Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Book Chat: Bill Pennington On How Yankees Went From “Chumps To Champs” In ‘90s

Award-winning New York Times sportswriter Bill Pennington takes a look at an overlooked era in Yankees history in his new book, Chumps to Champs: How the Worst Teams in Yankees History Led to the 90's Dynasty (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28.00, available Tuesday, May 7)

Bill Pennington.
Pennington examines the period from 1989 to 1992 when the Yankees were at the bottom of the standings, team owner George Steinbrenner was suspended from baseball, they went through managers at a torrid pace, they were sitting on a 14-year World Series drought, and had a 35 percent drop in attendance.

What came out of the worst period in the team's history was the makings of the late-1990s dynasty as General Manager Gene Michael, who ran the organization while Steinbrenner was suspended, was able to rebuild  from the bottom up by drafting Derek Jeter Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams, and Andy Pettitte, while also making trades for veterans like Paul O'Neill that fit into how he knew the team had to play if they were going to win.

I chatted with Pennington recently about his book and the figures that shaped this era of Yankees baseball:

Jason Schott: What is Gene Michael's place in Yankees history and how was his thinking on baseball ahead of its time?

Bill Pennington: He was with the team so long as a player and an executive, and highly influential. I don't know where to rank him, but let's put it this way: he's as important as an executive as they've had in terms of a GM or anybody like that. I guess George Steinbrenner had more overall influence on the franchise, but not always in a good way. Gene had influence on the 1970s Yankees as both a coach and as an advanced scout, so he had influence on those teams, he kept things afloat periodically in the '80s, and then without question, he's the architect, more so than anyone else, of what becomes the last baseball dynasty of the 20th century. He built that team more than anybody else and he had help from some bright minds in the scouting department and from Buck Showalter as the on-the-field Manager who ran the dugout.

Gene was ahead of his time, too. In doing the research for this book, I had always known that he really valued on-base percentage way before anyone else was talking about on-base percentage. That was his mantra, that was the most important thing to him. There were some other sort of "Moneyball," what later became "Moneyball" or analytic techniques and methods that he employed. In doing the book, I talk about them a lot. In 2017, in that spring and summer before he died, and I said, "where did all this come from?" and he started to tell me how he was playing this game as a young teen, sort of like a Stratomatic game, but I don't know if it was Stratomatic, he didn't know the name, and he would pick all these teams, he and his friends in Canton, Ohio, there, and he would pick the players with the highest on-base percentages and big power-hitting numbers and try to build a cast like that, pitchers who gave him a lot of innings because he tried to target the pitchers that didn't last a lot of innings.

He had a lot of different theories that were kind of way before their time and then he built the 1990s Yankees that way, too. Everybody talks about culture in the clubhouse, no, he was talking about that in the early '90s. It was very key to him to have the right kinds of players and the right mix of players. Really smart guy - anybody who really spent time around Gene Michael knew how smart he was, and what a good and wise baseball guy he was. He had the right personality for handling George and, you know, handling the high, intense sort of pressure and atmosphere that was in The Bronx a lot. He was a really gifted guy.

Gene Michael.

JS: There's a great part in the book where you mention that Michael told Steinbrenner that he would do any job in the organization except be manager after two stints in the role did not go well.

BP: It came a point after Stick had done it twice, that he said, "We got along great when I wasn't managing. When I was managing, we didn't get along anymore, that's enough of that. When he says they got along great, they still had shouting matches at each other all the time and hung up the phone on each other all the time, but George treated Stick like one of his sons, you know, or a favorite nephew or something, that's how close they were. They were very close. To me, it was interesting when Stick was asked, in a newspaper article after George had died in 2010, so they asked Stick, "who are the four people you would pick if you had to go to dinner and he included Steinbrenner in the grouping. I read that and I asked him a couple years ago, "why did you put him in there?" and he said, "just so I could tell him off one more time!" They had an interesting relationship, but I think George listened to Stick more than he listened to anybody else and George had influence on Stick in terms of work ethic and some things, not that Stick needed help in things, but George showed him some things, too.

JS: Do you think younger fans who are used to how Hal Steinbrenner runs the Yankees in a very pragmatic way, will be surprised to read how George was and how chaotic it was around the Yankees 30 years ago?

