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Alchemy in the Boogie Down

Bronx Banter Interview: Joel Sherman

This is a tidy year for baseball anniversaries here in New York: Thirty years ago, the Yanks returned to the playoffs for the first time since 1964; twenty years ago, the Mets enjoyed the best season in their organization’s history and won the World Serious, and ten years ago, of course, Joe Torre managed the Yankees to their first Serious victory since 1978. So it is entirely fitting that Joel Sherman’s first book, “The Birth of a Dynasty”–an insider’s account of the 1996 Yankee team–has just been released. Sherman has been a columnist for the New York Post since ’96 and his book is a must-read for both casual and die-hard Yankee fans. I consumed the book in a few days and was excited about how much I learned (I never heard of a six-tool player before, but Ruben Rivera apparently fit the profile).

Sherman took some time out this week to discuss “The Birth of a Dynasty.” Hope you enjoy our chat.

Bronx Banter: You are a veteran baseball writer–first as a beat reporter, then as a columnist. Both of those jobs require different skills, but in both positions you are still working on a deadline and have only a limited amount of space to get your point across. This is your first book. What challenges did you encounter with the new medium? What was the most difficult transition for you, and what did you learn about yourself as a writer?

Joel Sherman: This is an excellent question. My whole temperament is built to be a newspaperman. I am almost a New York stereotype. I like to work quickly and move on to the next thing. The column feeds that. At the New York Post, you work on three deadlines a day. So you are constantly working all day on the days you write and then, boom, you are done. It is in the paper for various editions and you are on to the next day. When you write a book, there is no instant gratification or negative reaction, at all. It is a long-term process and my Brooklyn mindset had a tough time with that. As for what I learned during the process was more something that was re-established in my own mind, which is how much I love to report. The 1996 Yankees were an extremely well covered team and interviewing folks to try to find new information and new avenues to tell these stories really energized me.

BB: Did you enjoy the process?

JS: Mostly no. It was a difficult time for me to take on this process. My wife and I had our first children, our twins Jake and Nick, and trying to research/write as an extra job during first a pregnancy and then the early months of the lives of my children was straining. Also, a relationship with a publishing house is like a brief, shot-gun marriage. You are forced to deal with people for a very short, intense period that you probably would not associate with at other times.

BB: How long did it take to write?

JS: The research and writing took about 18 months, but there was no continuity to it because of the pregnancy. I went long stretches of doing nothing.

BB: It sounds like it was a humbling experience for you, going from the immediate gratification of newspaper writing, to the grind of a longer project. The scope is so much larger as you mentioned. Also, book writing is often a collaborative situation, which means you don’t have as much control as you have been used to. How important were the contributions of your editor–or colleagues who looked at different versions of the manuscript–in terms of helping you compose a dramatic arc for a book as compared with a column?

JS: The publishing house provided very little guidance. But I am blessed with great, talented friends. Mike Vaccaro, a columnist at the Post, was terrific at encouragement. When he was interested or intrigued by a topic, I knew it was a topic to pursue. I wanted to have moments all over the book where even people who follow the team religiously would go, “wow, I didn’t know that.” Mike was fantastic at helping me with that. Lou Rabito, an editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, and I went to school at NYU. Among Lou’s many skills is that he is the best line editor I have ever worked with and he is brutally honest. So he not only cleaned up the copy, but he told me frankly when items did or didn’t work. His touch is on nearly every page of the book. Also, Ken Rosenthal, now of Fox Sports, worked at the Baltimore Sun in 1996 as a columnist. He was in fact, a great columnist. The Orioles were the Yankees’ foil in 1996 and I had Ken read passages about the Orioles just to make sure I was getting them right. He was invaluable, as well. I think the key thing all three did was give me confidence. With no instant gratification, I needed people along the way to tell me, you are going right or you are going wrong. They did that.

BB: How much research did you do? Was it based on memory and old columns as well as interviews?

JS:I read just about every word written about the Yankees in the four major New York newspapers from mid-1995 thru the championship parade. Again, I thought it was important to feel the nuances, the relentless nature of a season. I did hundreds and hundreds of interviews, many people numerous times as new stuff came to me. For the most part, everyone was very generous with their time. But I also was blessed to still have all of my stat books, scorebooks and memories of being, first a Yankee beat writer from 1989-95 and a columnist since 1996.

BB: It seemed evident to me that you watched many games from 1996 in your research. Just how many games from that year did you re-watch?

JS: I watched about 20-25 games, essentially the seminal moments of that season. It felt necessary to really relive whole games, rather than simply, say, watch Jim Leyritz’s homer in Game 4 of the 1996 World Series. I really wanted to re-examine and re-live those games to have a better feel for the huge moments within them.

