May 2, 2005


Epilogue: 'The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty' (Buster Olney, 5/02/05, ESPN)

Editor's note: "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," published by Harper Collins, is now available in paperback and can be ordered by clicking here. The following is an excerpt from the book's new epilogue, which picks up the story following the Yankees' 3-2 loss to the Diamondbacks in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, the last game played in pinstripes for Paul O'Neill, Scott Brosius and Chuck Knoblauch. [...]

For a decade, George Steinbrenner had grudgingly deferred to some of his high-ranking baseball advisors – Gene Michael, Brian Cashman, Joe Torre, Mark Newman – when major decisions were considered. But some of his executives thought the loss to the Diamondbacks damaged their credibility in the owner's eyes. Steinbrenner took the reins back, veering onto his own erratic course, following his impetuous instincts. "You have no idea, day to day, what he's going to do," said one club official in 2003.

David Wells was a free agent after the 2001 season, and Yankees executives had warned Steinbrenner about the downside of re-signing him – he was high maintenance, he had a bad back, and there was the perpetual question of his conditioning. With his talks with the Yankees halted after cursory conversations, Wells negotiated a handshake deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks; the plan was to finalize the contract once Wells took a physical examination.

But Steinbrenner phoned Wells, met him for lunch, and without consulting his executives a second time, offered him a contract. Wells made the deal and went on to pitch well in 2002, going 19-7 – a success that encouraged Steinbrenner to make more of the major decisions alone. The loss to the Diamondbacks seemed to make Steinbrenner even more desperate for championships, and he reverted to his old habits. In the early months of the 2002 season, the Toronto Blue Jays were desperate to dump outfielder Raul Mondesi and the $24 million that remained on his contract, but could find no takers. Even in a sport generously populated by players who partied extensively and slept very little, Mondesi was considered a wild man, staying out all night; teammates sometimes wondered if he slept at all before playing in day games. Mondesi had some productive seasons early in his career, hitting 33 homers and driving in 99 runs in 1999. But scouts thought his 24-hour schedule and unrestrained lifestyle wore on his body, which thickened noticeably as he neared his 30th birthday. Now, in the summer of 2002, his lack of discipline seemed to have taken its toll.

Mondesi had none of the subtle qualities that the Yankees had valued during the dynasty. He was a free-swinging hitter, rather than a contact hitter, and he seemed utterly incapable of making adjustments from pitch to pitch; opposing pitchers repeatedly threw him sliders low and away, out of the strike zone, and he repeatedly swung aggressively at them, rather than trying to punch the ball to right field.

His batting average was barely .200 for Toronto in June, when a series of injuries hit the Yankees' outfielders. Enrique Wilson, a utility infielder, started in right field against the Mets June 29, on national television, and misplayed a fly ball in the second inning, with Steinbrenner watching from his private suite. The owner raged, summoned his executives, and demanded action.

About four hours after Wilson's gaffe, Toronto general manager J. P. Ricciardi was driving on the Massachusetts Turnpike when his cell phone rang; it was Paul Godfrey, the president of the Blue Jays. "Are you sitting down?" Godfrey asked Ricciardi. "Guess who the Yankees want." Mondesi. Ricciardi almost veered off the road.

Instead the Yankees have.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 2, 2005 1:54 PM

As I grew up I had the Yankees shoved down my throat consistently by two uncles. Watching the wheels come off these past few years has been most enjoyable, and my uncles have been uncharacteristically silent...

God Bless Big Stein!

Posted by: Bartman at May 2, 2005 2:45 PM

It will be fun to see if Mondesi will turn out to be another succesful Bobby Cox reclamation project.

Posted by: Dan at May 2, 2005 2:59 PM

George is merely repeating his immediate gratification gaffes he committed in the late 1970s and early 1980s in an effort to keep the Yankees' success going. In both case, the original team's aging starts were propped up with more aging stars and underachieving free agent signings and spur-of-the-moment trades, to the point of diminishing returns. I'm surprised after this weekend, Mike Stanton isn't gone from the club already, but I'm sure if things go wrong down for the Yanks in their games down in Tampa, we'll be seeing an explosion from Steinbrenner any day now.

Posted by: John at May 2, 2005 3:47 PM

How many games did they win last year?

For every other team last year would be a massive success, with a disappointing end. See Cubs, 2003.

For the Yanks, its just another excuse for journalists and Yankee haters to trot out the same old Yankee collapse stories that have becom standard since about 2000.

As long as Cashman and Torre are around, this Yankee fan isn't worried.

If they go, then its time to start reliving the 80s.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at May 2, 2005 9:21 PM

I'm a confirmed member of the Damn-Yankee Church. But the team isn't really that bad...yet. Their almost even run differential indicates they "should" be around .500. It wouldn't amaze me to see them at breakeven before too long. What happens next?

The elephant in the room, of course, is their age. This club could be subtitled Baseball Retirement Home. When a roster gets this much age on it, sudden decline is all too possible.

The honchos seem aware of the problem. Bernie is getting benched and some young talent is getting called up. If the oldsters don't fall apart completely, the team could contend.

Posted by: Casey Abell at May 3, 2005 11:33 AM