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Twelve straight playoff appearances. Six American League pennants. Four World Series titles. This is the definitive story of a dynasty: the Yankee years
When Joe Torre took over as manager of the New York Yankees in 1996, the most storied franchise in sports had not won a World Series title in eighteen years. The famously tough and mercurial owner, George Steinbrenner, had fired seventeen managers during that span. Torre’s appointment was greeted with Bronx cheers from the notoriously brutal New York media, who cited his record as the player and manager who had been in the most Major League games without appearing in a World Series
Twelve tumultuous and triumphant years later, Torre left the team as the most beloved and successful manager in the game. In an era of multimillionaire free agents, fractured clubhouses, revenue-sharing, and off-the-field scandals, Torre forged a team ethos that united his players and made the Yankees, once again, the greatest team in sports. He won over the media with his honesty and class, and was beloved by the fans.
But it wasn’t easy.
Here, for the first time, Joe Torre and Tom Verducci take us inside the dugout, the
clubhouse, and the front office in a revelatory narrative that shows what it really took to keep the Yankees on top of the baseball world. The high-priced ace who broke down in tears and refused to go back to the mound in the middle of a game. Constant meddling from Yankee executives, many of whom were jealous of Torre’s popularity. The tension that developed between the old guard and the free agents brought in by management. The impact of revenue-sharing and new scouting techniques, which allowed other teams to challenge the Yankees’ dominance. The players who couldn’t resist the after-hours temptations of the Big Apple. The joys of managing Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, and the challenges of managing Alex Rodriguez and Jason Giambi. Torre’s last year, when constant ultimatums from the front office, devastating injuries, and a freak cloud of bugs on a warm September night in Cleveland forced him from a job he loved.
Through it all, Torre kept his calm, kept his players’ respect, and kept winning.
And, of course, The Yankee Years chronicles the amazing stories on the diamond. The stirring comeback in the 1996 World Series against the heavily favored Braves. The wonder of 1998, when Torre led the Yanks to the most wins in Major League history. The draining and emotional drama of the 2001 World Series. The incredible twists and turns of the epic Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series against the Red Sox, in which two teams who truly despised each other battled pitch by pitch until the stunning extra-inning home run.
Here is a sweeping narrative of Major League Baseball in the Yankee era, a book both grand in its scope and fascinating in its details.
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Joe Torre played for the Braves, the Cardinals, and the Mets before managing all three teams. From 1996 to 2007, Torre managed the New York Yankees. He is currently the manager for the Los Angeles Dodgers.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Joe Torre was the fourth choice. The veteran manager was out of work in October of 1995, four months removed from the third firing of his managerial career, when an old friend from his days with the Mets, Arthur Richman, a public relations official and special adviser to Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, called him with a question. “Are you interested in managing the Yankees?” Torre made his interest known without hesitation. “Hell, yeah,” he said. Only 10 days earlier, Torre had interviewed for the general manager’s job with the Yankees, but he had no interest in such an aggravation-filled job at its $350,000 salary, a $150,000 cut from what he had been earning as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals before they fired him in June. His brother Frank Torre did not think managing the Yankees was worth the hassle, either. After all, Steinbrenner had changed managers 21 times in his 23 seasons of ownership, adding Buck Showalter to the bloody casualty list by running him out of town after Showalter refused to acquiesce to a shakeup of his coaching staff. It didn’t matter to Steinbrenner that the Yankees reached the playoffs for the first time in 14 years, even if it was as the first American League wild card team in a strike-shortened season. Showalter’s crimes in Steinbrenner’s book were blowing a two games to one lead in the best-of-five Division Series against the Seattle Mariners, and resisting the coaching changes. “Why do you want this job?” Frank Torre asked his brother. “It’s a no-lose situation for me,” Joe replied. “I need to find out if I can do this or not.” Richman also had recommended to Steinbrenner three managers with higher profiles and greater success than Torre: Sparky Anderson, Tony LaRussa and Davey Johnson. None of those choices panned out. Anderson retired, LaRussa took the managing job in St. Louis and Johnson, returning to his ballplaying roots, took the job in Baltimore. LaRussa and Johnson received far more lucrative contracts than what Steinbrenner wanted to pay his next manager. “I’ve got to admit, I was the last choice,” Torre said. “It didn’t hurt my feelings, because it was an opportunity to work and find out if I can really manage. I certainly was going to have the lumber.”
