Three years ago, as the nation grappled with the lingering horror of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the New York Yankees, for a brief moment, became America's team. The Yankees have always been equally loathed and loved but, as New York City reeled from the atrocities of 9/11, many longtime Yankee-haters embraced the city's most famous baseball export as a symbol of national resilience.
At the time, the Yankees had won three straight World Series titles and were favored to add a fourth consecutive title. Led by Mayor Rudy Giuliani, an ardent fan whose lone respite from the spate of funerals and recovery efforts was attending Yankees games, much of New York sought escape from suffocating grief by watching the postseason exertions of Derek Jeter, Paul O'Neill, Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera.
New York was on the brink of elimination in the first round of the playoffs against Oakland before rallying for three straight wins. Then the Yankees advanced to the World Series by beating Seattle, the Major League's winningest team during the 2001 regular season, setting up a showdown with the surprising Arizona Diamondbacks.
It proved a thrilling, seven-game World Series, punctuated by two dynamic, come-from-behind New York wins at Yankee Stadium. Despite the Yankees' heroics, Arizona won games 6 and 7, clinching the 4-year-old franchise's first title.
In Buster Olney's marvelous new account of the deciding seventh game, The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty: The Game, the Team and the Cost of Greatness (Ecco), New York's late-1990s championship runs and the franchise's fascinating characters are revealed through a series of pitch-perfect portraits wrapped inside an inning-by-inning chronicle of the finale. Olney, a former baseball beat writer for The New York Times, contends that no matter what the Yankees accomplish during the next few seasons with new acquisitions such as All-Star Alex Rodriguez, it is unlikely they will ever match the chemistry and success of the 1996-2001 teams.
George Steinbrenner, the Yankees' notorious owner, beleaguered General Manager Brian Cashman (who absorbs the brunt of Steinbrenner's tyrannical tirades) and Manager Joe Torre remain at the helm. Familiar stars such as shortstop Jeter, ace reliever Rivera, centerfielder Williams and catcher Jorge Posada are also still sporting pinstripes.
Beyond that, the current Yankees don't look much like the familiar World Series heroes of just a few years ago. Gone are fireballer Roger Clemens, last seen helping the Houston Astros in their deepest playoff run in franchise history. Clemens is in Houston because fellow erstwhile Yankees pitching star Andy Pettitte left New York in favor of the Astros last winter, luring his teammate (and native Texan) out of a brief retirement.
Other notable Yankee departures in recent seasons include the hyper-competitive outfielder O'Neill, who retired after the 2001 season; dependable third baseman Scott Brosius, another 2001 retiree; first baseman Tino Martinez, jettisoned in favor of free agent Jason Giambi after the World Series loss to Arizona; and pitcher David Cone, a sturdy starter who kept locker room morale and motivation soaring through the Yankees' many championship bids.
In Olney's estimation, the New York teams that won World Series in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000 (and lost to Arizona in 2001) were not just millionaire mercenaries thrown together by Steinbrenner's massive checkbook. Instead, the author cites the unique characters on the New York roster -- particularly Cone, Martinez and Jeter, as well as reliever Rivera's dominant postseason pitching performances -- as the perfect blend of talent and determination.
Olney has good things to say about almost all the players, though he leavens his plaudits with occasional warts. The same cannot be said of his portrait of Steinbrenner, a voracious competitor who comes off as an epic blowhard surpassing even his Seinfeld caricature. He taunts, bullies, blusters and, above all else, frets. Beyond the players, most in the organization are miserable.
The club embodies baseball excellence, and Steinbrenner isn't one to shy away from reinvesting in the product. That's the upside. The downside: Steinbrenner is, as everyone knows, prone to relentless meddling and micromanaging, which makes for terrible working conditions.
Ironically, it was only Steinbrenner's suspension from baseball during the early 1990s that brought the Yankees back. Executive Gene Michael restocked New York's farm system during Steinbrenner's banishment, producing Rivera, Jeter and Williams in short succession. By the time Steinbrenner returned, he was somewhat chastened. He no longer negotiated trades and free agent contracts beyond the knowledge of his baseball executives, nor did he run through managers at a dizzying rate. Despite the success during these years, Steinbrenner never stopped second-guessing -- and torturing -- his front-office staff. Cashman, the general manager, was the most frequent target, battling The Boss at every turn. Olney's theory is that Cashman and, soon, Torre will be fed up with the Boss and he will once again strip-mine the franchise, as he did during the 1980s. At least that's what so many of us Yankee-haters hope for as we are now three years removed from 9/11 and free, once again, to loathe baseball's version of Microsoft.
- Buster Olney chronicles the fading luster of an incredible run with The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty.