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Yankee Panky: Book Review

Tom Verducci’s “The Yankee Years” caused a tremendous stir in spring training, when the tabloids got hold of it and railed Joe Torre for allegedly violating the cardinal rule of keeping clubhouse events in the clubhouse. YES Network fired Verducci from “Yankees Hot Stove” for the way he portrayed the Yankees’ front office in the book, and he was put on the spot by numerous outlets, including our own Alex Belth in an SI.com Q&A.

I finally got around to reading the book, and I wholly disagree with the negative criticism heaped upon Torre, Verducci and the book earlier in the year. It’s not an “as told to” story, as Alex points out. It reads like a well-researched textbook on the Yankees from 1995 to 2007, with notes and observations by a reporter who had been there through all of it. The anecdotes from the Yankee manager of the time, as well as former players, coaches and staffers enrich the context of the story.

As a Yankee fan, I almost think you have to read this book to gain an understanding of the teams of the YES Network era and just how tough a job Joe Torre had, and how difficult it was to pull those 2005, ’06 and ’07 teams into the playoffs after what they went through those years.

Was there information I knew already? Certainly. The details of Bernie Williams’ near move to the Red Sox and Andy Pettitte’s near trade in 1998, the Roger Clemens trade in 1999 and the components of the dynasty breaking up following the Game 7 loss of the 2001 World Series have been recounted in numerous books this decade, most notably in Buster Olney’s “The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty.” Moreover, covering the team from 2002 through ’06, Torre would tell the local press corps some of the anecdotes Verducci recalled in the book, like the fan in Tampa during Spring Training of 2002 telling him, “Don’t worry Joe. We’ll get ’em this year,” and his fondness for Pettitte, given the way he stepped up in Game 5 of the ’96 World Series, out-dueling John Smoltz. I got to see the best and worst of David Wells’ second tour of duty, Jeff Weaver (Torre said the day of Weaver’s introductory press conference: “That kid will be leading the parade here some day.”), Gary Sheffield, Randy Johnson, Kevin Brown, and of course, Carl Pavano, and Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and A-Rod’s brain cramps in the clutch and Chien-Ming Wang’s inability to handle being the ace of the staff.

For me, the most revealing quotes came from bullpen catcher Mike Borzello, who was the key source on the “A-Fraud” items, and Mike Mussina, who was great because he presented the point of view as an outsider to those championship Yankee teams. He acknowledged the greatness of Mariano Rivera but looked back on three games: Game 7 of ’01, and Games 4 and 5 in Boston in ’04, and wondered why and how he blows those three games? It sounded selfish at first, but if you were in the same spot, how would you have answered? I came away from this with a different level of respect for Moose. His insight helped shape the book.

The stories of the emotional toll dealing with Management took on Torre over the last three years of his tenure got me thinking about his current situation in Los Angeles. He has a similar makeup to what he had in 1996 and ’97. A good mix of veteran free agents like Manny Ramirez, Orlando Hudson and Rafael Furcal, and young players like Russell Martin, James Loney, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, and an even younger pitching staff figuring out how to win. But beyond that, the loyalty of the coaches he brought with him shifted as well. The way Verducci portrays Larry Bowa and Don Mattingly and their places in the coaching hierarchy during Torre’s last few years on the job, it’s easy to see why they followed him to L.A.

Why bring this up at this juncture of the season? The Yankees clawed back to sniff first place and had a chance to hold or share first place and had a chance to sweep the Angels in Anaheim. The makeup of the team, particularly Joba Chamberlain’s place on it, is under heavy scrutiny. It’s looking like a repeat of the last four years, only with a greater sense of impending doom because the Yankees’ run of 13 consecutive playoff appearances ended, while Torre’s didn’t.

If it happens again, Verducci might want to consider a similar book for Mr. Girardi.

Categories:  Bronx Banter  Will Weiss  Yankee Panky

Tags:  Joe Torre  Tom Verducci

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1 Sliced Bread   ~  Jul 14, 2009 9:38 am

I'll take your word for it, Will.

Bought the book when it came out, read a couple chapters, and shelved it. Not a gripping read at all to me. I've been planning to finish it after this season wraps up, hoping it has more to offer than the first couple dozen pages.

My dad waited weeks to borrow the book from his local library, read about half of it, and returned it. I've offered him my copy, but he's not interested.

