for the types of players the Yankees used to take off the scrap heap and turn into winners.
Baseball has changed - and, with it, so has the role of the Yankees fans.
If you want to know the biggest lesson from Joe Torre's book, it's this -- things have changed.


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