BB: What did you learn in the process of writing the book that you did not already know? Were there any surprises?

JS: I was surprised many times over, which is why I say that my love of reporting was reinvigorated during the process. Instead of telling you about hundreds of little surprises, let me tell you about a revelation that I hope comes out in the book: Just how cosmically aligned stuff needs to be to win a single championship, much less four in five years. I hope the book does a good job of showing all the areas that the construction of that team could have gone off the rails. The example I have used most to explain the concept is this: The Yankees had the sixth pick in the 1992 draft. That means five teams had a chance to take Derek Jeter. The Astros and Reds had every intention of doing it and didn’t, and the Expos almost always drafted the highest-ceiling high school player (which was Jeter), but were scared off by how much players such as Todd Van Poppel and Brien Taylor had received in the recent past. Well, what happens if one of those teams takes Jeter and the Yankees end up drafting Jim Pittsley, which was their alternative? Would it matter how much money they spent after that? It is hard to imagine that there would have been one title, and certainly no chance of conceiving four in five years.

BB: One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is how both Buck Showalter and then Joe Torre were the ideal “men of their moment” for the Yankees. What did each man bring to the organization and how did they differ from each other?

JS: Buck Showalter is one of the most important people in Yankee history. Whoever followed Stump Merrill was going to look good by comparison, but Buck really brought important elements to the organization and, well, organization was probably the most important. He was well thought out, disciplined and meticulous. He constantly asked a vital question at the time over and over, can we be doing this better. And that was from indoor batting cages to whom should play right field. He – with a noble assist from then GM Gene Michael – helped restore seriousness and professionalism to the day-to-day workings of the Yankees. But Buck’s great flaw is that he wears people down with the tiny stuff. The more power he accrued, the more anal and paranoid he became about all facets of the organization. This is what I always say about Buck, He is great at getting your team from its own goal line to the red zone. But I don’t know that he can punch the ball in.

That is where Torre comes in. He lacked Showalter’s organizational skills and work ethic. But Torre is a natural leader, expert at handling others. Torre and Derek Jeter have the greatest self-confidence of any people I have ever been around. Torre’s comfort and serenity in his skin was transported to his players, a vital element in such a pressurized arena.

BB: How significant was the National League sensibilities of Torre, Stottlemyre, Zimmer and Watson on the team?

JS: It was reflected in the players they chose and the way they played, especially the first half of 1996. Joe Girardi particularly reflected the NL sensibilities of the leadership. Torre wanted a defensive-oriented catcher. They did not like Mike Stanley behind the plate. Girardi had long-standing ties with Zimmer, both with the Cubs and Rockies, and Torre played against Girardi regularly when he was the Cardinals’ manager.

As for style, before the Yanks added Darryl Strawberry and Cecil Fielder, they leaned heavily toward how Zimmer wanted to play, using hit-and-runs, steals and sacrifices. Buck Showalter was more a Moneyball-style manager, believing it was not worthwhile to risk losing base runners. Showalter played a much more staid style.

BB: You talk about how many things have to come together in order for a team to win it all. For me, the most magical plays in the post-season came when Andy Pettitte fielded that ground ball bare-handed with two on and nobody out in the seventh inning of Game 5, and the missed called strike three, and eventual base on balls to Wade Boggs in Game 4. And that’s just me. There were many plays like that (during both the regular season and the playoffs). Which plays stick out for you?

JS: I never deviated on where I wanted to start on this book, which was in the eighth inning of Game 5 of the 1995 Division Series between the Yankees and Mariners. I knew I wanted to ask this “what if” question: What if Buck Showalter knew what he had in Mariano Rivera. He didn’t. But maybe he should have. Rivera faced 16 batters, allowed two singles, struck out seven and allowed no runs. But Showalter was so pre-programmed because of the all the pre-series and pre-game work he did that he never really accepted that Rivera was a weapon. He thought, to some extent, he was getting lucky with Rivera. It is forgotten because the memorable part of Game 2 was Jim Leyritz’s extra-inning homer in the rain that won the game. But Rivera pitched 3 1-3 shutout innings that night to get the win. What if, instead of letting David Cone and his dead arm, try to get through the menacing Mariners in Game 5, Showalter went to Rivera to start the eighth inning with the Yankees leading by two runs? It is not difficult to imagine that the series would have ended differently and if that series would have ended differently, would Joe Torre ever have managed the Yankees or would hundreds of other things that happened so quickly afterward have happened? I hope Birth of a Dynasty shows the most interesting “what if” questions from that period in Yankee history and shows how easily greatness can be derailed with so many singular changes in action.