My dad and I were hoping for a lot more honesty from Joe, and far less aloofness from Verducci.

2 Shaun P.   ~  Jul 14, 2009 9:38 am

'The makeup of the team, particularly Joba Chamberlain’s place on it, is under heavy scrutiny."

Seriously? By whom?

Maybe its just because I don't live in or near NYC, and so I am out of range of the tabloid-talk radio cauldron of stupid, but the Yanks are 3 games back, 2nd best record in the AL, 3rd best in all of MLB, 4th-best run differential in all of MLB . . . and this is cause for placing heavy scrutiny on the makeup of the team? And Joba's place on it?

With all the problems this team has had, and given the division they play in - 4 of the 5 best teams in MLB are in the AL East - to be where they are is awesome.

I've immensely enjoyed watching this team play and I will continue to do so - even if they miss the playoffs again (oh well!).

3 monkeypants   ~  Jul 14, 2009 9:50 am

[2] I noted that sentence as well. If I recall, Will Weiss has been pretty public about his own view that Joba should be in the pen. I think that sentence is a case of journalist projection.

4 JohnnyC   ~  Jul 14, 2009 9:56 am

It's a great read...as far as puff pieces go. Strange how the person who remains blameless throughout is Joe Torre. Wonderful example of leadership. Someone in the press corps is lining up to be Girardi's Verducci, I'm sure. But, Joe's a little too tight-lipped and "he's a liar." He's clueless but doesn't have four rings. Yeah, I guess it wouldn't warrant a sniff on the NY Times Bestseller List. Oh, well.

5 Sliced Bread   ~  Jul 14, 2009 9:57 am

[2] Every game Joba pitches is scrutinized by the NY papers, and talked about on the radio, and the calls to send him back to the pen have gotten progressively louder in recent weeks.

As for the team: 3 games back, 2nd best record -- all of the positives are being overshadowed by the Yanks dismal record against the big boys, specifically Red Sox, Angels, Phillies. Until the Yanks beat those teams, the makeup of this team will be scrutinized by media chatterboxes, and even rational fans.

But I'm with you, I like this team, and will enjoy watching them no matter how the season ends. As long as they fight to the finish.

6 Cliff Corcoran   ~  Jul 14, 2009 9:57 am

I was with you until the last full paragraph, Will. C'mon, if the Yanks lost those three games last week and thenswept the Twins, there'd be a lot less gloom and doom around here.

As for the Verducci book, I'm still only about half-way through, but my take thus far is the book is much better in the non-Torre sections. Verducci's histories of steroid use and front office progress post-Moneyball are excellent. The Yankee stuff (admittedly I'm only through 2003) is nothing new. Most problematically, the book is riddled with eye-popping typos and errors. It reads like a first-draft rushed to print (which it very nearly might have been). Verducci deserved better from his editors. He also deserved better from his marketing department than to have to share the authorship with Torre, though I suppose it brought the book more attention and boosted sales, the co-authorship is a total sham. Torre's words only appear in quotes.

7 Sliced Bread   ~  Jul 14, 2009 10:00 am

[6] heh. I wouldn't have sniffed the book unless Joe's name was on it. You and I feel duped for completely opposite reasons.

8 Will Weiss   ~  Jul 14, 2009 10:03 am

[3] Not journalistic protection at all, although I have been vocal about my view that Joba should never have been removed from the bullpen. The nucleus of my column is media analysis and incorporating my view into the landscape of how the team is covered, and I'm calling it as I see it.

[2] My reasoning for the statement: 1) Before every one of his starts, it is asked on the YES pregame show. 2) While most of the stuff on talk radio is drivel, good points have been made on various WFAN and ESPN Radio programs. And that talk circles around the question of Joba figuring it out as a starter, and more recently, with Roy Halladay on the market and the Yankees potentially being a suitor, Joba being the singularly best trade chip the Yanks have in order to land him. There are nutty fans -- not in this community -- saying the Yankees "need" Roy Halladay. I can't see the Jays trading within the division, but stranger things have happened.

That said, I agree with you that for the Yankees to be where they are given all the adversity is a great accomplishment. But I also believe they're a much better team than they've shown. To be 5-15 against first-place teams is disappointing.

9 Will Weiss   ~  Jul 14, 2009 10:05 am

[6] Ah, Cliff, I figured that'd get you. Really, there'd be less gloom and doom had the Royals taken two of three from the Red Sox and the deficit was 1 or 2 instead of what it is.

