Joe Torre’s ‘Yankee Years’ Revisionism

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Though it’s still selling like beer in the bottom of the sixth, The Yankee Years by Joe Torre and Tom Verducci has just about vanished in the mainstream sports press. For all intents and purposes, analysis of the book ended with the revelation that Alex Rodriguez was on steroids when he was with the Texas Rangers. No one seems to have interest in what Torre and Verducci have to say about the last several Yankee seasons except for the ammunition it gives local sportswriters to fire at A-Rod.

This is too bad, because it means that the time is practically past for anyone to figure out exactly what went wrong with the Yankees in those years—or in fact if anything really did go wrong.

For a tell-all book, The Yankee Years is mild stuff, no matter what you’ve heard or read—mostly a few digs at some of the New York stars such as hefty former Yankee lefthander David “Boomer” Wells (who seems to need more attention than most ballplayers).  Fans who want more specifics can Google “Joe Torre The Yankee Years” and sift through the 1.3 million— and counting—results. Serious Yankee fans, though, may skip those passages and go straight to what amounts to Torre’s and Verducci’s revisionist history.

Verducci—and we have to give him responsibility for this, since he’s the one who actually wrote The Yankee Years—seems to have a very limited view as to those responsible for the Yankees’ failure to win a World Series since 2000 despite having the biggest payroll in baseball. 

From 1996, Torre’s first year as Yankees manager, through 2000, the team won 487 games and lost 322, for a percentage of  .602.  From 2001, through Torre’s last season, 2007—the span over which Torre and Verducci feel the Yankees were in decline—the Yankees were actually a little better, 686-445, for .607.

This hardly passes for the sense of failure that the book seems to be pushing us toward.

The difference between the first five years of Torre’s tenure and the last seven was the Yankees postseason performance. From 1996 to 2000, New York was 46-15 (.754) in the playoffs with four World Series rings.  From 2001 to 2007, they were 31-32 in the postseason (.492) and lost in their only two World Series appearances (2001 and 2003). 

Their failure to win the championship is the real reason that Torre is no longer with the Yankees. Torre and Verducci place the blame for that failure squarely on the Steinbrenner family and general manager Brian Cashman, and given the lack of attention paid in recent years to the Yankee farm system—the minor league affiliates haven’t produced a real first-rate position player since, who … Derek Jeter?—there’s plenty of blame to go around.  The problem is, it never quite comes around to the man who made the game decisions, Torre.

The authors seem to agree that the signing of Alex Rodriguez “made for a whole different dynamic in the Yankees clubhouse.”  But they fail to tell us why a proper dynamic is essential to a winning team in the first place.  Colorful rebels like Babe Ruth, Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson have always been as much a part of the Yankees dynamic as solid company men like Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra and Derek Jeter.

In the March 9 New Yorker, Roger Angell wrote that “A-Rod’s consuming self consciousness and preoccupation with image and his own statistics alienated his teammates and damaged his performance in clutch situations.”

Angell is an astute student of baseball as we’ve seen over the last 25 years, but this seems like a fuzzy statement. If A-Rod is obsessed with his stats—and I’d honesty like to know which major league players aren’t—how would that “damage” his ability to hit in the clutch? In fact, what exactly is the evidence that A-Rod hasn’t hit in the clutch?  (And I won’t even go into the definition of what clutch means.)  Angell did, however, make at least one very important point, namely that the “A-Fraud” line, which was taken out of context by the New York press, “appears to have been a clubhouse joke, part of the open baiting that Rodriguez routinely endured.”

The larger question, though, seems to have gone undiscussed anywhere: Why is so-called team chemistry so important?  A Yankees fan old enough to remember the names Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin might ask why a proper “dynamic” matters at all. If high-priced loose-cannon sluggers are so disruptive to a team’s morale, one wonders why the Boston Red Sox won World Series in 2004 and 2007 despite the bizarre behavior of slugging outfielder Manny Ramirez.   Ramirez quarreled continuously with the Boston front office and finally forced a trade after the 2007 season—interestingly enough, to the Los Angeles Dodgers, where he seemed to get along quite well with his manager, Joe Torre. 

