* RK Review: The Yankee Years (at long last)

February 21, 2009 · 1 comment

by Joe Torre and Tom Verducci

The former manager of the New York Yankees — and one of its most successful — teams up with Sports Illustrated’s senior baseball writer for this unique and somewhat baffling presentation. Although Joe Torre gets top billing as the nominative author, the reader will get the impression that Tom Verducci is telling the story, since the narrative is written in the third person.

Torre was a former All-Star and Most Valuable Player during his 18-year career. He also managed the New York Mets, Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals before taking over the reigns of the Yankees.

For the most part, this is a standard baseball tale of hard work, success and frustration. The last element is especially so when one understands that George Steinbrenner, has been one of the most hands-on (or meddlesome, depending on one’s point of view) owners in the long history of the game. He went through managers like a cold sufferer goes through a box of tissues. Since acquiring the team prior to the 1973 season, he had hired — and fired — 13 field generals, including Billy Martin five times and four others at least twice. Torre added a stability to the team that hadn’t been known since Casey Stengel led them to a constant stream of pennants and world championships from 1949-60.

From the very beginning, Torre took control over a mix of veterans and rookies and molded them into a team, as trite as that might sound: The Yankees ran off a string of three consecutive World Series titles and four in five years thanks to a core of players like Paul O’Neill, Bernie Williams, Tino Martinzez, Scott Broscius, as well as up and comers like Derek Jeter, Jorge Posado, and Mariano Riveria.

Ultimately, The Yankee Years is a sad tale on the natural order of things in the sports world. Athletes grow older, lose their prowess and are replaced by others who may be better or worse, with different drives and agendas. That was part of Torre’s downfall. The players who followed O’Neill, Williams, and company seemed less interested in the Yankee tradition and more in individual performances. Some — like David Wells, Kyle Farnsworth, Carl Pavano and Kevin Brown, to name a few —were a constant source of disappointment. The Yankees kept winning, but the spark and joy were missing.

Working for Steinbrenner and his minions presented its own set of difficulties, constant scrutiny and job security being two of them. Despite his huge success, someone was always looking over Torre’s shoulder, quick to criticize if some bit of strategy backfired or if things weren’t running smoothly. After an initial euphoria, the tone of The Yankee Years becomes more forlorn with every chapter. Baseball fans know the inevitable outcome — Torre was not retained following the 2007 season and was named manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers (which he led to the playoffs last year) — but Verducci hammers the point home with passages such as “It was the 1,294th win with the Yankees for Torre, including postseason play, over 12 seasons. It would be the last,” and “He showered, dressed and left his office and the clubhouse believing this would be the final time he would do so as manager of the New York Yankees. He did not look back.” It is also telling that the book jacket features a picture of Torre walking away from the camera.

The pre-publication hullabaloo over The Yankee Years, Joe Torre’s “autobiography/memoirs,” can be summed up with a Shakespeare title: Much Ado About Nothing. Like the trailer of a two-star movie, the media — many members of which admitted not to have read the book in its entirety as they made their comments — cherry-picked parts for maximum bang. In particular, they focused on Torre’s remarks about Alex Rodriguez, whom he characterized as high-maintenance, more concerned with how he looked and performed than with his contributions to the team’s success. They failed to mention that Torre also praises Rodriguez: “Nobody has ever worked harder in my memory than this guy,” he writes.

Torre also expresses disappointment in his deteriorating relationship with Brian Cashman, the Yankees general manager, whom he accuses of not supporting him when the chips were down. To use an analogy from my favorite TV show, Lost, Torre is the John Locke character, a man of faith, while Cashman is Dr. Jack Shepard, the man of science.

Taken as a whole, The Yankee Years is a standard bit of baseball memoir, no worse and perhaps better than others that have been published in recent years, but certainly not worthy of all the hype it received. Too bad it couldn’t have had a happier ending.

A version of this review appears on Bookreporter.com.

— Reviewed by Ron Kaplan

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  • * BaseballinDC

    I thought Tom Verducci’s reporting dovetailed nicely with Torre’s recollection of his tenure. The account of how Boston lured Curt Schilling who had declared he would only play in NY or Philly after leaving AZ, and was the final piece of the puzzle in its ascendancy, was worth the purchase price alone. I had a much better sense of how the game got to where it is today and what a truly revolutionary period it went through from 1995-2007 thanks to this book.

    Theo Epstein and Mark Shapiro (GMs of Boston and Cleveland) are given a lot of coverage here, and one of the book’s themes is how NY’s cash worked against it as other teams developed analytics to offset the Yankees’ money, which would up creating the parity we see today in baseball.

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