"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Those Were the Days

Book Review

By Chris DeRosa

Chris DeRosa has been posting book reviews here for three or four years now. Actually, that’s not entirely true. Chris puts out a Yankee Annual each year that he sends around to his friends. The Annaual always contains book reviews, and Chris is generous enough to allow me to co-opt them for Bronx Banter. Here is one that I thought you guys might like…and there is a follow-up essay from Chris that I’ll post a bit later on.

Joel Sherman, Birth of a Dynasty: Behind the Pinstripes with the 1996 Yankees (2006)

There’s the requisite quote on the back, proclaiming that you don’t have to be a Yankee fan to enjoy this book. On the contrary, I’d say you might have to be a Yankee fan. The frequent invocations of the Yanks’ championship “destiny” would probably wear out the non-Yankee fan reader before long. But, you know, that’s fine. Remember when they used to make Star Trek movies? The studio would always say, “this time, it’s not just for the fans,” as if there weren’t enough friggin’ Star Trek fans to pay for their movie. Then more often than not, they’d make a lousy film trying to please a lot of people who were never going to be interested anyway, when they’d just have been better off aiming it right at the people who loved it. So there’s nothing wrong with Joel Sherman writing a book just for those of us who would like to wallow in the details of the Yankees’ 1996 title season. As such, it does not disappoint.

Sherman’s motif is “perfection.” Every chapter title is “The Perfect Manager,” “The Perfect Resolve,” The Perfect Whatever. Sherman knows that the Yankees’ flirtation with perfection was a couple of years down the road. What he actually means is that it took a perfect confluence of circumstances for this most imperfect 92-win team to pull it off. And indeed, the author chronicles both the little things that broke right—Jeffrey Maier made “The Perfect Catch (Almost)”—and the real strengths this team sported, including a quality in depth and a terrific cohort of young players: Andy Pettitte, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, and Mariano Rivera.

Some of the best parts of the book are about how those guys broke in and showed their stuff. In the chapter, “The Perfect Formula,” Sherman reminds us of the context of Mariano Rivera’s breakout season. It was the first full-length season under at the new mid-90s hitting levels, and American League pitchers were lit up for more runs per game than in any season since 1936, include a record barrage of 2,742 homers. Rivera, in 107 innings of stellar relief, surrendered just one of those. He was not only the most effective pitcher in the league; for a couple of months there, it seemed like he was the only effective pitcher in the league.

Sherman compares Torre’s quick recognition of Rivera’s value in 1996 favorably to Showalter’s waiting too long to get him into Game 5 of the ALDS in 1995 (when he had proved so devastating in Games 2 and 3). But here, Sherman’s own good reporting contradicts his instinct for the tidy storyline. In spring training, Torre saw “a straight fastball that made Rivera’s role murky.” Rivera himself is quoted as calling his fastball “straight as an arrow.” Sherman writes that that he was working on a change-up because he expected to be a starter. He might have added that it was Torre and Stottlemyre who were instructing him to do this. But as the season developed:

Torre kept defining a more and more vital function for Rivera, from mop-up man when the season began to a hybrid role that united middle and setup relief. Rivera was asked to get as many as nine outs to bail out a rotation that was proving far more unreliable than Torre had forecast.

Case in point, the Yankees led the Royals 5-2 in an April game when David Cone couldn’t make it past the 5th and Torre’s pen was already fried.

…Torre was staring at nine outs before he could summon closer John Wetteland. A concept was born—what Torre would come to refer to as the Formula. Rivera was asked to not only protect a lead but protect it for an extended period, to become a lone bridge between starter and closer.

In half of his 61 outings, Mo got six or more outs (22 two-inning stints, 8 three-inning stints, and 5 in between). But of course, Mariano Rivera in 1996 was not the first quality 100-inning middle reliever in baseball history. He was closer to being the last. The formula Sherman thinks Torre invented was pretty much the same one Cito Gaston used for Duane Ward in 1990, Sparky Anderson used for Mike Henneman in 1987, Jimy Williams used for Mark Eichhorn in 1986, and Dick Howser used for Ron Davis in 1980, and so forth.

It was the big hitting 90s that drove the division of setup chores, making the LaRussa bullpens more a necessity than a choice. That Rivera could still succeed in the older pattern was to his enormous credit, and was out-of-place enough that it fooled Sherman into thinking it was something new under the sun. And what is this nonsense about a straight fastball? Rivera may not have been throwing the cutter, but his fastball was explosive and jumpy, with irresistible illusory rise. If you want to see a straight fastball, try watching Kyle Farnsworth pitch.

