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The Microsoft of Baseball 

How great players prevailed in spite of Steinbrenner

Three years ago, as the nation grappled with the lingering horror of the terrorist attacks, the New York Yankees, for a brief moment, became America's team. The Yankees have always been equally loathed and loved but, as New York reeled from the atrocities of 9/11, many longtime Yankee-haters embraced the city's most famous baseball export as a symbol of national resilience.

At the time, the Yankees had won three straight World Series and were favored to add a fourth consecutive title. New York sought escape from suffocating grief by watching the postseason exertions of Derek Jeter, Paul O'Neill, Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera.

New York worked their way to a thrilling, seven-game World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks, punctuated by two dynamic, come-from-behind New York wins at Yankee Stadium. Despite the Yankees' heroics, Arizona won games six and seven at home, clinching the four-year-old franchise's first title.

In Buster Olney's marvelous new account of the deciding seventh game, The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty, New York's late-1990s championship runs and the franchise's fascinating characters come alive through a series of pitch-perfect portraits wrapped inside an inning-by-inning chronicle of the finale. Olney, a former baseball beat writer for The New York Times, contends that no matter what the Yankees accomplish during the next few seasons with new acquisitions such as All-Star Alex Rodriguez, it's unlikely they will ever match the chemistry and success of the 1996-2001 teams.

George Steinbrenner, the Yankees' notorious owner, beleaguered general manager Brian Cashman, who absorbs the brunt of Steinbrenner's tyrannical tirades, and manager Joe Torre remain at the helm. Familiar stars such as shortstop Jeter, ace reliever Rivera, centerfielder Williams and catcher Jorge Posada are also still sporting pinstripes. Beyond that, though, the current Yankees aren't as familiar as the World Series heroes of just a few years ago. Gone are fireballer Roger Clemens, last seen helping the Houston Astros in their deepest playoff run ever; hyper-competitive outfielder O'Neill, who retired after the 2001 season; dependable third baseman Scott Brosius, another 2001 retiree; first baseman Tino Martinez, jettisoned in favor of free agent Jason Giambi after the World Series loss to Arizona; and pitcher David Cone, a sturdy starter who kept locker room morale soaring through the Yankees' many championship bids.

Olney asserts that the New York teams that won World Series in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000 (and lost to Arizona in 2001) were much more than just millionaire mercenaries thrown together by Steinbrenner's massive checkbook. Those teams jelled, and Olney cites the unique characters on the roster -- particularly Cone, Martinez and Jeter, as well as reliever Rivera's dominant postseason pitching performances -- as the perfect blend of talent and determination.

Olney has good things to say about almost all the players, though he does leaven his plaudits with occasional warts.

The same can't be said of his portrait of Steinbrenner, a voracious competitor who comes off as an epic blowhard surpassing even his Seinfeld caricature. He taunts, bullies, blusters and, above all else, frets.

During a recent interview, Olney, now a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, recalled the plight of those who work for the Yankees. Beyond the players, most in the organization are miserable. The club embodies baseball excellence and Steinbrenner, who has the advantage of the New York media market's generous TV and radio contracts to spend on the best players money can buy, isn't one to shy away from re-investing in the product. That's the upside. The downside? Steinbrenner is, as everyone knows, prone to relentless meddling and micromanaging, which makes for terrible working conditions.

In fact, it was only Steinbrenner's suspension from baseball during the early 1990s -- he was caught paying a known gambler for damaging information about one of his own players, Dave Winfield -- that brought the Yankees back. Executive Gene Michael, freed from Steinbrenner's enervating impatience with young players, re-stocked New York's farm system, producing Rivera, Jeter and Williams in short succession.

By the time Steinbrenner returned, he was somewhat chastened. He no longer negotiated trades and free agent contracts beyond the knowledge of his baseball executives, nor did he run through managers at a dizzying rate. He hired Torre in 1996 and, beyond occasional public outbursts, left him alone.

Despite the success during these years, Steinbrenner never stopped second-guessing, and torturing, his front-office staff. Cashman, the general manager, was the most frequent target, battling The Boss at every turn. Five innings into Game 2 of the 2003 playoffs, Olney writes, Steinbrenner summoned his general manager and berated him. "You're horseshit, and you're overpaid," he told Cashman. "No one will take your contract off my hands. . .You have permission to talk to the Mets."

When asked about Steinbrenner, Olney told us, "He's just nuts. The larger success of what they've accomplished is his; it was his vision to do that. But his impetuosity is so great that on a day-to-day basis it represents the biggest threat to his organization."

While closing the book on the Yankees' dynasty after 2001 seems risky -- witness last year's World Series appearance and another deep postseason run this month before the ignominious championship series collapse against the hated Red Sox -- Olney's theory seems solid. Cashman and, soon, Torre will be fed up with the Boss and he will once again stripmine the franchise, as he did during the 1980s. At least that's what so many of us Yankee-haters hope for as we are now three years removed from 9/11 and free, once again, to loathe baseball's version of Microsoft. Who's your daddy, indeed.

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