BB: Would you say that Showalter was as stuck in his ways in terms of roles for his relievers as many fans now accuse Torre of being? We get more comments here at Bronx Banter about bullpen use and Torre’s neglect of youth (re: Colter Bean) than just about anything else.

JS: I think Buck was pre-programmed to the extent that he would not accept what he was seeing. For example, the Yankee-Mariner series became a battle of offenses, especially long balls. But Showalter just refused to let Darryl Strawberry into that series, afraid of his defensive liabilities, and stuck with Dion James’s pop-gun offense. The ironic thing is that one of the few times that Buck let what was happening in front of him influence him was to not trust John Wetteland late in that ’95 Series. But his reaction was to go with an injured Jack McDowell rather than go with what his eyes told him, and stick with Rivera.

I think Torre will make decisions based more on what he sees. I think the big problem — especially before this year — is he builds trust in a small few and lets them pitch way too much. But this year, for example, he is seeing better and better stuff out of Scott Proctor and, I expect, he will continue to push him into more and more important roles while removing Tanyon Sturtze from relevance.

I know that there has been a Colter Bean backing for a while among those who favor statistical metrics. But the Red Sox are a team that trusts such metrics, drafted Bean in the Rule 5 draft several years ago and gave him back to the Yanks. It is not as if the Yanks would sell high with Bean. If a club that favors metrics such as the A’s wanted him, the Yanks would move him. I think there is a strong feeling in the game that Bean is not a hidden Chad Bradford type, but rather a guy who would not succeed in the majors because his stuff is just not good enough.

BB: Can you explain how Derek Jeter got the starting job in 1996? I always thought it was just strictly because Tony Fernandez was injured. But there was more to it than that, right?

JS: Jeter was no sure thing through most of his minor league time. There was always worry about his defense. But the Mets were promoting Generation K for the 1996 season, and George Steinbrenner, as always, had his Met fixation and felt it was important to elevate someone from the system. So, though Fernandez had another year left on his contract, the Yanks decided soon after the end of the 1995 season that Jeter would be the shortstop in 1996. The problem was that Jeter was not overly impressive in spring training, especially early on. And one of Steinbrenner’s confidants, Clyde King, told George that the team could not win a championship with this rookie at short. It took a late spring training meeting of more than a dozen Yankee executives to calm down Steinbrenner. But there was a moment where the Yanks were weighing acquiring Felix Fermin from Seattle in exchange for Mariano Rivera. Now what kind of dynasty would there have been if Fermin was in short, Jeter was at Columbus and Rivera was in Seattle?

BB: I just want to be clear on this. Steinbrenner wanted Jeter so as to distract from Generation K, but then Clyde King changed George’s mind, while the execs still wanted to go with Jeter. Was it really a reaction to Generation K after all, or was that just how they talked Steinbrenner into it in the first place?

JS: Clearly, the Tampa faction wanted to go with Jeter. And, initially, Steinbrenner was totally in favor of that, specifically because of the seeming success the Mets were having with minor league prospects. But as we know, George can get a wee bit fickle. Often it is who talks to him last. I bet there was a time that he thought Bobby Meacham was a good idea, until he quickly did not. George wants to be taken seriously as a baseball man and that is where folks like Clyde King prey upon him. They whisper ideas and Steinbrenner repeats them, even if they are complete contradiction to what he had said the day before. Maybe even the hour before.

BB: I really enjoyed how much information you gave about the minor league careers of Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, Pettitte and Jeter. Other than Showalter and Stick Michael, who were some of the coaches and executives who were crucial to the development of young talent during this period?

JS: There were so many, so let me just highlight one guy: Brian Butterfield. Butter is now the third base coach of the Blue Jays. But he was significant to both the development of Bernie Williams and, especially, Derek Jeter. At Oneonta, he worked daily to help Williams develop from the left side in Williams’ quest to be a switch-hitter. Williams, just 18 then, had determined that if he did not make adequate advancements he was going back home to meet his mother’s desires to go to medical school. Butter’s extra work helped Williams win a batting title the following year at Prince Williams.

Jeter made 56 errors his first full season in the minors. But late in the year he hurt his wrist, so when he went to Instructional League he could not swing. It meant five straight weeks of fielding drills under the tutelage of Butterfield. The two would work out in the morning, watch films of the workout and then go back in the afternoon and work on the mistakes they had seen. Jeter was so raw that Butterfield literally had to teach him how to catch the ball because Jeter was giving with each throw.

BB: When you said Butterfield literally had to teach him how to catch the ball because Jeter was giving with each throw, what does that mean exactly? Also, if they felt he was so suspect defensively, why not make him a centerfielder right then and there?

