Although the greatest baseball team of the past century, the New York Yankees were the worst for a period 30 years ago. An award-winning sports reporter offers an energetic account of their miseries.
After appearing in the 1981 World Series, the team went into a steep decline, writes New York Times sportswriter Pennington (Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius, 2015). From 1989 to 1992, the team had the worst four-year record since becoming the Yankees in 1913. Observers, Pennington included, blame George Steinbrenner (1930-2010), the Yankees owner from 1973 until his death. An extremely hands-on boss, Steinbrenner fired personnel in droves, interfered in day-to-day operations, and hurt morale by insulting players and coaches. Worse, enamored with free agents, he signed players who didn’t pan out, costing the team picks in the amateur draft as compensation. Added to this was a penchant for trading young prospects (Fred McGriff, Doug Drabek) for aging stars. “By 1989,” writes the author, “the Yankees minor league system, filled with accomplished managers and coaches, had been stripped of talent.” Pennington rightly dates the beginning of the revival to Steinbrenner’s two-year banishment in 1990 for involvement with a gambler, after which manager Buck Showalter and general manager Gene Michael, free of interference, fixed matters. They nurtured slow-maturing but ultimately brilliant prospects—including Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, and Andy Pettitte—revived the intense camaraderie that had always been a Yankee trademark, and made intelligent trades. In 1994, the team was leading the league, but a strike eliminated the World Series. In 1995, they won the division but lost in the playoffs, after which Steinbrenner, in his last nasty act, fired most of the staff responsible for the revival, including Showalter. In 1996, the familiar world returned; the Yankees won the Series and continue doing so regularly.
Pennington writes a mixture of interviews, biographies, on-the-field action, and fierce front-office politics that will not put off Yankee haters but will also entertain their fans who know that the story has a happy ending.