BP: I hope so, I think one of my intentions with this book was clearly to explain to people that I think never really knew how bad things had gotten, or had forgotten how bad things had gotten. This is how I really came up with the idea to write the book is, my sense is that Yankee fans kind thought that the Yankees win championships in every decade and there was this uninterrupted line from Ruth to DiMaggio to Mantle to Munson to Jeter and Rivera and there was no in-between when, in fact, there was this awful period where they were really, really bad, especially in '89 and '90. Those are the worst teams in the history of the franchise.

I do think that baseball fans in general and Yankees fans have just forgotten that the empire was crumbling in every way: attendance was down 35 percent, the TV ratings were plummeting, George had been permanently suspended - permanently suspended from baseball for paying a gambler for dirt on his best player, which was an embarrassing scandal and a stain on the Yankees' name and reputation. Things were really bad, but of course, that's what makes this kind of interesting, you know, and the fascinating, unexpected twist is that behind the scenes they were building a new empire and it becomes a story of resurrection and redemption, not failure, so that's the story I wanted to tell.

JS: You write that, in the period George was suspended from July 1990 to the start of the 1993 season, the team was given a breather from the chaos and allowed to get back to the basics of building a baseball team.

BP: There's no question his absence calmed down things and let Stick (Michael), at the top, put people in charge of what they're supposed to be in charge of. Scouting directors could devise the minor leagues the way they wanted to and they developed that 500-page manual that became known as "The Yankee Way." You know, you hear about the Patriots Way now, but this was 30 years ago and it was written down. They were allowed to do that and Stick was allowed to, as he called it, bottom-feed and find valuable players who he could get on the cheap a little bit because they didn't have a ton of money because George wasn't spending it so purse strings were kind of pulled in.

They got the manager (Buck Showalter) that they needed in there at the right time. He kind of worked on helping to alter the culture of the team, so you had this three-pronged effort that was operating and everybody staying in their row and doing what they had to do. The, there was no trading away - they did grab some fantastic prospects, I mean, they already had Bernie Williams and they got to keep him instead of trading him. They get Rivera in 1990 for two thousand dollars, Posada and Pettitte the next year, together for about a hundred and ten thousand dollars, and of course they draft Jeter the next year in 1992.

It's a total rebuild and the big league team was being rebuilt at the same time, and they got steadily better. It's a pretty good story when you look at it from everything that happened, and of course, it has a lot of bittersweet parts of it, too. They draft Brien Taylor with the number-one overall pick. He's a great pitcher, looks like he's going to be the left-handed Nolan Ryan and he gets in a bar fight and tragically his career is over. There's a lot going on in that little five-year period.

JS: The 1993 season was a thrilling one as they were in contention for most of that season with new additions Paul O'Neill, who they brought in from Cincinnati, and free agent signings Wade Boggs, Jimmy Key, and Jim Abbott.

BP: They came out of nowhere, and it was a mix of young and old guys. Key was obviously a big pick-up and Boggs was not highly sought-after after the Red Sox let him go and he turned out to be  a key guy. The '93 team kind of runs out of steam and then the '94 team is just a fantastic team, maybe the best team in the American League, possibly the Major Leagues. They seemed to be on the precipice of a playoff run until the strike comes, and that's why I say the bittersweet quality, which extends on into '95 because Gene Michael's moved aside as GM and Showalter is not brought back as manager, the whole scouting department leadership is fired. It's crazy, but they got them to the doorstep to greatness.

JS: If the 1994 season was played out and they went on to win the World Series, the dynasty likely begins then and who knows what happens. Gene Michael says in your book that the '94 team is largely forgotten because they didn't get to win anything.

BP: That's true, and that's a really good point that Gene made. People remember the '94 team, you know, five years later, it would come up during the run, and in the 10th anniversary in 2004, it came up, but nobody brings that team up anymore. They are forgotten -he's right, it's like they never played, it's like they never did anything.

Buck Showalter and George Steinbrenner in 1993.

JS: Buck Showalter, like Michael, was also ahead of his timeand had the same type of thoughts on the game. He served as an "eye-in-the-sky" coach in the late 1980s before he became manager. Speak about what a brilliant baseball mind he has.

