Yankee day on Da Box.....
Recently I was trolling through my local library looking for a good read when my eyes came across ”The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty,” by Buster Olney. I was not that familiar with Buster’s writing but I had seen some comments on Batters Box suggesting that Mr. Olney’s work left something to be desired. I looked over the book thinking: “will I or wont I?” But it was February and I was desperate for a baseball fix so I decided to borrow the book. I am pleased to report that The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty is an excellent read, and Mr. Olney’s reputation, at least in these writer’s eyes, is restored.
The premise of the book is that in 2000 the Yankees won the last World Series of their current reign and that, for now at least, the dynasty is over. The book is written around game seven of the 2001 World Series and the title of the book has proven quite accurate, as the Yankees have lost consecutive playoff series to the Marlins, the Angels and the Red Sox. The book praises the players that were the core of the team that won three consecutive World Series from 1998 to 2000, but suggests that that group is not easily replaced and affixes the blame for the state of the franchise on the head of George Steinbrenner.
It appears to be fashionable these days to predict the demise of the Yankees. Last year many commentators suggested the Yankees roster was too old, only to be proven incorrect. This year some are suggesting that 2005 will be the year the Yankees blow up; many predicting the Red Sox will win the AL East. Other, more cautious scribes believe the Yankees will hit the wall in 2006 or 2007. The concerns are primarily related to the payroll cost versus on field return of older players. The Yankees payroll jumped a few years ago and many of the contracts will be at their highest in 2006 and 2007 when the players are on the downside of their career. In 2006 the Yankees are committed to over $100 million payroll to six players: Giambi - $19m; Jeter $21m; A-Rod $20m; Mussina $19m; Sheffield $13m; and Posada $13m. The unknown question is - where is the limit on the Yankee wallet? This winter the Yankees were relatively cautious in their spending, they did not pursue Carlos Beltran, focusing on pitching.
The Yankee payroll can probably handle the cost of putting 25 players on the field. A theoretical roster for the Yankees could be $145m on the starting nine (9 at $16m each); $60m on starters (5 at $12m); $20m on the bullpen; and $10m on the bench. This payroll totals $235m. Can the Yankees afford $235m? They might have to increase the cable rates for Yes network by 25 cents but it is reachable. The Yankees problems would start if the players do not deliver value for the money; if Giambi’s body fails; if Jeter loses his range; if Sheffield gets injured. The Yankees have realized the peril they are in and have started to focus more attention on their farm system, but that takes time.
Of course many other observers believe money cures all ills, and the Yankees will always be able to lever their financial muscle to cover their holes. Baseball is a team game, having stars on a team is great but more importantly a team needs strong players from one through nine. Some of the Yankee stars might fade but a faded star is still better than a $300,000 rookie. The Yankees can amass enough overall strength, through the roster, to make the playoffs. I tend to support this view; I think the Yankees can make it to the playoffs, even as a wild-card team, but their older roster might hurt them in October, at the end of a long season. Older players might feel more tired and be more prone to be at less than 100% come playoff time.
Buster Olney does not consider the payroll, or the age of the players, to be the major issue facing the Yankees. Olney contends that George Steinbrenner’s approach, his win or you fail philosophy, puts too much pressure on the players. Baseball is best played with a controlled aggression; get too tight and your muscles slow down. Olney believes George is in the head of his players and has taken the joy out of the game. In the book Mike Mussina realizes the Yankees have just won their hundredth game and is surprised, the season did not feel like a happy one, more of a grind due to all the “distractions” around the team. Olney also clearly believes that the group of players who won in 1998, 1999, and 2000 were special and a team is more than a collection of big dollar players.
Game seven of the 2001 World Series was decided in the bottom of the ninth inning, the teams played eighteen half innings and Olney wraps a chapter around each half inning. Yankee stalwarts such as Joe Torre, Paul O’Neill, Roger Clemens, David Cone, David Wells, Brian Cashman and Derek Jeter all get a chapter. These chapters delve into the backgrounds and stories of each person and you might think that you already know all there is to know about those people, but Olney displays a keen eye for detail and a real insiders touch. I consider myself a hard-core baseball fan, but I learned quite a bit through reading this book.
Olney believes that there is a good and a bad side to George Steinbrenner. Steinbrenner keeps paying top dollar for players and spends as much as is necessary to bring the best players to New York. But when they get there he lets them know that winning is expected, that winning a World Series is the goal, and the players and coaches know that there will be a price to pay if they fall short. Olney suggests that this pressure creates a fear of failure, a tightness and joylessness in the team that inhibits their ability to win. In the Red Sox series of 2004 some commentators suggested the Yankees froze under pressure and certainly in game seven the Yankees never showed up. Olney also suggests this fear of failure played a part in the Yankees World Series loss in 2001.
Steinbrenner is taken to task directly by Olney, at various points in the book Steinbrenner is accused of being a quitter, and of agreeing to player transactions based on the recommendations of his staff, so if things do not work out he can second guess them. “You better be right,” Steinbrenner tells his staff on several occasions, and this is among the nicer things he says to his staff. Steinbrenner regularly berates his employees, especially Brian Cashman. In spring 2000 Cashman argued against trading Alfonso Soriano for Jim Edmonds. After Edmonds got off to a hot start, Steinbrenner demanded daily faxed reports from Cashman detailing Edmond’s performance. Some employees give it back. In the mid-nineties Steinbrenner returned from his two and a half year suspension and tells Gene Michael that things are messed up, when he had left things were in good shape. “That’s why we had the first pick in the 1991 draft, right?” said Michael. “Don’t be a wiseass,” Steinbrenner replied.
Two ex-Blue Jays come across very well in the book. David Cone is portrayed as a clubhouse leader, a player who knew how to handle the media and counseled teammates accordingly. Olney describes how Cone prevented several players from blowing up in front of the media, David Wells, Denny Neagle, Joe Girardi and Chuck Knoblauch all benefited from Cone’s advice. Cone appeared to know exactly when to intervene and when to leave the player alone. Cone also was prepared to play policeman. On one occasion, David Wells was scheduled to start and Torre needed Wells to go deep in the game to spell the bullpen. Wells cursed at the home plate umpire and was ejected in the second inning. Cone followed Wells into the clubhouse and got in his face. “Are you quitting on us?” Cone yelled, “Because you know that’s your reputation, that you’re just a f%&#ing quitter.” Cone and Wells had to be separated by their teammates.
Roger Clemens also gets the love from Olney. Clemens, a perfectionist, asks that the pitching coach be brutally honest with him so he can adjust his pitching accordingly. Fans are familiar with how Clemens uses intimidation as part of his repertoire. Olney tells a story of when Clemens was a Blue Jay, playing the Mets in Shea Stadium in 1997. Clemens was on second base and the Mets ran repeated pickoff plays trying to tire Clemens out. Finally Clemens turned to Rey Ordonez and told him if there was another pickoff play, Ordonez would get smoked with a fastball. There were no more pickoff plays.
Olney describes how, in 2001, during a tough part of the schedule, the Yankees were to play a doubleheader in Detroit having arrived in Detroit at 5 am that morning. The Yankees called up Adrian Hernandez for the start but he felt queasy that day. Clemens was due to pitch the next day, and was feeling groggy like most of the Yankees, but he immediately volunteered to pitch, ate some cereal, and went out and gave the Yankees 5 2/3 innings. Some Yankees called it his best start of the year.
The book is filled with rich detail on all his subjects. Although Olney does not believe in the Yankee system under Steinbrenner, he does appreciate the players. If you enjoy a look inside the organization then this book is a very good and enjoyable read.