On Wednesday, November 1, Bob Watson, in his ninth day on the job as general manager after replacing Gene Michael, called Torre while Torre was driving to a golf course in Cincinnati. Watson summoned him to an interview in Tampa, Florida. That evening, Torre met with Steinbrenner, Watson, Michael, assistant general manager Brian Cashman and Joe Molloy, Steinbrenner’s son-in-law and a partner with the team. The next morning, Torre was introduced as the manager of the Yankees at a news conference in the Stadium Club of Yankee Stadium, standing in the same spot where Showalter had stood twelve months earlier as the 1994 AL Manager of the Year.
It was an inauspicious hiring in most every way. Steinbrenner did not bother to attend the introductory event of his new manager. The press grilled Torre. Not only had Torre been fired three times, but also he was 55 years old and brought with him a losing record (894-1,003), not one postseason series victory, and the ignominy of having spent more games over a lifetime of playing and managing without ever getting to the World Series than any other man in history. Torre was a highly accomplished player, even a star player, for 18 seasons with the Braves, Cardinals and Mets. He was named to nine All-Star teams and won one Most Valuable Player Award, with the Cardinals in 1971.When he played his last game in 1977,Torre was one of only 29 players in baseball history to have amassed more than 2,300 hits and an OPS+ of 128 (a measurement of combined on-base and slugging percentages adjusted for league averages and ballpark effects, thus making era-to-era comparisons more equitable). His career profile, however, was dimmed by never having played in the postseason.
Torre’s baseball acumen and leadership skills were so highly regarded that the Mets named him a player/manager at age 36 during the 1977 season. He ceased playing that same year, the first of his five years managing awful Mets teams. When the Mets fired him after the 1981 season, the Braves, owned by Ted Turner, quickly snapped him up. Torre immediately led the Braves to their first division title in 13 years. He lasted only two more seasons with Turner’s Braves. Torre spent almost six years out of baseball, serving as a broadcaster with the California Angels, until the Cardinals hired him to replace the popular Whitey Herzog in 1990. Those five seasons were the only seasons in which Torre did not play or manage in the major leagues since he broke in as a 20-year-old catcher in 1960 with the Milwaukee Braves, a team that also included Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews and Warren Spahn and Joe’s brother Frank.
One of Torre’s great strengths as a manager was that he understood what it was like to both star and struggle at the major league level. For instance, he hit .363 when he won the MVP Award in 1971, and 74 points lower the very next year. “And I tried just as hard both years,” he said. One day in 1975 with the Mets, Torre became the first player in National League history to ground into four double plays, each of them following a single by second baseman Felix Millan. He reacted to such infamy with humor. “I’d like to thank Felix Millan for making all of this possible,” he said.
At his introductory news conference, Torre displayed his cool demeanor and ease in front of a hostile media crowd. He answered questions with humor and optimism, and did not hesitate to talk about his lifetime goal of winning the World Series, something the Yankees had not done in 17 years, the longest drought for the franchise since it won its first in 1921. He knew Steinbrenner had grown restless.
“When you get married, do you think you’re always going to be smiling?” Torre said at the news conference. “I try to think of the potential for good things happening. That’s the World Series. I know here we’ll have the ability to improve the team . . . To have that opportunity is worth all the negative sides.”
All in all, Torre was not warmly received as the replacement for a popular young manager Steinbrenner had chased off after a playoff season. He was an admitted last choice for the job, and soon heard even after his hiring that Steinbrenner was working back channels to see if he could bring Showalter back. Critics regarded Torre as a recycled commodity without portfolio. Torre was in Cincinnati with in-laws on the day after his news conference when a friend from New York called him up.
