Behind The Birth of Yet Another Yankee Dynasty
by: John J. Buro | Managing Editor - NY Sports Day | Friday, April 28, 2006
Joel Sherman knows baseball. More specifically, he knows the New York Yankees. It’s this wealth of knowledge, which is imparted in “Birth of a Dynasty: Behind the Pinstripes with the 1996 Yankees” [Rodale Books, 312 pps, $24.95].
“Mike Vaccaro, my friend and colleague, and the lead general columnist at the New York Post, was writing ‘Emperors and Idiots’ [which chronicles the feud between the Yankees and Boston Red Sox],” Sherman said. “I had been in the business a while and was thinking about writing a book. So, he recommended that I meet with his agents and they asked what I would like to write about.
“I recognized that the tenth anniversary of the 1996 Yankees was coming up and thought that an exploration of that team, which was the roots of the dynasty, would be interesting. I pitched the idea and we took off from there.”
Sherman was first on the beat in 1989, writing for the Post, when the tandem of Dallas Green and Bucky Dent managed the Bombers to a fifth-place finish [74-87] in the American League East. He continued his game-day summaries through 1995, and has since covered the game as a columnist.
“By being with the team so much, I’ve really been working on this book for two decades,” said the Brooklyn-reared and NYU-educated author.
Though the Bronx Bombers have shown a penchant for winning [45 playoff appearances, 39 pennants and 26 championships], it hasn’t been all fun and games.
The 1990 team, led by Dent and Stump Merrill, was even worse than the previous version. At 67-95, the Yankees had won slightly better than 41% of their games. They finished dead last, 21 games back. It was their lowest point since the 1913 season, when Frank Chance skippered a 57-94 [.377] team.
“It was the absolute pit,” Sherman, 42, recalled.
Very few people could have expected such a monumental change a mere six years after that failure.
“In the 80s and early 90s, the Yankees spent a lot of money, and didn’t win. In retrospect, the greatness of that dynasty will only be appreciated if [future] teams that spend a lot more money don’t win as consistently as that team won. That dynasty, particularly that ’96 team, has taken a bit of a beating as well -that the Yankees buy championships.
“I wanted to show that any team can spend money, but it had to be done right. I wanted to give the organization, and that team, credit for coming together. There are certain cornerstone moments in this team’s dynastic history. I wanted to examine how they got into place.”
Though much of the foundation was laid by the skilled people who decided on player personnel, Sherman points out that there was a good deal of fortune involved.
“The Yankees had the sixth pick in the 1992 Draft,” he recounted, “which meant that five teams had a chance to pick Derek Jeter. And two of them -the Houston Astros, [at No. 1], and the Cincinnati Reds, [at No. 5]- had their eyes firmly on him. It’s just the bizarre nature of how baseball and finance work.
“Why did those five teams pass on him? Why didn’t the Yankees get Jeffrey Hammonds or Jim Pittsley or Ron Villone, or someone else, in case Jeter didn’t last until that pick? They could’ve spent all the money in the world, and done everything else right, but if Jeter doesn’t slide to the sixth pick, there’s no dynasty. Part of this book tells that story.
“I show just how easily each of the key guys [Tino Martinez, Paul O’Neill, Mariano Rivera and Bernie Williams] could’ve been someplace else, and how the Yankees could have missed that perfect cosmic moment -when the moons aligned and they got all those players at the same time.”
New York’s most recent dynasty included all the essentials. One manager. A core group of players. And a bunch of interchangeable parts. However, Sherman noted, there is no particular formula for success.
“The more I worked on the book, the more I realized there is a certain bit of divinity that must strike a team to win even in a single year. If Joe Torre was asked, prior to the start of the 1996 season, ‘Who is the one player you can’t lose this year?’ he would have said –without blinking- David Cone.
“Well, Cone had an aneurysm, and was lost for four months. Against the entire organization’s wishes, George Steinbrenner signed Dwight Gooden, who had four good months left in his arm –that coincided with the four months that Cone was gone. If that team did not win, would they have won in the [immediate] future? There was a confidence borne from that team, which was created by a new style of play.
“We want to believe that hard work will make everything well. But, if five teams don’t stupidly pass on Jeter –taking, instead, Phil Nevin and B.J. Wallace and Chad Mottola and the others- and if Steinbrenner doesn’t sign Dwight Gooden, they don’t win.
“So, there is no blueprint for creating a dynasty. The 1996 championship team looks as if it was put together with an Etch-A-Sketch.”
If that is so, then how can Torre be explained?
Through 1995, with the New York Mets, Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals, he had just one first place finish [with the 1982 Braves] in 14 seasons and was a cumulative 109 games under .500. In 10 full seasons with the Yankees, he has claimed nine division titles and is 348 games above .500.
“The Mets’ best players, when Torre managed them [1977-81], were Lee Mazzilli and John Stearns,” reminded Sherman. “The Braves teams [1982-84] were always in the .500 range. If you examine the roster, that’s where they should’ve been. In three of his six years with the Cardinals [1990-95], they finished above .500; again, looking at the roster, that’s probably where they should’ve been. If you manage a thin roster and the team plays to their capabilities, the manager is doing as good a job as the one who wins 100 games with great talent.
“Is it just our generation that looks for simplistic answers?” the author wondered. “If anything, I hope the book reveals that nothing is simple about why things work. Buck Showalter, who was Torre’s predecessor, was a better strategic manager. But Showalter’s style probably would not have worked with this team. They needed a calm presence, someone who saw talent and did not inflict himself on it. This roster needed steely leadership and Torre is the most self-assured person I’ve ever been around.”
New York has now won eight consecutive American East titles –but they are five years removed from their last Series victory. Steinbrenner, however, is all about winning, which is why he routinely spends in excess of $100 million per year. Since he purchased the team in 1973, the Yankees have made ten trips to the World Series. By contrast, the Braves –who have won 14 consecutive National League pennants since 1991- have only won one championship during that span.
“The book,” Sherman said, “suggests the absolute right alchemy that is needed to win. The Yankees, simply, had that during their championship years. I can show how they don’t get to the playoffs; I can show how they lose in every round of the playoffs.”
But, he can also show how they won.
Oh, how they won.
Buy Joel Sherman's book at Amazon.com.