Bob Wickman initially derided Rivera as a one-trick pitcher who the league would quickly solve. Not exactly mentor material, but he was no Mel Hall. Birth of a Dynasty gives us the fullest account yet of how Mel from Hell tormented the young Bernie Williams:

Hall taped “Mr. Zero” to the top of Williams’s locker to signify that he meant nothing to the team. One day Hall nearly brought Williams to tears by saying, “Zero, shut up,” every time Williams tried to speak. The more Williams tried, the louder Hall interrupted with repetitive chants of “Zero.”

Bernie Williams: five all star games, four gold gloves, one batting title, and four championships; Mel Hall: zero. Luckily for us, Williams got to grow into the job. “I came at the perfect time,” Sherman quotes him as saying. “After a while, we stopped letting players like Soriano and Johnson mature. We just traded them. That would have been me.” Birth of a Dynasty juxtaposes the Williams-Hall relationship with the friendship between Tim Raines and Derek Jeter. Raines went out of his way to help Jeter find his way in the clubhouse, remembering, “I knew I would be a guy who could influence him and make him feel at home.” Sherman counts the 1996 Yankees’ maturity and selflessness as significant advantages over their rivals, Davey Johnson’s Orioles. Or rather, as the book reminds us, Cal Ripken Jr.’s Orioles.

Sherman portrays Baltimore as being the big-money, no-heart team the Yankees are now accused of being, describing Roberto Alomar, Brady Anderson, Bobby Bonilla, and Rafael Palmeiro as self-centered, no-hustle veterans who didn’t respond to Johnson. Worst of the lot was arrogant superstar Cal Ripken, who at any point, “could have embraced his manager and unified the club.” Instead, the same determination that fueled his streak “made him inflexible to believe that anyone knew what was better for the team than he did.”

The characterization of Ripken rings true, but the portrayal of Johnson’s managerial tenure as a failure misses the bigger picture. Johnson took over after a 71-73 season, won 88 games and the wild card, then won 98 games and the AL East crown, which as of this writing is the only time any team has ever beaten out Joe Torre’s Yankees for the division title. Then he was gone, and the Orioles ran off nine consecutive losing seasons. The two years Johnson was at the helm were the only ones in about a twelve-year stretch when the Orioles seemed to prioritize winning the pennant over the maintenance of the stardom of Cal Ripken Jr.

Sherman’s grasp of the Yankees’ place in history is better. He argues, correctly, that what was “arguably the greatest run by a major league team ever” has been given short shrift because:

They were cast as villains by a Commissioner’s Office that saw the advantages of portraying them as a prop in a strategy of to win salary concessions from the players in collective bargaining. Thus, the Yankees of this era do not receive near the credit they deserved for what they accomplished….

It would be difficult for an All-Star team to win three rounds of playoffs as regularly as the Yankees did from 1996 to 2000.

And as Sherman notes, “Torre did not have an All Star team at his disposal.” Rather, the Yankees’ title teams whose salary was not so much larger than those of their rivals, rode a great postseason record in one-run games and scored a “staggering” number of late-game comebacks, feats Sherman attributes in no small part to the Yankee bullpen, and Mariano Rivera’s 27 postseason saves of four or more outs.

In the main, Sherman aligns himself with Buster Olney and other critics of the bloated-salary 21st century Yankee teams. But it is gratifying to also have him join with Allan Barra to refute baseball’s big lie, and to help prevent the reputation of the late-90s team from being subsumed by jealous crybabyism. In so doing, he also reminds us of how different it was to watch the team relatively unburdened by expectations, and before all the anti-Yankee negativity militarized my fandom.

* * * *

There are 25 substantive references to Kenny Rogers in the book, and 21 of them concern what a gutless choker he is. Now, I must admit that Kenny Rogers has for the last ten years also been my personal exception to the rule that failures in major league baseball are probably not failures of nerve. Nevertheless I found Sherman’s characterization egregious; he even mocks Rogers for how he celebrated at the ticker-tape parade, after having pitched poorly in the Series. Did he make any effort to get Rogers’s side of the story? If so, it didn’t make it into Birth of a Dynasty.

Rogers seemed solidly on track to uphold his choker rep this year, getting roughed up in the All Star Game and then coughing up the division title at the end of the season (in a relief appearance reminiscent of his implosion in 1999 NLCS Game 6). Then came ALDS Game 3, and what do you know, there was Kenny Rogers, crumpling up the pages of Joel Sherman’s book one by one and shoving them down the Yankees’ throats.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver