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THE PRIDE AND THE
OVER THE past few years books about the New York Yankees have been sprouting up more often than George Steinbrenner overpays for a free agent. Five members of the current Yankees team have written books while wearing pinstripes, and works about Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Mickey Mantle continue to come out with numbing regularity. Then there's the whole spate of books on the Yankees-- Red Sox rivalry that have hit the bookstores since Boston won the World Series in 2004.
A crop of new hardcovers can now be added to the lineup. The offering that will create the most fuss is the Gary Sheffield memoir, Inside Power, a fast and engaging read in which the All-Star rightfielder criticizes the Yankees for how they treated him during his tumultuous three-year stint in the Bronx. Sheffield, who was traded to the Detroit Tigers in the off-season, has led a nomadic career, having hit 455 home runs while playing for seven teams, and his book gives you a good sense of why so many of those marriages ended sourly. Signed by the Brewers out of high school, Sheffield was 21 when he faced his first contract dispute in Milwaukee and learned "to treat this game the way [baseball owners] do." From that point on, he writes, he would continuously "ask myself the questions: How can I maximize my revenue? How can I increase my worth?"
While Sheffield riffs on issues from his name being linked to the BALCO steroids scandal ("I've never touched a strength-building steroid in my life") to racism in major league baseball ("It hurts my heart that few black men become franchise players.... White owners want white franchise players"), Sheffield saves some of his best cuts for the Yankees' organization. He describes Steinbrenner and general manager Brian Cashman as "cold-blooded" and manager Joe Torre as "an owner's manager, not a player's manager" and "a company man." Sheffield says the skipper disrespected him from the first day he arrived in New York, in 2004, because Torre was in favor of the team acquiring Vladimir Guerrero, another free-agent outfielder, instead. Sheffield blasts Torre's decision making, including the manager's call in Game 5 of last year's Division Series against the Tigers to bat Alex Rodriguez eighth in the order, a move that, according to Sheffield, "sent a signal to Detroit that we were reeling and unsteady." He adds, "Motivation isn't Torre's greatest skill."
One member of the Yankees that Sheffield spares is Hideki Matsui, an international star who remains something of an enigma. The laconic Japanese outfielder rarely agreed to one-on-one interviews in his native country, and since coming to the U.S. to play with the Yankees in 2003 he has been just as elusive. His first authorized biography, Hideki Matsui: Sportsmanship, Modesty, and the Art of the Home Run, written by celebrated Japanese fiction writer Shizuka Ijuin, fails to provide much insight into the 32-year-old leftfielder even though the author and the subject are friends. When Matsui was playing for the Yomuiri Giants, he granted the novelist a rare interview because he admired Ijuin's writing, and the relationship developed from there. Ijuin's homage to Godzilla is disappointingly distant and too reverential to provide any illumination. While he does provide rich detail on Matsui's humble upbringing in the coastal city of Kanazawa, Ijuin mostly writes like a fan observing from afar. The author makes several references to meeting up with Matsui for late dinners after games in Tokyo and New York; too bad he rarely reveals what they talked about.
New York Post baseball writer Michael Morrissey, by contrast, is good with the small stuff in The Pride and the Pressure: A Season Inside the New York Yankee Fishbowl. Thanks to Morrissey's impressive access to the Yankees' front office, coaching staff and players, his book will make an interesting read for true Yankees fans, offering colorful sketches of the clubhouse personalities, from eccentric centerfielder Johnny Damon, who in his first season as a Yankee encouraged teammates to go "free-balling" (sans jock) during games in an act of solidarity, to tightly wound third baseman Alex Rodriguez, painted as a lone ranger in the locker room. In the end, however, the book falls flat because the Yankees' 2006 season, which came to a quiet end in Detroit in the first round of the postseason, was a mostly forgettable affair. But, of course, for the Yankees and those who write about them, there's always next year.
"BASEBALL IS still baseball," Buck O'Neil once said to a TV reporter who swore the game was better back when. Even as he made his legacy stumping for greater recognition of the bygone Negro leagues, O'Neil, who died last October at 94, lived equally in the present—as quick to extol the virtues of Roger Clemens as to reminisce about Satchel Paige. He was wont to compare the bat-on-ball sounds produced by Babe Ruth, Josh Gibson and Bo Jackson, all of which he had heard firsthand.