10 Will Weiss   ~  Jul 14, 2009 10:10 am

[6] And good points about the book's construction. As fellow book editors, the typos were glaring (although I've seen worse), and he shouldn't have shared the authorship. It's still a good read, though. The last half is better than the first.

11 monkeypants   ~  Jul 14, 2009 10:41 am

[8] Well, you have to call it like you see it, and admittedly I pay little attention to MSM sports journalism. But it seems to me that there has been plenty of scrutiny to go around this year, as there is every year, which also ebbs and flows with the team's fortunes: complaints about Jeter (should he move to outfield, as folks catch on about two years after he has improved his defense to the fact that he wasn't that good before), complaints about A-Rod after every strike out or off-the-field exploit, complaints about Cano (alleged laziness or inability in the clutch), complaints about Molina (for not being Cervelli), complaints about Posada (for not being Molina or Cervelli), questions about Swisher (is he a "real" outfielder 'cuz he doen't look good out there), the status of Wang, the status of Hughes, questions about AJ (especially early on), questions about Andy (especially recently)...the list is nearly endless, and that's without considering the scrutiny under which the manager and (to some degree) general manager operate.

Then I look at the sentence you wrote--innocent in itself and (I accept) reflective of how you see it. You could have stopped at the "the makeup of this team is under heavy scrutiny." Or, you could have toggled off several of the players who operate under the spotlight (honestly, I think no player, perhaps in all of MLB, is under heavier scrutiny than A-Rod). But rather, you chose to focus on exclusively on Chamberlain. Methinks that this reflects, on some level, your own opinion about his position on the roster.

12 Raf   ~  Jul 14, 2009 10:53 am

and this is cause for placing heavy scrutiny on the makeup of the team? And Joba’s place on it?

You're surprised by this? I remember the Torre gallows watch after the first week of the 1998 season. :)

all of the positives are being overshadowed by the Yanks dismal record against the big boys, specifically Red Sox, Angels, Phillies. Until the Yanks beat those teams, the makeup of this team will be scrutinized by media chatterboxes, and even rational fans.

That's something I haven't been able to figure out. Last year they did well against playoff teams (with the exception of the Angels), but were on the outside looking in @ the end of the season. I don't think how they do against "the big boys" is particularly relevant.

Having said that, Steve Lombardi posted an interesting entry about this @ WasWatching

13 The Hawk   ~  Jul 14, 2009 10:58 am

I was irritated by Mussina talking about Rivera's failures. He conveniently leaves out the terrible job he himself did in 2001, Game 1. Nice job setting the tone there, Mike.

[2]"With all the problems this team has had, and given the division they play in – 4 of the 5 best teams in MLB are in the AL East – to be where they are is awesome.

I’ve immensely enjoyed watching this team play and I will continue to do so – even if they miss the playoffs again (oh well!)."

This mindset is exotic - even alien - to me.

14 Shaun P.   ~  Jul 14, 2009 11:00 am

[10] The last half certainly has more "new "information"" than the first half.

[8] All fair points, which I why I made clear I never get any exposure to the NYC-media malestrom, re: Joba or anything else. To me, though its a silly question, because its riddled with small sample size analysis.

Joba as a reliever, in the big leagues: 59 IP

Joba as a starter, in the big leagues: 154.3 IP

That's not nearly enough data to prove he belongs in the bullpen, because starting pitchers with no MLB experience struggle, with very few exceptions, and guys who go from starting to relieving tend to pitch better in relief.

[12] When one grows up and goes to college in upstate NY, and then moves to Massachusetts, and avoids the tabloids and talk radio like the plague - one misses out on such things. =)

15 The Hawk   ~  Jul 14, 2009 11:01 am

[12] "That’s something I haven’t been able to figure out. Last year they did well against playoff teams (with the exception of the Angels), but were on the outside looking in @ the end of the season. I don’t think how they do against “the big boys” is particularly relevant."

Since we don't know whether they'll make the playoffs or not, the measure of the team is taken against other elite teams.

I can't get behind the idea that you don't size up a team until the end result of the season is known. To me that defeats the purpose of following a team, of being a fan, really.

