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Micromanaging madman’s meddling ruined baseball’s best team

Chumps to Champs: How the Worst Teams in Yankee History Led to the ’90s Dynasty by Bill Pennington, HMH, 2019; $28

History’s greatest baseball dynasty, the New York Yankees were for a period 30 years ago the sport’s worst team. Author and New York Times sportswriter Pennington knows that “How often were the Yankees in the World Series from 1982 to 1995?” is a trivia question because the answer is zero. Between 1989 and 1992 the Yankees won 288 games and lost 359, the outfit’s worst showing since becoming the Yankees in 1913, and Pennington diagnoses why. The causes included bad luck but no reader with an interest in sports will doubt the author’s conclusion that George Steinbrenner was mostly to blame. The shipping magnate bought the team in 1973 and proceeded to create chaos.

Meddlesome and self-important, Steinbrenner fired 20 managers in his first 23 years and gave generous if usually unwanted advice to players and staff. He loved trades and pursuing free agents. Hitting the jackpot early with Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter, Steinbrenner thought himself to have the golden touch. He went on to sign too many players who didn’t pan out, meanwhile trading talented prospects from the team’s farm system for familiar but not necessarily useful veterans.

In 1990, after a decade of proprietary harassment and bad personnel moves and with the once-vaunted Yankee farm system in disarray, the team finished last in the American League. That terrible year did feature a stroke of fortune: Major League Baseball suspended Steinbrenner for two years as punishment for his ties to a gambler. That slap on the wrist emancipated Pennington’s heroes Buck Showalter and Gene Michael, that year’s manager and general manager. The pair set to work restoring morale, rebuilding the minors, and nursing prospects like Mariano Duncan and Derek Jeter, whose lackluster early showings had led many colleagues to give up on them.

By 1993 the Yankees were winners. They did even better in 1994, when a strike nixed the postseason. By now Steinbrenner was back, seemingly reviving the bad old days, when, following the Yankees’ 1995 playoff loss, he fired Showalter and the cream of the minor league staff. The boss’s meddling waned, however, and he drifted into dementia. When the team won the 1996 World Series, most Americans resumed the tradition of Yankee-hating. After 20 years of regular first-place finishes, they have no reason to give it up.

Pennington has done his homework, delivering color, anecdotes, baseball expertise, personal experience, and plenty of ink about Steinbrenner, an unpleasant character with no influence over the nation or our personal welfare and therefore fun to read about.

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