Friday, January 30, 2009

Bleth and Verducci Discuss 'The Torre Years'

Alex Belth from Bronx Banter and sat down with author Tom Verducci to discuss the new book. It's a good interview and worth checking out. Here's three parts of the interview that stuck out to me; the importance of David Cone in the dynasty, two questionable Torre moves, and what changed after 2003. One of my favorite parts of the book is David Cone winding George Steinbrenner up and making him crazy just to get a laugh. That wasn't something you could imagine a player doing back in the Bronx Zoo days. How influential was Cone on those teams?

Verducci: We all have known how important Cone was to the success of the Yankees. But in reporting the book I gained an even greater appreciation for his role. He was the de facto captain before Derek Jeter. At every turn -- whether it was keeping David Wells in check, counseling Chuck Knoblauch on his playoff gaffe against the Indians, stepping up during the key 1998 clubhouse meeting, knowing how to push the buttons of everybody from George Steinbrenner to Paul O'Neill -- Cone was the single most influential player in that clubhouse. I was fascinated when Mussina talked so often about how much those teams missed Cone -- and Mussina didn't even play with Cone. But Cone was so important to those teams that Mussina understood it just by his absence. In fact, I view and structured Cone and Mussina as parallel characters in the book. Each emerges as a voice of the distinct micro-eras within the era: when the Yankees won and when they didn't. Each has a profound ability to see beyond himself and understand team dynamics and the human condition. They also have the ability to smartly share such observations. That Mussina moved into Cone's locker and place in the rotation immediately upon Cone leaving the Yankees only reinforces the sort of shared role they have in the book. I like to think of it as Cone and Mussina playing the Greek chorus -- only not together, but Cone taking you through 2000, then leaving the stage and handing the role over to Mussina. More than a few of Torre's postseason pitching moves have been questioned, particularly by Yankee fans. For instance, I always thought Torre should have gone to Ramiro Mendoza in the eighth inning of Game 7 in the '01 World Series, and so did Torre. Why did he decide to go with Rivera?

Verducci: Mendoza probably would have been in the game if it had remained tied. Torre did not want to use Rivera to preserve a tie and be left without a good option to close the game if the Yankees took a lead. Don Zimmer thought differently. He was more the riverboat gambler. Zimmer thought it was more important to run Rivera into a game than worry about who was left to protect a lead. It's a fascinating decision. Zimmer could not see risking losing the game without using the team's best reliever. Torre couldn't see losing the game with using anybody other than Rivera closing it. Remember, too, that if you use Rivera in the eighth with the game tied, you're probably giving yourself only one time at-bat -- three outs against Randy Johnson in the ninth, no less -- for Rivera to pitch with a lead. The decision, of course, became easy when Alfonso Soriano homered to give the Yankees the lead in the eighth. It's a no-brainer there: You give Rivera the last six outs. I've always thought the decision when to use your closer on the road is a very tough call that The Book doesn't cover. In some ways, 2001 Game 7 presaged the Jeff Weaver game in the 2003 World Series, in which Zimmer's worst fear came true: The Yankees lost without using Rivera. But Torre has no second-guesses whatsoever about using Weaver. You make a point of talking about starting pitching in the book. After '03, how did things fall apart for the Yankees' pitching?

Verducci: The Yankees lost Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and David Wells after the '03 World Series and went to an all-right-handed rotation. They began to cast their lot with NL-groomed pitchers (Javier Vazquez, Carl Pavano) and aging ones (Kevin Brown, Orlando Hernandez). Of course, those shaky bets were naked ones because the Yankees had no one coming from the farm system to help as insurance. The single most important element to the decline of the Yankees, at least as a postseason team, was the annual decline in their starting pitchers' ability to miss bats. Year after year the strikeout rate for their starting pitchers declined. Combine that with the lack of left-handed starters to pitch in Yankee Stadium, and the Yankees were no longer so fearsome in the postseason. That's why the health of Joba Chamberlain is so important to the Yankees' return to greatness, though the additions of CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett were shrewd moves to give them more "pure stuff" that will make them a better playoff team.

For more from Alex, check out this story he posted over on Bronx Banter a few days ago, kinda funny, kinda disturbing.


Anonymous said...

Just watch Cone yankeeography they were all saying what a great leader he was not really new.

Greg Cohen said...

Yep, that's one of my favorite Yankeeographys.

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