16 monkeypants   ~  Jul 14, 2009 11:02 am

[12] Well, the key is to pick three teams more or less arbitrarily against whom the Yankees have a poor record, as evidence of their deep-rooted problem. Thus, ignore how they played against Tampa Bay. This is not to say that failure against good teams is not a signal that the Yankees may not be the best team in the league. On the other hand, it is interesting to watch how the definition of "big boys" is massaged to fit exactly those teams that the Yankees have struggled with. Philly (.558 in a division with the Mets and Washington) is one of the big boys, but Detroit (.552) is not?

But it gets even better: the Yankees spotted the BSox eight games, so their combined record against the "big boys" will assuredly remain poor no matter what they do the rest of the season. The season series against Philly and the Angels is over, so their is no way they can ever "beat those teams" in the regular season. In fact, even if they swept the next ten games against Boston, their season record against this three-headed monster would still be three games under .500.

In other words, if Will is correct that "until the Yanks beat those teams...[they] will be under heavy scrutiny," no matter what the Yankees do in the regular season they will remain under heavy scrutiny!

17 The Hawk   ~  Jul 14, 2009 11:06 am

[16] I think it's safe to assume Mr. Weiss wasn't suggesting they need to beat teams with whom they have no more games.

18 monkeypants   ~  Jul 14, 2009 11:16 am

[17] I don't know what he is suggesting. But from comments that I read on these threads, I think that he is onto something: an enormous emphasis is placed on games against certain teams (whether rightly or wrongly is another issue). As such (and this is my suggestion) no matter how many games the Yankees win, no matter their record or position in the standing, people will gripe "yeah, but they got spanked by the Angels...this team is smoke and mirrors until they can beat the big boys." And since the season series with two of the three big boys are completed, there will always be fuel for those complaints for the entire regular season.

In turn, if Will is accurate in saying that he is just reading the media landscape, I suspect that media-types will pick up on these complaints (maybe program directors listen to angry callers on sport radio) and spin stories about the Yankees lack of clutchitude against the big boys, or whatever.

That's the beauty of this storyline. Once one accepts the initial premise--that the "big boys" comprises solely the Phillies, Angels and Red Sox--then the subsequent story of the Yankees failure against the big boys will never, indeed can never, die during the regular season. It's built-in copy.

19 Shaun P.   ~  Jul 14, 2009 11:17 am

[15] I understand what you are saying, but how do you define an elite team? What their record is on a given day? The problem is, the teams who are elite on July 14th may be very different on Oct 14.

Just as an example, in 2005, on July 14th, the top 4 teams in the AL were:

Minnesota and Baltimore (tied)

Minnesota finished the year 7th in the AL, Baltimore 10th.

I agree, though, that as a fan, you can't wait until the end of the season to size your team up. You have to do it daily. But to be objective about it, and to compare your team to other teams definitely, you have to wait until the end of the season. Until then, its all speculation and guesswork - which is fine, but don't use that as the basis for saying your team is good or bad. Lots of games left to play.

20 Shaun P.   ~  Jul 14, 2009 11:19 am

[18] Give this man a cupie doll!

OK monkeypants, come clean - you're really Joe Sheehan, aren't you? [18] reads like a classic Sheehan column on how the traditional sports media tends to make up the storyline, and then shoehorns the facts into it - and why that's bs.

21 Raf   ~  Jul 14, 2009 11:24 am

I can’t get behind the idea that you don’t size up a team until the end result of the season is known.

I can, lest a manager gets fired, or a player gets traded/demoted/released after every cold streak. Granted, sometimes the situation calls for it, sometimes it doesn't.

I enjoy watching the Yanks play, as well as some of the subplots involved. 2 games out at the ASB is not an insurmountable lead. If we're Mets fans, I can understand the angst. If we're Royals fans, I can understand the angst. But to be two out, wild card leaders, with a couple of trading deadlines looming on the horizon, I'm not going to be worried just yet. I would love it if the Yanks won every game for the rest of the season, but realistically, I know that isn't going to happen.

22 monkeypants   ~  Jul 14, 2009 11:30 am

[20] No, I'm not.

I actually did not say that the traditional media makes up a storyline. Rather, I said that the traditional media picks up on a story and sells it (this to some degree of course perpetuates and promotes the story line).

I do find it interesting (as you point out in [19]) how "elite teams" gets defined and redefined. Why are we looking only at the Angels, Red Sox, and Phillies? What about Tampa Bay or Detroit or even Texas?

