The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty by Buster Olney (Harper Perennial, 2008), 355 pages.
As a consequence of their third-placed finish in the AL East this season, the New York YankeesÂ failed to make the postseason for the first time since 1995.Â Â While it marked the end of a proud streak,Â Buster Olney would argue that it didn’t truly mark the end of an era.Â The Yankee dynasty that began with a World Series title in 1996 already had been brought to a halt by their game seven defeat to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2001 World Series.Â Six further postseason campaigns may have followed, but as Derek Jeter himself admitted in 2004 it was not â€œthe same teamâ€ that had swept all before them in the second half of the 1990s.Â
In truth, there have been few teams over the years that could live up to the collection of talents who won four World Series in a five-year period.Â ‘Parity’ is the biggest buzzword in MLB today and the fact that so many teams enter the season with a genuine chance of winning certainly makes for a great competition.Â However, dynasties are just as capable of conjuring up emotion and excitement, even if they are not well-liked by all at the time.Â Using the events of that dramatic game seven as a backdrop, Olney provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the way in which the most important dynasty of recent MLB history developed, what kept it going and why it fell apart?Â
Olney, known nowadays as a senior writer for ESPN, is well-placed to offer such insights due to his six-year stint as a Yankees beat writer for the New York Times.Â His first hand experience and invaluable contacts mean that this is an incredibly detailed book, but at no stage does it get mired in trivial facts.Â Descriptions of that game seven and the lives and careers of the Yankee players are used to bring out wider themes in an engaging manner.
If one theme dominates the book, it is the central importance of one man: George Steinbrenner.Â Olney states that â€œmost of the Yankees’ non-uniformed employees were truly petrified of Steinbrennerâ€ and the many examples of him cruelly berating members of his staff (particularly senior figures like GM Brian Cashman) do little to make you respect, never mind warm to, the man.Â
The changing leadership style of Steinbrenner and the shifting chain of command over time is the most revealing part of this book.Â Olney argues that the Yankee dynasty developed because Steinbrenner started to allow his executives to make decisions, such as not trading away Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera when they were prospects, yet this was not due to any great feeling of trust towards them.
After the ridicule produced by his management of the Yankees in the 1980s,
Steinbrenner’s reputation recovered in the 1990s and his leadership style was predominantly designed to shield himself from the blame of any incorrect decisions.Â If a trade worked out well, he could bask in the glory and insinuate (or directly state) that it was his idea all along.Â If the Yankees passed on a trade that would have made them better, such as the potential deal that would have seen them pick up Jim Edmonds for Alfonso Soriano in 2000, Steinbrenner could (and vociferously did) berate the person responsible.Â
In some ways it proved to be an effective model, but it was ultimately corrosive.Â Cashman began to find himself battling to impose his authority over the latest ‘expert’ who had Steinbrenner’s ear at a particular time and once the 2001 World Series had been lost, the Boss could no longer resist his urge to call the shots by throwing obscene amounts of money at glamorous free agents against the will of his executives.Â It was a policy that failed in the 1980s and history would repeat itself.
The difference between the post-2001 teams and the dynasty that preceded them is laid bare in the revealing portraits of those championship players.Â The names are part of baseball history: Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez, David Cone, Scott Brosius, Chuck Knoblauch, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and, of course, Derek Jeter (how different the last fifteen years may have been if the Astros had listened to their scout Hal Newhouser and selected Jeter ahead of the Yankees in the 1992 draft).Â
There are some extremely talented players on that list, but it was their character, both individually and collectively, that really pushed them on to greatness.Â Corny though this sounds, they were first and foremost a team, ably led by Joe Torre and his coaching staff.Â That was the crucial difference to the collection of expensive stars assembled after 2001 once O’Neill, Martinez, Brosius and others had departed.
This point is emphasised even further in the newly-expanded edition of â€œThe Last Night of the Yankee Dynastyâ€, released earlier this year.Â A lengthy introduction provides an excellent guide to the Yankees from 2003 to the present day.Â In particular it highlights the recent attempts of Brian Cashman to steer the organization towards a more balanced roster composed of a few free agent acquisitions and a significant amount of home-grown talent, refusing to see the likes of Joba Chamberlain traded away for a quick fix.Â
Olney states that â€œthe guts of the 1996-2001 dynastyâ€ were the product of the Yankees finally â€œfocusing on their own player developmentâ€.Â Cashman appears determined to follow this model again now that George Steinbrenner has stepped aside to let his sons Hank and Hal run the show.Â Yankee fans can only hope that it will be as successful this time as it was the last.
Every great team deserves at least one great book devoted to immortalizing them in the annals of baseball history.Â With â€œThe Last Night of the Yankee Dynastyâ€, Buster Olney has brilliantly fulfilled this role for the 1996-2001 Yankees.
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