“Uh, have you seen the back page of the Daily News?”
The New York Daily News welcomed the hiring of Torre with a huge headline that said, “CLUELESS JOE.” The subhead read, “Torre Has No Idea What He’s Getting Himself Into.” It referenced a column written by Ian O’Connor in which O’Connor said that Torre “came across as naïve at best, desperate at worst.” Wrote O’Connor, “It’s always a sad occasion when man becomes muppet.” A last choice, a placeholder for Showalter, a man without a clue, a muppet . . . this is how Torre was welcomed as the new manager of the New York Yankees. None of it bothered him.
“It didn’t matter to me,” Torre said. “I was so tickled to have the opportunity that none of it mattered. I was a little nervous starting out with it. Every time you get fired there is always something you think you can do better. I started thinking, maybe I have to do this different or that different. And then one day before spring training began, I was thumbing through a book by Bill Parcells, the football coach. He said something like, ‘If you believe in something, stay with it.’ And that was enough for me.”
Under Torre’s recommendation, with input from Torre’s new bench coach, Don Zimmer,Watson’s first major player move was to acquire a strong defensive catcher to replace Mike Stanley, who was popular with Yankees fans for his hitting but was never known for his defense. On November 20, Watson traded relief pitcher Mike DeJean to the Colorado Rockies for Joe Girardi. It was the start of a frantic, sometimes curious 40-day period in which Watson, with assistance from Michael and, of course, Steinbrenner, assembled nearly a third of the 1996 roster, getting Girardi, first baseman Tino Martinez, reliever Jeff Nelson and outfielder Tim Raines in shrewd trades, signing second baseman Mariano Duncan and pitcher Kenny Rogers as free agents, and re-signing third baseman Wade Boggs and David Cone, their own free agent.
Actually, Cone’s signing had less to do with Watson but instead illustrated the sheer force and will Steinbrenner exerted over the baseball operations of the Yankees, who were the richest club in baseball but had yet to grow into the financial behemoth that would put them so far ahead of the 29 other franchises. In 1995, Steinbrenner spent $58.1 million on payroll, the most in baseball, but a somewhat reasonable 19 percent more than the second-biggest spender, the Baltimore Orioles. The 1996 Yankees would draw 2.2 million fans to Yankee Stadium, ranking them seventh among the 14 American League teams. Cone was set to re-sign with the Yankees until Watson called his agent, Steve Fehr, to suddenly reduce the terms of the deal. An angered Cone immediately entered into negotiations with the Orioles, negotiations that moved so quickly the Orioles began internal plans for an afternoon news conference to announce his signing. One small hangup remained, however. “I probably would have signed if it wasn’t for those guys in the front office haggling over deferred money at zero percent interest,” Cone said. “I’m telling you, when I talked to my financial guys they said it may be a couple hundred grand they were haggling over at that point. Not to piss on a couple hundred grand, but in the grand scope of things, a couple hundred grand shouldn’t hold things up.” While the Orioles were holding up the deal, Steinbrenner called Fehr from a pay phone at a hospital, where he was visiting an ill friend. He asked Fehr to put Cone on the line.
“I had been with the Yankees only since the middle of ’95,” Cone said, “and hadn’t had much workings with George. I just heard stories about how tough he was to deal with. He told me,‘We need you.We want you.’ He said all the right things and swayed me right back, because I was right on the fence. He said, ‘Everything we offered you is back on the table.’ He apologized, called it a misunderstanding. He kind of threw Bob Watson under the bus a little bit. He blamed him, which I think was Bob just doing his job. But my heart was in New York. I had an apartment in New York. It’s what I wanted.”
Cone agreed to a three-year contract worth $19.5 million. Steinbrenner completed the deal with a vision for the future.
“We want you not just for this deal,” Steinbrenner told Cone, “but for the rest of your career. Before your career is over with the Yankees, you’ll be pitching in a new ballpark on the West Side of Manhattan and I hope we’re drawing three million people a year.”
