The story behind The Yankee Years (cont.)
SI.com: Pavano and Weaver were also guys who didn't have a mentality to play in New York. What do you think it is about certain players, no matter how talented, like Randy Johnson, for example, that spooks them in the spotlight?
Verducci: New York is relentless. You are held accountable every single day, every at-bat, every pitch. I don't think people understand the tremendous emotional, mental tax that imposes upon a player over seven or eight months. I remember asking Torre in 2007 if he worried that his team was old, and he said, "Not old. Worn down." What wears you down further in New York is what happened to the Yankees in recent years: slow starts that give a team far too much urgency for too long. It became September in June every year.
As a national baseball writer, I'm fortunate enough to be around other teams, cities and clubhouse cultures. Most other places allow breathing room for players. One bad day is a note, not a headline, for instance. The everyday feel of playing in New York is nonstop intensity and accountability. Obviously, not every player is going to be comfortable in that environment. Players who tend to be more introverted, for instance, are more likely to be uncomfortable in that environment.
SI.com: It's often been said that Torre was the right man at the right time for the Yankees. He had a core group of players early on who policed themselves. I thought it was amusing that even though he made mistakes on the field, as a rookie, Jeter didn't allow the veterans an opportunity to razz him. Can you talk about his strong, but quiet leadership?
Verducci: I can't think of a player in baseball who is more universally respected within the game than Jeter. And all of the best attributes that make it so -- his desire to win above all else, his respect for people, his unfailing optimism and his comfort and ease in the most pressurized spots -- were all there from Day 1 with this guy. He was a born leader because others take their cues from how he acts, less so from what he says. You take those attributes and then add the influence of Tim Raines, his friend who lockered near him, and you had a young player with a veteran's presence and understanding of how to be a professional. That is a highly unusual combination. As Cone said, that the Yankees would look to a rookie to lead them in big spots was a most unusual arrangement.
SI.com: Do you think Torre failed in his ability to handle more high-maintenance players like Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, and in a sense Jason Giambi, who wasn't self-motivated like the players that came before him?
Verducci: I think "failed" is not the right word. He was certainly challenged in a different way. Rodriguez won two MVPs and Johnson won 34 games in two seasons under Torre, and Torre may have spent more time, directly or indirectly, trying to make them comfortable and productive in New York than any other players. Giambi is a different story. He had to subvert his frat-boy personality a little bit in the Jeter clubhouse (though they got along well), but the biggest thing was that he never remained healthy enough long enough to become the fixture that he could have been in that time. All three guys you mentioned required maintenance, but the maintenance of Giambi was physical. But I do agree that players such as those really challenged Torre and the entire staff. Larry Bowa, especially with Rodriguez, was a very key element in meeting those challenges.
SI.com: It's no surprise that the stuff about Alex Rodriguez made the tabloids in New York. The tabloids threw out the "A Fraud" line and many readers first assumed that Torre called Rodriguez by that name. Immediately, Johnny Damon and Andy Pettitte claimed not to know about the term, though Larry Bowa did admit that it was something said in jest. But it was a specific reference to Rodriguez during his first year with the team. Do you think that in spite of his ego Rodriguez is more comfortable in the Yankee locker room these days?
Verducci: Yes, definitely so, and it started two years ago. It was funny to see the tabloids misrepresent the "A-Fraud" reference and still then chase down Pettitte and Damon about it; the term appears in the book in a very specifically defined manner: only in regard to guys in the clubhouse (not Torre) noticing that Alex was trying too hard to fit in, only in 2004, his first season in New York. Pettitte was playing in Houston and Damon in Boston that year! I do think Alex is far more comfortable in the clubhouse and in New York now. He worries far less about what is said and written about him than when he first appeared on the scene. It's hard for anyone to make that transition, but it was especially hard for Alex because he is so smart, so aware, so curious and such a deep fan of the game. He has a more sensitive radar than most players, and the chatter in New York is relentless. I think he has learned to tone down the sensitivity of that radar to reduce potential distractions.
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