JS: The two literally began with playing catch because Butterfield observed Jeter giving with the ball each time, subtlety moving his glove back to cradle the ball rather than aggressively moving his glove and feet forward. There were those in the organization who wanted to move him to the outfield. But there were many, notably Bill Livesey, who felt Jeter was a work in progress, a top athlete with great work ethic, who would overcome his deficiencies.

BB: You also note that the Yankees were committed to the idea of high on base percentage years before it became vogue around the league. Who was responsible for the organizational philosophy of offensive patience?

JS: When Gene Michael took over as GM in August 1990 there were many disturbing elements about the Yankees. But nothing on the field annoyed him more than how undisciplined the Yanks were at the plate. He noted players such as Mel Hall, Alvaro Espinoza and Roberto Kelly simply gave away too many at-bats. They never made pitchers work. He was determined to change that. One of the core elements in his trade of Kelly for Paul O’Neill was that O’Neill, even with a low batting average, drew a lot of walks. Michael signed Mike Stanley, twice released by the Rangers, for the same reason.

BB: The old Orioles teams used to preach the Oriole Way throughout all levels in the minors. Did the Yankees do something similar?

JS: There was what came to be known as the “Yankee Way.” It essentially revolved around a guidebook compiled in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Mark Newman with the contributions of many in the organization, again notably Showalter. It covered everything from how to wear socks to how many degrees to turn on a relay. It was designed to bring a uniformity of conduct and coaching throughout the system.

BB: Could you briefly mention who Mark Newman was. Also, what ever happened to the “Yankee Way?”

JS: Newman had a law degree and had been the head coach at Old Dominion University from 1981 until joining the Yankees in 1988. He used both disciplines to impact the Yankee system. He would take input from all over the organization, and then meld it into what became known as the Yankee Way. Decay happened to the Yankee Way. Bill Livesey, Brian Sabean and George Bradley moved to other organizations, and the folks who replaced them were not as dedicated, disciplined and serious. The patience to let the farm grow disappeared, replaced by the quick fix. Success was often in the detail with the Yankee Way, and detail takes day-after-day discipline, not guys kowtowing and telling Steinbrenner what he wants to hear.

BB: Bernie Williams tells you in the book that he came along at the perfect time. Had the Yankees been a better team at the big league level in the early nineties, he would have surely been traded, and not allowed to develop in New York. He mentions Nick Johnson and Soriano as young players since who have been traded since. Talk about just what an anomaly the early 90s is in the context of Steinbrenner’s era with the team.

JS: It is hard for me to actually remember how many people, within the course of writing this book, told me that an unspoken key element to creating the dynasty was that Steinbrenner was suspended for 2 1-2 years in the early 1990s. He was still influencing matters somewhat covertly. But his inability to be too overt allowed the organization to institute some patience and let the farm grow and harvest. The quick fix was applied far less often. Bernie Williams was allowed, for example, to work through some growing pains.

BB: Do you see Cashman’s keeping Cano and Wang as a return to harvesting the farm or are you less optimistic?

JS: I think Cashman is hoping to show with Cano and Wang, and also with Aaron Small and Shawn Chacon that there is way to find talent that does not involve going to the top of the financial food chain every time. That going that way is bad not only for the financial ledger, but bad for team building, as well. Obviously, a strong farm system helps keep cost down and gives Cashman options for trades. I think it also matters that a sense has grown that Boston’s system is on the rise and was moving way ahead of the Yanks. There are few things that George hates more than the Red Sox getting ahead in anything. Also, I believe that as George’s son-in-law, Steve Swindall, becomes more and more involved, he believes in the farm system and is a Cashman ally.

BB: I think it is appropriate how much you appreciate how special not only the ’96 team was, but how unique the entire five, six year run was. By the late ’90s, the team was held up to personify everything that was wrong with the game. However, in retrospect, those Yankee teams were very influential.

JS: I think history is going to be kind to the Yankees of that era and, perhaps, “Birth of a Dynasty” will be part of that appreciation. It is clear that Bud Selig’s No. 1 desire as commissioner was to improve franchise values for his friends/colleagues by gaining some semblance of financial discipline on player contracts. He needed a villain and the Yankees were an easy villain. It became knee-jerk to look at the entire era and just say, “sure the Yankees won, but they just bought titles.” I think it is both wrong and wrong-headed. If anything, the Yankees of the past several years have shown just how difficult it is to buy titles. The more and more the Yankees have spent, the less and less successful they have been in October. The Yankees of 1996 had the largest payroll, but not by an outsized amount. The Yankees of that era had something that is beyond simple understanding, especially in a sabermetrician era when there is a quest to define all happenings on a baseball field by the numbers. The culture of that Yankee clubhouse was unique and special. The players drew confidence from each other and also pushed each other to take the game seriously day after day. That level of accountability was part of the group DNA.