Even Steinbrenner had no idea just how big a brand the Yankees would become.
That Steinbrenner could cut a huge free-agent deal from a hospital pay phone at a moment’s notice spoke to his impact on the entire organizational culture. If he wanted something done, it was done. There was no haggling over deferred money with zero interest. Steinbrenner was himself one of the best closers in baseball, especially when motivated by intense criticism that came about because of the breakup with Showalter, as well as whirlwind changes that swept out popular Yankees such as Stanley, Randy Velarde and Don Mattingly, who faded into retirement. Steinbrenner’s last-minute call from the pay phone, stealing Cone out from under the Orioles, the Yankees’ main competition in the AL East, was a key moment in the building of a dynasty. Cone would become the most respected leader of the Yankees’ four world championship teams under Torre. Cone was the glue, if not the very spirit, of the dynasty. In addition to being a ferocious competitor, Cone was a skilled, willful tactician in handling the New York media. His rapport with the media allowed more quiet types, such as Bernie Williams and Paul O’Neill, the best hitters on the team, to play free of the media responsibilities that typically fall to front-line everyday players in New York.
“I kind of fell into that role in my career,” Cone said, “by watching Keith Hernandez and some of the Mets the way they did it. I remember watching Frank Cashen, the Mets general manager, talking in the dugout to reporters and going, ‘On background guys . . .’ and then talking on the record. You watched how they handled it and you could develop a little closer relationship with the writers. Those were the days when you could go out and have a beer with the writers after a game. It was a different animal.
“I think I was at least somebody my teammates with the Yankees knew wasn’t doing it for self-promoting purposes.That’s what I was always worried about: would it come across as self-promoting? That was a balancing act. I think going through the 1994—95 strike and being a de facto spokesman on the players’ side really helped a lot. I was trying to flip everything, reverse everything, and trying to be a stand-up guy. And going through the strike and finding myself on the Yankees the year after the strike, I knew all the writers at that point. I just kind of fell into it.”
On the first day of the 1996 spring training camp, Torre gathered his team for a meeting. Many of the players didn’t know him and he didn’t know many of the players. He looked around the room. Among the group were the veterans new to the team, such as Raines, Martinez, Nelson, Girardi, Duncan and Rogers; a 21-yearold rookie shortstop named Derek Jeter; returning outfielders Bernie Williams and Paul O’Neill, a guy people in the front office had warned him had a “selfish” streak; veteran pitchers Cone, Jimmy Key and John Wetteland; and young pitchers Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera. Torre’s coaches were Zimmer, Mel Stottlemyre, Willie Randolph, Chris Chambliss, Tony Cloninger and Jose Cardenal.
“All of my coaches have been to the World Series,” Torre told his team. “That’s what I want. But I don’t want to win just one. I want to win three of them in a row. I want to establish something here that’s special. I don’t want to sacrifice principles and players to do it one time. I want to establish a foundation to be the kind of ballclub that is going to be able to repeat.”
Dick Williams, the former big league manager who was working with the Yankees as a special adviser, pulled Torre aside after the meeting and told him,“That was a hell of a meeting, one of the best I’ve ever seen.”
Said Cone, “I remember right off the bat that calming influence that he had, the way he conducted team meetings, the way he talked to people. You could sense that he was going to be a calming influence. He had a lot of experience. There was still a lot of speculation at the beginning of spring training about Showalter, a lot of talk about George trying to bring him back. Maybe they were going to bump Joe upstairs and bring Showalter back. I remember the first couple of meetings showed how even-keeled and level he was.”
The Yankees were getting Torre at the perfect time in his life. It wasn’t just that his three managerial firings made him the made-to-order unflappable foil to Steinbrenner. “What’s the worst that can happen? I get fired again?” he would tell reporters. The timing was just right also because in between his hiring and the start of camp Torre unburdened himself of a dark family secret he had been carrying ever since he was a ...
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