Torre and Verducci would have us believe that the Yankees’ failure to win a World Series in the past decade was due to the front office’s pursuit of high-priced superstars while the more fiscal-minded Red Sox cultivated their farm system. This is a popular theory in the New York press, where writers are always looking for reasons to bash the Steinbrenners, but the truth is that while the Yankees did neglect their minor leagues, the Red Sox also overtook them because of shrewder free agent acquisitions, including sluggers Ramirez in 2001 and David Ortiz (who the Yankees passed on signing) in 2003.

In the critical area of pitching, the Red Sox left the Yankees in the dust, signing Curt Schilling (in 2004) and Josh Beckett (2006)—two hard-throwing right-handers who raised their profile considerably by beating the Yankees in the World Series.  The biggest shocker came when the Red Sox outbid the Yankees for Japanese ace Daisuke Matsuzaka, who cost Boston $51.1 million for negotiation rights and $52 million for a six-year contract. In the opinion of Red Sox fans “Dice-K,” 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA last year, was cheap at the price.

Certainly, there has been a big difference between the Yankees and the Red Sox in how each of them spent their money. When the Red Sox hired writer and analyst Bill James in 2003, they made one of the smartest free agent signings in baseball history. Most veteran baseball executives had dismissed James’s work as abstract and impractical, but the Red Sox’s progressive brain trust embraced his views on significance of such statistics as on-base percentage and strikeouts–to–innings pitched and the importance of building a roster around players in their peak rather than in their declining years. 

While the Red Sox were spending millions wisely, the Yankees were wasting resources on players past their prime, such as first baseman Jason Giambi, who was already 31 when the Yankees got him, and soft-tossing Japanese lefthander Kei Igawa, who has been paid $8 million for, so far, winning three games. So locked were the Yankees into crisis-management mode that in 2007, desperate for pitching, they re-signed 44-year-old Roger Clemens for $28 million; Clemens won six games.

So the Yankees’ bad decisions during Torre’s last seven seasons can’t be entirely blamed on their manager. But in his book, Torre sees himself as a victim of impersonal forces rather than as someone who might have influenced their outcome.  Like the executives he criticizes, Joe Torre, in The Yankee Years, seems blissfully unaware of baseball’s new math.

The book is called “The Yankee Years” because, let’s face it, no one is really interested in Torre’s Mets, Braves and Cardinals years (and it remains to be seen whether there will be any lasting interest in the Dodgers years).  For all of Verducci’s fine reporting—and there is plenty—The Yankee Years is pulled down by Torre’s unceasingly self-serving recollections. O.K., he’s a nice guy and the Steinbrenners aren’t nice people—we get it. 

And again, the front office who pulled the strings on bad deals like 35-year-old Tony Womack (career OBA .317) and Jaret Wright (an average of just 82.2 innings per season for the 10 years before coming to New York) must take its share of responsibility—they don’t even seem to understand the old math. But where was Joe Torre all this time: Did anyone hear him say “I need more durable starters, the guys we have are draining our bullpen?” or “Get me some regulars who know how to get on base?”

The failure to even address these questions is also the major failure of the book. Tom Verducci knows all about the revolution in sabermetrics that Bill James begat; there are numerous references in the book to Red Sox GM Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francone and their enlightened approach when it comes to new acquisitions. But Torre is strangely silent on these issues. Didn’t Verducci even sound him out about whether he understood the importance of a stat like on base plus slugging?

For that matter, did Verducci ask Torre if he knew anything about Yankee history before he became manager?  Long before the Steinbrenners, Casey Stengel, the most successful manager in baseball history, won 10 pennants and seven World Series and was fired for not winning the seventh game in his final championship run.  Yogi Berra was also fired by the pre-Steinbrenner owners for winning a pennant but failing to win the seventh game of the World Series. In his second incarnation as Yankee Manager, Yogi was fired after just 16 games.

Though the Yankees wanted him to take a pay cut, Joe Torre was still offered $5 million plus nearly $3 million in incentives if he did what he did not do for the previous seven seasons—win a World Series. There are a lot of former Yankee managers who would have seen that as a sweetheart deal.


Joe Torre’s ‘Yankee Years’ Revisionism