BB: Do you think that the Yanks forced both low-budget teams like the A’s, as well as high-budget teams like the Red Sox to improve?

JS: I believe a small-budget team like the A’s run smartly by Billy Beane was going to evolve no matter what big-market clubs were doing. But the Red Sox recognized that they, to some degree, had to get into a mano-a-mano tussle with the Yankees, especially when it came to finance. I think the bigger influence is an overall influence to the game. Selig succeeded to a large extent. He got a luxury tax and more substantial revenue sharing. In addition, the Yanks became the Beatles, drawing like great rock stars wherever they went. The sport benefited because of the Yankees becoming giants. It was not hurt by that.

BB: You mention how the Yanks have turned into the Beatles (how about Jorge, Jeter, Mo and Bernie as the Fab Four). But back in 1996, the crowds at the Stadium were often small. What memories of the Stadium crowds that year stick out?

JS: I thought the transformation from hostility to adoration for Tino Martinez and Joe Girardi were fascinating. The fans loved Don Mattingly and Mike Stanley, but slowly came to see the seriousness, passion and professionalism of Martinez and Girardi and to adopt them as Yankees.

BB: It’s easy to look back on ’96 through rose-tinted glasses, and ignore the behind-the-scenes craziness. But Steinbrenner was in fine form that year. How difficult was it that season off-the-field? I know Bob Watson was a prime whipping boy.

JS: George admitted openly how involved he was with that team, so you can imagine what it was like to be an executive at that time. Steinbrenner had turned over a successful team and the most popular figures were displaced, including Buck Showalter, Don Mattingly, Mike Stanley and Randy Velarde. Steinbrenner was personally responsible for bringing in Kenny Rogers, Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry. He saw 1996 as a mandate on himself, so he made life unimaginably difficult on others. He abused Watson multiple times a day, especially late in the regular season as the Yanks’ big AL East lead over the Orioles began to dwindle. Watson did not handle it well. He told public fibs at times under pressure from George. But more damaging, he cracked under the pressure and at various times challenged George in the media and put Joe Torre’s job at risk with outlandish statements.

BB: Watson was undermined from the beginning, with the hiring of Torre, a move he ultimately didn’t have a problem with. What is the most memorable Watson moment of the year?

JS: There were a lot of bizarre and uneasy moments involving Watson all year. But probably the strangest was when, under constant bombardment from Steinbrenner about his job status and with the Yanks’ large division lead melting, he told the NY Times, “We have the highest payroll in the history of the game. If we can’t hold a twelve-game lead, then the leadership is responsible. The pilots crash the plane, not the passengers. Joe and I are the pilots. We’re the ones who are responsible.” Watson essentially threw his pal, Torre, into the quicksand with him. He also then reacted to a column in the Bergen Record that had an unnamed source in the Yankee organization saying the general manager would not be back in ’97 by assuming Steinbrenner was the source and questioning George’s integrity. By that point, it felt as if he was almost trying to get fired.

BB: The wild thing to recall about that team was that, through Torre’s story, the Yankees actually became underdogs for the first time in memory, likable to even the most strident Yankee-haters.

JS: The book easily could have been titled The Last Time the Yanks Were Ever Underdogs. It is forgotten to history because the Yanks ended up beating the Rangers three times in the postseason, the last two times by sweep. But the 1996 Rangers thought they were going to beat the Yankees. John Burkett won Game 1 and the Rangers led deep into Game 2, and the series was about to switch to Texas, where the Yankees never won. Again, it is easy to forget, but in 1996, the dynasty that seemed to be on the brink was that of the Braves. Atlanta played in the World Series in 1991 and 1992, won it in 1995 and dominated the first two games of the 1996 World Series. Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz were all 30 or younger, Chipper Jones was 24, Andruw Jones was 19 and Mark Wohlers – yes, Mark Wohlers – was an overwhelming closer. That the Yankees would end up being the Team of the 1990s and dynastic was inconceivable at that moment.

And, yes, Joe Torre gave the image of the team a softer hue, especially because one of his brothers died during the season and another needed a heart transplant during the World Series. Those Yankees were not braggarts and did not show up opponents. There was a sense of dignity about them. They were not hated. They were admired.

You can order “Birth of a Dynasty” here or here, or simply pick it up at your local bookstore. Peep, don’t sleep.

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