Baseball Toaster Bad Altitude
Paul O'Neill: Still a Jerk
2005-05-19 14:35
by Mark T.R. Donohue

The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty, by's Buster Olney (and now out in paperback), performs a rather marvelous little balancing act. If you hate the Yankees, this book will serve as a celebration of your pure hatred. Yet if you bleed pinstripes, it will probably be an affirmation of love. Olney doesn't make any argument for or against the Boys of Steinbrenner, he merely presents the facts in as detached and journalistic a manner as is possible. A slight tone of editorial disgust creeps in at the margins as internal development goes by the wayside and the Yanks begin moving through international and free agent pitching talent like a thresher, but it's remarkable that Olney is able to maintain this amount of objectivity when it comes to the cash-sucking, Arroyo-swatting, Irabu-baiting Bronx Bombers of recent memory.

The cleverest thing about the book is its structure. Rather than going through the run of championships chronologically, which would rapidly become unbearable for those of us on the side of good, Olney closely details Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, flashing back to show each of the Yankee principals became so. It's true that you already know how the story ends, but Olney manages to construct a convincing case that something vital to the Yankees' success was slowly leeched away between 1996 and 2001 amidst Steinbrenner's histrionics and the departures of players like David Cone, Paul O'Neill, Tino Martinez, and Luis Sojo. (OK, not buying Sojo's importance so much.)

Like it does for the team as a whole, Last Night will likely not change your opinions of any of the charismatic players who anchored the Yankees' run. Derek Jeter is a prima donna. Roger Clemens gets himself motivated for games by being mean and nasty to everyone surrounding him. Paul O'Neill throws helmets and savages bat racks like a Little Leaguer. At the same time, Mariano Rivera and Bernie Williams are icy reservoirs of calm, somehow elevating themselves above the craziness surrounding.

Some things about the Yankees you may not have known emerge as well: Cone's self-appointed role as media lightning rod, Joe Girardi's leadership role disproportionate to his weak hitting, Don Zimmer's mad in-game insights. A few things you already suspected become clear. Joe Torre should be sainted. Brian Cashman has the worst job in the world. Some things have sadly already fallen by the wayside. Rivera was the only Yankee the home crowd never booed, Olney writes, and yet there they were screaming for his head just this April. What a nice bunch of people for which to work.

The tough thing about writing recent baseball history is how quickly you can be proven wrong. Olney strongly implies that whatever led New York AL to all those championships, it's gone now, and the first few weeks of this season certainly supported this thesis. Now, of course, the Yankees are on fire. They could win the World Series this year with their A-Rods, Sheffields, and Matsuis and make the Girardis, Sojos, and Shane Spencers look like the scrubs that they really were. And if they miss the playoffs, the opposite must be true.

Of course, the Rockies have neither $15 million free agents or veteran leadership, unless you count Desi Relaford, which I assure you I don't. As OIney contrasts the Yankees with other recent championship teams -- the '01 D-Backs, the '03 Marlins, even last year's Red Sox -- what emerges is that winning teams have a consistent character. It can be wildly different from champion to champion, but somehow a core of players has to cohere around something more than hating the media and enjoying the company of enthusiastic female fans. What does this mean to Colorado, who are light years away from contention? Well, I suppose a case could be made for hanging on to guys like Shawn Chacon who (weirdly) seem to enjoy being Rockies. First let's see if we can find our own Rivera, Jeter, Williams, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettite, and then we'll worry about chemistry adjustments.

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