Thursday, February 12, 2009

Not So Much Joe

It's not too difficult to find a book written by an athlete or coach. These books have on occasion been ghostwritten or contain the popular "with" phrase that indicates that there was a professional writer involved. The level of involvement varies, but the general idea is that there was a collaborative effort where the sports figure is the main contributor. Would a change to that one little "with" really change things? How important is that little word between the names? Check out below the cut to hear a devout member of Red Sox Nation's take on "The Yankee Years."

Unlike their first colaboration, "Chasing the Dream," which was written by Joe Torre with Tom Verducci (the senior baseball writer for Sports Illustrated) and chronicled his life and long journey to the 1996 World Series, their second offering has been the subject of as much controversy as praise. The tabloid-like media that makes up much of modern sports reporting quickly latched onto this book as a shot back at the Yankees management structure and their "insulting" offer to resign the long-time manager and some less than flattering turns of phrase directed at the biggest star in the game today. And while I'm always up for taking shots, thinly veiled or otherwise, at the Steinbrenner brothers, Brian Cashman, Alex Rodriguez or anyone in pinstripes, that wouldn't make much of a review. My main concern here is the quality of the book and more importantly, whose perspective it's coming from.

This book is credited to Torre and Verducci and combined with the decision to write the manager in the third person, quote other individuals more frequently than one of the authors and break off for long segments that read much like an article on, just makes the entire thing feel like the work of Verducci. And most people are going to pick this up to hear about the rise and fall of the most dominant franchise in modern baseball from the coach, himself. So without that individual perspective, the book only feeds the critics that would consider it a tell-all than a serious examination of these 12 noteworthy years in Torre's life. So while it will sell more copies, this book's byline really should read "Tom Verducci with Joe Torre."

And even as a person who vehemently rooted against Torre and his teams, it was impossible to consistently follow the sport of baseball in the last 13 years and not know what a spectacular run Torre's teams managed. Any book written by him, even in part, and covering this period should be his story. It should have been an insider's look at the most famous clubhouse and front office in the world of baseball. It should have been his story.

The book takes extended trips away from Torre's perspective, quoting much more thoroughly in the first half from pitcher David Cone. Since many of the quotes can run on for multiple paragraphs and are the main storytelling device, it's a shame that Torre's voice is not heard more often. The story also diverges from the Yankees' perspective altogether for extended sequences relying on Indians general manager Mark Shapiro, or Brian McNamee in an extended sequence that is little more than the story we already heard a thousand times during the release of the Mitchell Report. At one point the story spends some six pages detailing the Red Sox pursuit of pitcher Curt Shilling in the winter of 2003 that is obviously the result of an interview between Verducci and general manager Theo Epstein. Spending so much time discussing the successes of other front office personnel like Shapiro, Epstein and Oakland's Billy Beane, feels like the pushing of an agenda, that the failings of the last several Torre teams were more the fault of Cashman and his impersonal approach. It's certainly a valid point that is argued convincingly, but the combined effect of publishing this only a year after leaving the team and using Verducci and the third person viewpoint to distance Torre from the discussion makes the entire thing seem tawdry, an upset employee grinding a personal axe.

Among the most egrigious oversights is the lack of any substantive reaction to the effect of steroids on the game from Torre. The story of his managing the most dominant team in baseball and to so utterly gloss over the most defining story of our time is nearly unforgivable. Like much of the book, a steroid user that is a player Torre liked will get a soft treatment while a bit of a stick is saved for a less-loved player. In the span of just over a page, Andy Pettitte is refered to as "hardened by postseason experience and daily expectations of having played nine years in New York" and his effective replacement Kevin Brown is referred to as an ace built on performance enhancing drugs. Given the placement of both on the Mitchell Report to have two such contrasting statements so close to one another reeks of favoritism.

When the book does shine, it's when Torre emerges with frequent quotation and the stories seem to spawn from his direct experiences. Ironically, it seems the two most revealing periods are when the team was in its twilight period beginning in the 2001 World Series and again for the 2003 and 2004 American League Championship Series again the Red Sox. It's really want the entire book should have been from start to finish, the story of 12 years of the Yankees told from the viewpoint of one of the three definitive members of the Yankee family during that time (the other two being Derek Jeter and George Steinbrenner).

Excluding those three periods, the final days of his contract (including some statements about the actions of Cashman that I just find unbelievable) and other intermittent moments, at least Torre comes out more to discuss Yankee captain Derek Jeter. Seemingly more affectionate to the player that one four titles with him and emulated many of the qualities of his manager (trust, loyalty and the earning of these things through action and not just words), at least we see some genuine emotion seeping through. And Torre's frequent criticism of Rodriguez is enjoyable both from the point of view of a Sox fan and a baseball fan given the recent revelations about A-Rod that pushed this very book off the front page. Sometimes you're just right about a guy.

Unfortunately, Torre remains mostly disconnected from several emotional areas including the declining health of Steinbrenner and it's effect of the Yankee organization and the steroids coverage. We get too little of Torre's story and more of McNamee. Instead it still repeatedly feels like a reported story by Verducci about Torre as opposed to a real collaborative effort.

The type of "I lived it" story I was looking for never came out better than a story of the fragile mental state of Brown.

Torre followed in the direction where Mussina pointed. He turned a corner, and suddenly was stunned at what he saw: Kevin Brown, 40 years old, a six-time All-Star, a two-time ERA champion, a man who had won 207 major league games and earned more than $130 million playing baseball, was curled up on the floor in a tiny crevice in the corner of a storage area of the clubhouse... "Because just remember: if you're going to quit on those guys you can't ever come back. You can never come back. Just understand that. What you just told me? That's what it means. If you're not going to go back out there, you can't even stay here."

I waited more than 300 pages for a scene like that, one that left me with goosebumps even if Verducci slipped in a bit too many stats to hammer home the point of how this type of star should never be in this situation. Instead we're left with more an extended set of articles than a man's story, lacking the storytelling and humor of Red Auerbach or the significant intellectual insight into the game of Phil Jackson.

Final score: 1.5 stars out of 5

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