Books

Yankees' Pride & Peril in 'The Captain' & 'Bullpen Diaries'

David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

How would the Yankees balance past and future? Such questions exist at the center of Ian O'Connor's The Captain and Charley Rosen's Bullpen Diaries, each of which seeks to deal with the Yankees as they were and as they may be.

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Book: The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter
Author: Ian O'Connor
Publication date: 2011-05
Publisher: HarperCollins
Book: Bullpen Diaries: Mariano Rivera, Bronx Dreams, Pinstripe Legends, and the Future of the New York Yankees
Author: Charley Rosen
Publication date: 2011-04

For the New York Yankees, the 2010 offseason was a tale of two superstars, both of whom they wanted to re-sign. On the one hand, there was Derek Jeter, iconic shortstop and face of the franchise, on the verge of becoming the first Yankee to record 3,000 hits in a career. On the other was Mariano Rivera, the best closer in the history of baseball, on track to set the all-time record for saves. Complicating the narrative was the drama of an aging team, bounced out of the playoffs by the younger, hungrier Texas Rangers, with significant expectations and equally significant holes.

How would the Yankees balance past and future? Such questions exist at the center of Ian O'Connor's The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter and Charley Rosen's Bullpen Diaries: Mariano Rivera, Bronx Dreams, Pinstripe Legends, and the Future of the New York Yankees, each of which seeks to deal with the Yankees as they were and as they may be. That neither book is overly successful is to be expected in a sports culture defined by access, in which athletes control their interactions with even the most sympathetic writers.

O'Connor acknowledges this from the outset, noting that "Jeter decided not to make major contributions to this book." The Yankees' captain, he informs us, "did not want fans to think he was basking in his own glory," but more to the point, I think, is his notorious reticence. "Derek," explains his old friend R.D. Long, a former Yankees minor leaguer, "is the iciest non-icy person I've ever met," a man who "often lived behind impenetrable walls."

In part, this has to do with his awareness of his legacy in the heritage of great Yankees, but as "The Captain" makes clear, it is also the result of the self-possession that has marked him since childhood. "The Captain" is best on those early years, which represent the one piece of the Jeter story that has not been endlessly retold. Born in 1974 and raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the son of a black father who was a substance abuse counselor and a white mother who was an accountant, he was a high school baseball star who signed with the Yankees in the first round of the 1992 amateur draft.

Jeter's parents are often cited as role models for their son, who endured his share of discrimination as a biracial kid in the Midwest. But equally significant, O'Connor writes, was his maternal grandfather, Sonny Connors, a New Jersey maintenance worker whose work ethic — "We used to open presents on Christmas Eve," Jeter's sister Sharlee recalls, "because our grandfather worked every Christmas Day" — rubbed off on his grandson. As O'Connor observes, Jeter's career has been defined by plays (his flip throw to Jorge Posada during the 2001 American League Division Series; the 2004 catch against Boston during which he crashed into the Yankee Stadium stands, cutting open his chin) most other players wouldn't make.

"Not one player on any of my Boston teams ever had a single negative thing to say about him," notes Johnny Damon, long a member of the Red Sox until he became Jeter's teammate. (He is now on the Tampa Bay Rays.)

Yet as fun as this is to remember, it also highlights a fundamental weakness of The Captain: its sense of hagiography. O'Connor touches on Jeter's frustrations as the championship run of 1996-2000 winds down, but while he hints at the shortstop's complicity in an increasingly dysfunctional clubhouse culture, he never really examines what it means. With the arrival of Alex Rodriguez in 2004, Jeter had to deal with a complex rival, and his refusal to embrace him — "I can't tell the fans what to do," he said pointedly, when they got on Rodriguez during the 2006 season — helped create a difficult dynamic for the team.

This is important, not just because it reflects on Jeter's glory days but also because of the way O'Connor treats him in the present, when his skills have diminished to the point that it's an open question how long he will play.

Still, even as O'Connor raises the issue, he shies away from it also, relegating Jeter's contentious 2010 contract talks to an epilogue that focuses on his desire, rather than his continuing ability, to win.

Bullpen Diaries deals with many of the same issues, from both a broader and a more narrow point-of-view. Rather than focusing on Rivera, it looks at the Yankees bullpen; instead of spanning several seasons, it zeroes in on 2010.

This should have been a good idea, for the heart of baseball is in the day-in, day-out mini-dramas that recur across 162 games. Rosen, though, never gives us more than an extended game log, 300-plus pages from spring training to Game 6 of the American League Championship Series. If you were there, you know all this already; if not, there's no reason to care.

Even more troublesome is his inability to make connections, to frame a larger point-of-view. This is especially glaring when he discusses the Yankees' possibilities for 2011, many of which (including the ideas that Jorge Posada, hitting .178 as of this writing, "can still flourish as a mostly full-time DH," or that Rafael Soriano (5.40 ERA, on the disabled list until July) is an essential pickup — have already been discredited. The result is a less nuanced commentary than the wishful thinking of the fan.

Here, we see the risk of writing about baseball, since the sport constantly supersedes our desires. Yet even on such terms, Bullpen Diaries comes with its obsolescence built in. It's one thing to recall the championship years, as O'Connor does throughout The Captain, and another to record a season that comes up short. These books remind us that, for all its history, the Yankees today remains suspended between tradition and competition, between their aging heroes and the need to move ahead.


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