The story behind The Yankee Years
The book frames the 1996-2007 Yankees around baseball in that era
David Cone and Mike Mussina were two key clubhouse figures in that period
The New York tabloids misrepresented the book's "A-Fraud" reference
SI.com's Alex Belth spoke with Sports Illustrated senior writer Tom Verducci this week about his new book, The Yankee Years, co-authored with Los Angeles Dodgers manager Joe Torre. The book is published by Doubleday and will be officially released on Tuesday.
SI.com: There has been some initial confusion over the authorship of this book. Unlike your previous collaboration with Joe Torre, Chasing the Dream, written after the 1996 season, this is not a traditional as-told-to biography. Instead, despite Torre's top billing, this is really a narrative you've written about the Torre years that includes a great deal of input from Torre. Why did you decide to use this approach?
Verducci: The book frames the 1996-2007 Yankees around the macro issues and seismic changes in the game and business of baseball in that era, one of the most dynamic eras of change in the sport's history. The Steroid Era, expansion, contraction plans, competitive balance issues, the rise of information and statistical analysis, the change in ownership of the Boston Red Sox, biomechanics as the next possible market inefficiency ... those and other issues all provide important context to the book. It's an historical account. I dare say the first-person voice of Joe Torre would have no authenticity with the reader if the former manager of the Yankees is reporting in detail on how enhanced revenue sharing helped competitive balance or how the Red Sox closed the competitive gap on his team with state-of-the art statistical analysis. At the same time, Torre's insight from a front-row-center seat to this Yankee history is above and beyond the many others interviewed. It is analogous to the collaboration package of Tony La Russa and Buzz Bissinger for 3 Nights in August, only in a slightly different wrapper.
SI.com: As I was reading the book, I was reminded of Willie's Time, by Charles Einstein, which was ostensibly about Willie Mays but more about American culture at large during his career. In your book you don't use Torre's time with the Yankees as a jumping-off point to talk about the popular culture but you do use it as the foundation to discuss baseball culture during the Steroid Era. The book's ambitions are so much bigger than just a routine tell-all. How important was it to create a larger context for the narrative?
Verducci: The larger context was enormously important toward constructing a book that stands as an historical document of the era. I sensed the frustration of the Yankees and, in some cases, the media that cover them, about why the Yankees were no longer winning world titles, but they weren't willing or able to see how much baseball changed in that time. I would guess when the Yankees won world championships probably only five or six other clubs had true shots at winning the title. In recent years I would guess that number of legitimate world championship contenders has doubled or tripled. The path is much more rigorous, and I wanted to explore the reasons why that changed.
SI.com: One of the themes that you explore is how the Yankees' dominance from 1996 through 2001 forced the competition to become smarter, more resourceful. Naturally, teams like the A's and Indians really had to be smart and lucky, but the Red Sox, on almost every level, improved on the Yankee model when the John Henry group took over. Can you talk about how the Yankees seemed to lose their way in terms of making trades and signings while the Red Sox got smarter, bolder and more efficient?
Verducci: The Red Sox are the greatest example of why I believe the currency of intellect became the coin of the realm in the revenue-sharing era. I don't want to discount the financial advantages they have over most every team but the Yankees. But brains and money make for a powerful combination. And the Red Sox found ways on the business side to generate more money and on the player personnel side to find, acquire and develop better players more efficiently. Theo Epstein captured the mission statement well under the ownership of John Henry: be bold and don't worry about looking bad. The Red Sox had the advantage of being the challenger; new ideas do not incubate in a culture of comfort. The Yankees, meanwhile, were burdened with the expectation of winning the World Series every year. They should have been rethinking their player development approach, for instance, but could not for a second take their eye off the ultimate prize.
SI.com: For all the talk about character, the Yankee teams of '02-04 won more regular-season games than in the preceding years. Was it just a matter of luck -- Billy Beane's "crapshoot" -- that explains why the Yankees lost in the first round in '02, the World Series in '03 and collapsed in the '04 ALCS?
Verducci: Certainly luck played a major role. The Yankees out-hit and out pitched the Marlins in the 2003 World Series but still lost in six games. But I think what also was at work was the growing competition in baseball. Beane and Mike Mussina talk about this. The Yankees helped raise the competition because they were so good. Beane, in fact, compared those championship-winning Yankees teams to the UCLA basketball dynasty -- so good as to make moot his crapshoot theory about the playoffs. And then the competition improved because of systematic and philosophical changes across the industry (increased revenue sharing, statistical analysis, ownership changes, etc.). I believe, for instance, these days teams that miss the playoffs are better than, say, the Rangers teams the Yankees were sweeping just about every year in the Division Series. So the closer the competitive gap is narrowed, the more "luck" will come into play. And more specifically, the Red Sox leveraged their cutting edge smarts on player evaluation to acquire on the cheap many of the players who pushed them past the Yankees in 2004 (Ortiz, Millar, Mueller, etc.)