Even the comment at [8] is intriguing: "To be 5-15 against first-place teams is disappointing." Yes, it is very disappointing, but it is a record that is rather skewed by an 0-8 mark against the Red Sox. Removed from the mark is a much less disappointing (but disappointing none-the-less) 5-7 mark.

I've posted here before that all of this seems to come down to the three series against the Red Sox. The failure so far to match up with the Sox is really driving most of the commentary about the Yankees failure to match up with the "big boys," especially because their appalling record against the Boston lads can make several their composite record against numerous small subsets look worse.

23 monkeypants   ~  Jul 14, 2009 11:34 am

[22] can make several their composite records against numerous small subsets look worse.

24 Shaun P.   ~  Jul 14, 2009 11:35 am

[22] I know you're not, but the similarities were striking at the moment. And yeah, you did not say the tm makes up a story, which is why I said [18] reads like a Sheehan column, but I should have been clearer.

Overall though, I do agree - the focus on the 0-8 vs Boston is all sorts of wrong. But it feeds into existing angst, and sells papers/gets ratings, so here we are . . .

25 Will Weiss   ~  Jul 14, 2009 12:16 pm

I love it when you guys take me to task. Seriously.

[22] To clarify what I'm suggesting with my comment on the Yankees' 5-15 record against first-place teams this year as "disappointing": The Yankees are built to be the best team in baseball every year. They're not going to sweep teams that are on par with them, but they should beat them at least 50 percent of the time. I'd say a .200 winning percentage against anyone is disappointing. Moreover, their run differential in those games is -35. They're +75 against everyone else.

I know the record is skewed by the 0-8 mark against the Red Sox. I'd actually be satisfied if the Yankees were 8-7, 9-6, 10-5 against the Sox, Phillies, Tigers and Angels, the teams Pete Abe laid out. Consider how many leads they blew to those three teams. We'd be talking about a different state of affairs at this point if the starting pitching or bullpen did its job in a couple of situations, or if the offense was able to plate a few runs with RISP and less than 2 out.

I will say this, though, and this is a theme throughout the second half of the Verducci book: this 2009 edition, with the infusion of Sabathia, Burnett, Swisher (for all his foibles), and Teixeira, is more of a team than any of the groups that I covered. I think the only way for them to win is to take it one step further, because it still seems to me that in certain situations, individual pride takes over and it compromises them.

[21] I agree with you, Raf. It would be nice, though, to see them put together the same level of completeness in a game against the "big boys" as they do against the Twins.

26 The Hawk   ~  Jul 14, 2009 12:20 pm

[18] Indeed he may not be suggesting anything. I'm merely pointing out one thing I think you can assume he's not suggesting.

27 Mattpat11   ~  Jul 14, 2009 12:55 pm

I've always said that the only person that I thought came off truly awful in the book was Cashman. I actually thought it was a pretty kind portrayal of George during whatever illness he has now.

Cashman, on the other hand, came off as sneaky, conniving, arrogant and borderline incompetent.

28 Shaun P.   ~  Jul 14, 2009 1:02 pm

[25] And I always enjoy reading your stuff Will, because it makes me think. And think again. And think some more.

For all the games that the Yanks "could have" won vs the Angels, Sox, Tigers, and Phillies, think about all the games they "should have" lost versus other teams - the Luis Castillo games vs the Mets, as just one example.

Clay Davenport's third order wins and losses at BP takes a team's actual run differential, looks at what the run differential should be, based on the components of run scoring, and then adjusts that differential for strength of schedule and opponent's hitting and pitching. In other words, its a filter on what a team has done, and says what a team should have done.

The Yanks are 51-37. By third order record, they "should be" 52-36.

Obviously, an out here, a runner driven in there, and not only is their actual record different, but their adjusted record is different, too. Still, I think the Yanks are right where they ought to be.

Note that the Red Sox's 3rd order record is also 52-36. Its the Rays that could be trouble; they "should be" 56-33, not 48-41.

29 flycaster   ~  Jul 14, 2009 1:33 pm

[16] I believe the yanks have 3 more with the Angels at Los Angeles (Anaheim? California?) in late September. If they are in a close playoff race at that time, they may indeed have to beat those "Big Boys"...

30 The Hawk   ~  Jul 14, 2009 3:56 pm

[21] Ha, well there's some gray area between firing people and sizing up how team looks thus far.

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