Curtains for the Yankees? It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over

The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty: The Game, the Team, and the Cost of Greatness, by Buster Olney. Ecco, 346 pages, $26.95.

I felt Chuck Knoblauch’s pain. I’d watch him snare a grounder at second base, and my stomach would twist in a knot as he faced the throw to first. Suddenly drained of his multimillion-dollar skills and nearly paralyzed by fear, he would launch the ball with a spasm—the throw embarrassingly errant or fluttering weakly into the glove of the first baseman—and his face would squint into a grimace that matched mine. Incredibly, Chuck Knoblauch had become me.

Although highly lauded when he arrived in New York, Mr. Knoblauch was damaged goods during his tour with the Yankees, his notorious throwing problems destroying a distinguished baseball career. Considering all the gaudy success of those Yankee teams, you’d think that Mr. Knoblauch’s troubles might have made him an oddball, a misfit surrounded by perfection. Not so. Mr. Knoblauch had the misfortune of having to wrestle his demons on the playing field in full public view—but in dealing with adversity, he was far from alone. True, he was undone by his struggle as his team sparkled around him, but in facing his daily hurdles, Mr. Knoblauch personified the toil of the Yankees.

Toil is a major character in Buster Olney’s The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty. Mr. Olney, who covered the Yankees for four years for The New York Times, has written a very human baseball book. His language is not dipped in the awe so often found in books about the greats of the game. Instead, Mr. Olney offers an unflinching look at a flawed bunch of men cobbled together to form the most successful club in baseball since the 1947-1962 Yankees made 13 appearances in the World Series, winning it all 10 times.

The 1996 team that brought the title back to the Bronx bore little resemblance to today’s flashy cast. Wade Boggs was the only position player named to the All-Star Game that year, and he, like most of the other veterans on the team, was well past his prime.

But George Steinbrenner had climbed to the top of the league again, and he had little interest in falling back down. While his $65 million payroll for the ’96 team was the highest in baseball, it was not remarkably more than payrolls in Baltimore and Atlanta. By 2004, the figure had grown to about $185 million—$115 million above the industry average.

“The Yankees’ money served them like an air bag, deployed when they made mistakes,” Mr. Olney writes. “Steinbrenner’s willingness to absorb the cost of the team’s personnel blunders and move on … was crucial to the championships.”

While that’s a luxury that almost no other team can afford, it’s not an automatic punch card for success. Mr. Steinbrenner’s deep pockets had once before made pinstripes synonymous with dysfunction—the “Bronx Zoo” teams of the late 70’s were as combustible as they were successful, but money ultimately got the better of sense, and the team went skidding into a championship-less drought of 18 years—its longest since before it started winning titles in 1923.

Things got so bad during that stretch, according to Mr. Olney, that “one player told reporters, without allowing them to use his name, that Steinbrenner’s increased schedule of business flights was good news because it meant there was a greater chance he would perish in a crash.”

Mr. Steinbrenner survived, and mellowed—helped along by a two-and-a-half-year suspension in the early 90’s—and players for the juggernaut Yankees of recent years have been more likely to see him as a “wealthy eccentric.”

But Steinbrenners will be Steinbrenners in the end, and in Mr. Olney’s view, that spells doom: Mr. Steinbrenner grew distrustful of his baseball experts and reverted to tantrums as he poured money into the Yankee engine. And he could only threaten and bark as watched the upstart Arizona Diamondbacks beat New York in the 2001 World Series.

It’s Game 7 of that Series that Mr. Olney offers up as the “Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty.” With Ground Zero still smoldering and the country shaken, the Yankees were trying to do for a city what Willis Reed had done for the Knicks in the 1970 N.B.A. finals, limping back onto the court and playing hurt to lead the team to glory.

The Yankees’ failed effort provided Mr. Olney with a poetic headline and the chance to make a bold prediction. If the Yankees blow it this year and then turn into a sad rerun of their 1980’s selves, then Mr. Olney will be proven right, and we might well etch “Nov. 4, 2001,” into the marble headstone as the night the dynasty died.

But let’s not pull out the chisel quite yet. After last weekend, the Yankees are comfortably in first place and the playoffs are just two weeks away. There are big question marks on this team, and with a barren farm system, the future is uncertain as well. Still, if the Yankees win a championship banner next month, Mr. Olney’s title will be the “Dewey Defeats Truman” (or “Kerry Picks Gephardt”) of sports books.

That would be a shame, because the book is nuanced and richly detailed.

Mr. Olney walks us through each inning of that fateful November game, plucking players from the play-by-play as he goes, weaving in the personal history of each impact member of the team. What emerges is not a glitzy tribute to the amazing feats of each man, but a moving account of how the individual Yankees worked to overcome their private struggles and put the team before all else. That’s no small feat in itself for such a splashy group of famous rich men. Derek Jeter is the confident leader who can also be humble and gracious; Darryl Strawberry crushes mammoth home runs but is incapable of overcoming drug addiction; Chuck Knoblauch smacks major-league fastballs but cannot throw the ball 40 feet. Great teams have always employed such men on their rosters, immortal and vulnerable all at once—but rarely are we given the chance to read about them brushed free of luster.

Part of the allure of baseball is that somehow we watch these men play and think that we could do it, too. The 1996-2001 Yankees advanced that myth, excelling at the near-impossible while wrestling with things the likes of you or I could understand. Perhaps that’s part of what makes the game seem within our reach, even on a team that, together, played like gods.

Austin Merrill is a writer and editor living in New York.