Many of us weren’t old enough to watch the great Mickey Mantle crush home runs from both sides of the plate during the ’50s and ’60s. Nor were most of us old enough to see DiMaggio lead the Yankees to an unbelievable nine championships between 1936 and 1951. And, unless you’re really lucky, you didn’t see the Babe smack sixty dingers in 1927, amidst one of his four championship seasons with the Bronx Bombers. For most of us, those great feats of the past are not personal memories. They are, rather, a legacy that we have been handed down by Yankees fans of the past.
The Torre teams of the late 1990s, for so many of us, represent our great Yankees. Those are the teams that we watched raise the World Series trophy time and time again. Those are the teams that we celebrated, that we idolized, and that we will always remember with a special reverence. Those were our Yankees. They were, as we well know, Joe Torre’s Yankees too. With the help of the excellent Tom Verducci, Torre gives us an inside look at those outstanding teams in his 2009 book, The Yankee Years.
The Wrong Man for the Job
Torre and Verducci open The Yankee Years by discussing a simple fact: Joe was not the person that New Yorkers wanted at the helm following the end of the Buck Showalter era. When we look back on the success that Torre had in pinstripes, we forget that he once had a troubling baseball résumé. As a player, Torre was a multi-time All-Star and a National League MVP. Yet he had never appeared in a World Series as either a player or as a manager. His previous stint in the Big Apple as the manager of the Mets had ended with his termination in the early ’80s.
The first pages of The Yankee Years explain how Torre fought to win Yankee leadership over to his side. Torre and Verducci discuss Joe’s connection with George Steinbrenner, an owner who was known for his lack of trust in previous Yankee skippers. Torre’s inner confidence and quiet positivity ended up proving to be an excellent match for the Boss’s fiery personality. Amazingly, Torre tamed Steinbrenner and earned the trust of the entire Yankee organization in the process.
The Good, the Bad, and the Midges
After discussing Torre’s early struggles with the front office and the media, the narrative rockets right into the baseball action. Torre and Verducci recall major moments from the ’96, ’98, ’99, and 2000 championship runs. They shine a spotlight on the way that the teams were built (starting pitching was critical to the Torre formula). They also comment on the all-or-nothing mentality that gave the team its competitive edge (David Cone looms large as a leader in the locker room).
The authors are quick to point out that the Torre Yankees won rings by playing as a team. Torre and Verducci frequently remind the reader that gaudy numbers and eye-popping individual statistics were not the secret sauce in the championship recipe. Instead, they see situational hitting and a commitment to executing the little things as the keys to the Yankees’ success.
Unfortunately, the second half of Torre’s tenure with the Yankees was not as successful as the first. Torre and Verducci detail the gradual transition from the late-90s dynasty to the disappointing campaigns of the 2000s. Joe’s insights regarding the evolution of the locker room and the impact of that evolution on the Yankees’ fortunes are eye-opening. A plague of annoying bugs in Cleveland, the authors note, certainly didn’t help things. This section of the book was far and away my favorite. It is here that Torre is at his most candid, and his thoughts on the Yankees’ decline are fascinating. Knowing where the 2000s Yankees fell short provides greater insight into what allowed them to succeed in Torre’s early years.
Torre on the Times
The Yankee Years is notable, not only for its coverage of the teams Torre managed, but also for its treatment of other interesting baseball topics. Torre and Verducci discuss the impact that analytics made on roster construction during the early 2000s. They discuss the role that newer, smarter approaches to baseball had in catapulting other organizations ahead of the Yankees. The authors also cover the rise in steroid usage and its general impact on Major League Baseball. As noted above, The Yankee Years also gives us a detailed look at Torre’s relationship with the Steinbrenner family.
Another particularly interesting aspect of the book is the authors’ treatment of Alex Rodriguez. There are some funny stories (one involving the lengths to which A-Rod would go to wear the same jeans as Derek Jeter), but the bulk of the Alex chapter addresses Rodriguez’s approach to the game and how his mentality was different than Torre’s. It is evident that Joe has a soft spot for Alex. Nevertheless, Torre does seem to heap higher praise on team-first players like Jeter, O’Neill, and Cone.
This is absolutely a book that I would recommend. The Yankee Years allows fans to go back in time and take a much closer look at one of the most important periods in Yankees history. The championships of the late 1990s cemented the Bronx Bombers as, not only the team of the decade, but also as the team of the century. It is an excellent read for anybody interested in the major Yankee personalities of the 1990s and 2000s. Derek Jeter, David Cone, George Steinbrenner, Brian Cashman, Roger Clemens and many others are excellently covered throughout the book. If you only read one book on the Torre dynasty, make it this one.
The Yankee Years is available in print, digital, and audible formats.
On December 13 we’ll continue our book review series with a look at Dan Joseph’s 2019 book, Last Ride of the Iron Horse: How Lou Gehrig Fought ALS to Play One Final Championship Season.