March 2, 2009


Trust: Joe Torre’s “The Yankee Years.” (Roger Angell, March 9, 2009 , The New Yorker)

Verducci has range and ease; he’s a shortstop on the page. He gets us into the visiting-team clubhouse before the sixth game of the Yankees-Red Sox American League championship in 2004 (the Red Sox have come back from three games down), where Kevin Millar, ringleader of “the Idiots,” as the hilariously loose team is known, tells manager Terry Francona that the Sox will not be taking practice that night, in order to avoid “Yankeeography crap” up on the stadium’s video board. “Whatever you guys want,” Francona says. Millar then tours the clubhouse, doling out slugs to his teammates from a bottle of Jack Daniel’s he’s come upon, and the Sox go out and nail the game.

In his chapter on steroids, Verducci deposes Rick Helling, a young pitcher and player representative with the Texas Rangers in 1998, who back then urgently told the executive board of the Players Association that steroid use was rampant in the sport and would ultimately corrupt it—to absolutely no avail. Verducci also admires the generation of young G.M.s like the Red Sox’ Theo Epstein and the Indians’ Mark Shapiro, who have led the post-“Moneyball” revolution in scouting and player appraisal and game tactics which has overturned the pastime.

Near the end of the book, when a distracting cloud of Lake Erie midges envelops the rookie Yankee pitcher Joba Chamberlain on the mound in Cleveland in October, 2007, causing the two wild pitches that take away the Yanks’ quavering lead, Verducci slips in some entomology, then embarks on an inspired digression about the Indians’ seven-year process of finding and signing (at seventeen) and patiently developing a young Dominican right-hander named Fausto Carmona. Now twenty-three, and a nineteen-game winner, Carmona stands on the mound in the ninth in this same game after eight innings’ work, ignoring midges while he faces Alex Rodriguez, with two out, a Yankee base runner on second, and the game tied, and strikes him out on a power sinker. The Yankees lose, and two games later Torre’s career in the Bronx is over.

Yankee fans love to look back on the good stuff and keep it on permanent replay, but there’s never enough of it, because these losing nights, the killers, keep coming back and take over in our minds. In the book, it’s a rush when you reach those latter-nineties or millennial late-inning Yankee explosions and Stadium-shaking endings, like the successive-night home runs against the same pitcher, Diamondback closer Byung-Hyun Kim, in the fourth and fifth games of the World Series of 2001. Two years along, Aaron Boone eliminates the Red Sox once again in the Championship Series, with his eleventh-inning lead-off homer into the lower left-field stands. Hold it right there—only you can’t. The two biggest games in the book by far are Yankee defeats: the D-backs’ seventh-game World Series effort in 2001, when Arizona rallies with a pair of ninth-inning runs against the untouchable Mariano Rivera to win their first and only championship; and the Red Sox’ tying rally (again against Mo) in the ninth inning of that 2004 A.L.C.S. fourth game—they’ve trailed in this series, remember, three games to none, and face elimination here—and then the twelfth-inning, two-run home run by David Ortiz that wins the game and begins the tectonic shift away from the Bronx and toward Boston. [...]

Torre’s instinctive fairness came from his firsthand knowledge of the inexorable built-in swoops and lurches of baseball fortune. He never turned on one of his players in front of the media, and if he shows a bit more candor in the book, he remains a class act, as before. In the mortuary silence of the Yankee clubhouse after the team had lost the seventh game of the 2004 Championship playoff to the Red Sox, completing the worst collapse in post-season history, Torre made a telephone call to convey his congratulations to the Sox’ manager, Terry Francona, in the other clubhouse, then asked to speak to the pitcher Tim Wakefield, who had been the victim of Aaron Boone’s eleventh-inning series-ending walk-off home run in this park just a year before. “I’ll never forget that phone call,” Wakefield said.

Even before the midway point of “The Yankee Years,” a glow of accomplishment and memory seems to accumulate around the 1996 and 1998-2000 Championship team players who made their mark and, it turned out, could not be replicated—Paul O’Neill, Chuck Knoblauch, Tino Martinez, Scott Brosius, Bernie Williams. In saga and perhaps in reality, these were selfless grinders, old-fashioned types who persisted stubbornly in every game, moved up a runner, hit the ball to the right part of the field, even for an out, until the game was somehow won, while their successors fail because they don’t know or care enough about the concept. Torre says as much when O’Neill and Martinez and Brosius and Knoblauch take their leave after the 2001 season.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at March 2, 2009 3:53 PM
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