BP: I thought Buck was a terrific manager pretty much everywhere he went. He wasn't the same manager - he was a little more controlling and intense the first time around. I think everybody who gets a new job at a higher level is learning on the job and I think he was learning on the job a little bit with the Yankees. He wasn't the same as he was in '95 as he was in '92, really. I thought he did a fantastic job, and he was the perfect person for the job. Brian Cashman, in the book, talks extensively about what Showalter did to change things.

Stick and Buck worked as a tandem, they were very close, and Buck always gives more credit to Gene, but Buck had a lot to do with the success and the revival of the '93 team and the success of the '94 team where everything was clicking. He's a very astute baseball guy, he's a very bright guy, I think he's proven that throughout his career, and it's interesting how things played out in each of his stops as manager (Yankees, Arizona, Texas, and Baltimore), without maybe the end result he was going for, but you can't argue with his record. He's obviously a brilliant baseball mind, and when you talk to him, as I have for years. When I first met him in 1985, it was sort of by accident doing a story on the Oneonta Yankees, which was the lowest team the Yankees had at the time, and it was his first year as manager, so I've known him 34 years.

He's a really deep thinker about this game, very observant. I think it would be a shame if he didn't get a chance to manage again, but I don't know that that'll happen, to tell you the truth. I don't think he would take it just as a job, it would have to be the right job. Chances are he already has been offered some jobs. We'll have to wait and see if he gets another job, he deserves it.

JS: When George Steinbrenner returned from suspension, in 1993, how had he changed?

BP: He was pretty different, especially to the media. There was a good interview I did with Gene Michael where he said that the 'Showalter thing,' as he called it, meaning basically firing him (in 1995) shook him up and changed him forever. He said he never went after people in the media after that and Brian Cashman said that Joe Torre had a cakewalk compared to all the managers before that because George left him alone, for the most part.

George Steinbrenner.

I think that being away had changed his view on what was working and what wasn't working. The part of his management style that was working was being demanding and expecting a lot and being willing to pay for a lot because the Yankees overspent on, not just on people, but also their minor leagues. You've got to give them credit for that, that they had the higher-paid minor league coaches and managers, trainers in every minor-league outpost.

He deserves credit for a lot of those things, but then he realized that some of the other things he was doing were detrimental, I think. He learned from that and then, of course, being calmer and not calling the manager every day leads to the '96 World Series win, and that's just more positive reinforcement that, 'ah, maybe this is the way that I should behave,' or this is the management style that might be more productive. He saw the results, which was a good thing for the team and a good thing for him because he became a lot more popular figure in Yankee fandom. Obviously, he was highly unpopular in 1990 and they cheered when he was suspended.

He changed, and I think the biggest change from my perspective was we didn't get these calls from George all the time. It used to be almost a daily occurrence that, when things were going bad, you'd hear from George. He'd stir things up, sometimes off the record, planting stories, playing one media outlet off the other media outlet, starting these newspaper wars. All that stopped and it became much more of a baseball operation, not an operation that was all over the place and all over the tabloids.

JS: So George would have it planned out in his mind where he would want stories and spread them around? 

BP: He did. Now, because that's what he would do, when you're a Yankee beat writer in that period, it was also part of your daily life that you leave a message at 9:05 every morning with the secretary in Tampa asking for him to call - not every single day, but if things were going bad, they were on a losing streak or anything like that - because he would often call back and plant these stories. He also used to play competing writers off each other.

It was a hectic time period for all, you know, but I think that he kind of felt that that kind of pressurized atmosphere helped lead to the victories that he had - that the Yankees had - in the late '70s. He created this sort of chaos in the Billy Martin/Reggie Jackson years and look what had happened, look how much they won. He was just trying to replicate it, but times had changed, that kind of thing wears people out over the long run. I mean, up until the point he was suspended, he had been running the team for 17 years, he'd had 19 managers and 14 GMs and 29 pitching coaches. It's very hard to operate in any kind of consistent manner with that type of chaos.

Eventually, when he stepped away, he saw that, and I interviewed him a lot before the suspension and I interviewed him during the suspension, made trips down to Florida to talk to him, have lunch with him, and also after the suspension. He was definitely a different kind of guy afterwards. He was very humbled, I think, by the suspension and that was probably the biggest thing that changed him.

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