Michael Morrissey has been writing about Major League Baseball since 1997. He has been honored in “Best American Sports Writing” three times. He’s been covering baseball in New York City since 2000 and currently writes for the New York Post. From January 11, 2007 through January 19, 2007, I had a chance to do a “Q&A” session with Michael on his new book which details the 2006 baseball season in the Bronx. In the process, Michael also shared some very interesting insight on Joe Torre, Brian Cashman, Alex Rodriguez, and Derek Jeter. Our exchanges follow herein.
WasWatching.com: Your book, The Pride and the Pressure: A Season Inside the New York Yankee Fishbowl, is slated for release on April 10th of this year. What can you tell us about the book now and what was the driving force behind your decision to write it?
Michael Morrissey: Steve, I’ll handle the second part of the question first, because it’s something the publishing houses wanted to know when we were shopping the book proposal. What I told various publishers was that my idea for “The Pride and the Pressure” came to mind during the winter after the 2005 season, when a confluence of events hammered home the uniqueness of being a Yankee. GM Brian Cashman broke down in tears at the end of the team’s season, and there was widespread speculation that he would move on. Also, manager Joe Torre was dissatisfied with the culture of the organization, and he spent a week in October debating whether to honor his contract for 2006.
Meanwhile, Matt Lawton was busted for steroid use. Lawton said he panicked after a 3-for-38 start as a Yankee and buckled under the pressure of playing in New York. At the same time, Alex Rodriguez was waffling as to whether he would play in the World Baseball Classic, and for the Dominican Republic or the United States. To top it off, the continued specter of steroids surrounded Gary Sheffield and Jason Giambi.
During the winter, I came to the conclusion that nobody in this most recent era had written strictly through the prism of the pressures and prestige of being a Yankee. People had written excellent books about the beginning and the end of the Yankee dynasty and the rivalry with Boston. They had written great biographies of certain players. But no one had focused on the uniqueness of being a Yankee circa 2006. In my mind, A-Rod’s tenure with the team alone merited a new book on the current status of the organization.
In the spring, I approached Yankee officials from the top down concerning my idea. Team president Randy Levine pledged his cooperation with the book. Cashman, who remained as GM, told me he hoped the book would become a best-seller and also agreed to offer insight. Torre generously agreed to be interviewed exclusively during the course of the season. And since I’ve been with the Post since 2000, I’ve developed a rapport with guys like Sheffield, Giambi, Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter.
As far as what the book is about, I’d say it’s one writer’s inside look at the tradition and turmoil unique to the Yankees. I tried to make this book a look behind the clubhouse door through the eyes of these players – with refreshing, off-the-beaten-path honesty – as much as I could. I’m reluctant to talk a lot about the actual contents until it’s published for obvious reasons, but there will be some very interesting insights and information.
So often in a newspaper, we’re limited by the constraints of time and/or space. While that’s true in a general sense in the book world, you have much more time and much more space to report, to analyze and finally, to put forth words. People who love Bernie Williams, for example, will be treated to an entire chapter on Bernie. There are other issues that are examined in more depth than they’ve ever been examined. That’s about as specific as I can get until April 10th, unfortunately.
Also, I will begin blogging this week about the book-writing experience and life in the “Yankee Fishbowl,” on my new website, http://www.myspace.com/theprideandthepressure, so I encourage any Yankee fan with interest in the book to check it out.
WasWatching.com: Pressure, or stress (if some prefer), and dealing with anxiety, etc., have always interested me. Pressure brings change – but it can either make a diamond or dust. It’s been my experience that there are two kinds of stress – actual, true, would rattle anyone pressure and the stress/pressure that someone creates on their own in the way they decide to deal with a particular situation (that may not stress everyone). In your opinion, was the pressure on the 2006 Yankees something that was real or something that certain individuals created on their own? I know that you cannot get into too many specifics, but, could you try and share why you think it was one way, or the other – or even both?
Michael Morrissey: It’s my opinion that, from the top of the Yankees on down, as well as from the media and fans, there is a mandate to win a world championship that creates a certain level of pressure. Brian Cashman and Joe Torre admit that there’s a pressure that doesn’t exist in other cities, and by speaking of it publicly, I think they try to alleviate some of the anxiety. Their feeling is, hey, it exists, let’s not pretend it’s the elephant in the room. Cashman told me back in the 2000 season that there are plenty of people who would prefer not to be a GM in such a high-pressure situation, and the same goes for players. We see guys shy away from playing in New York every winter. So there was a certain alert level in play at the beginning of the season.
Then, there’s the self-imposed pressure beyond what’s expected of the team. One of the most famous examples was Roger Clemens trying to fit into a world championship clubhouse back in 1999, instead of simply being “The Rocket.” Torre had to tell him to be himself more than once, but Clemens admittedly didn’t truly feel comfortable for about a year and a half. The performance suffered.
Alex Rodriguez, obviously, is the most obvious current example. Anyone who watched the Yanks last year knows that A-Rod squeezed the sawdust out of his bat during certain stretches. He tried to do too much, he tried to end the booing with one swing, and it didn’t help matters. Same thing: people like Torre and Don Mattingly told him at certain points to just relax and have fun. Larry Bowa was another guy, as you’ll see in the book. Reggie Jackson has a great anecdote in the book on this subject.
I go back to the Matt Lawton answer from the first question, because to me it hammered the idea home. If you take Lawton’s explanation of steroid use at face value (which I did), and you believe he was a nice guy, always clean throughout his career, who suddenly panicked because he was in New York and in a slump and in danger of losing a job, it makes perfect sense. Guys like Kenny Rogers who had decent careers elsewhere couldn’t, admittedly, cut it here. I believe that’s because of the unique stress that’s imposed, outwardly and inwardly.
WasWatching.com: Part of me wants to believe that the eventual results of the 2004 ALCS, coupled with the Game 5 loss in the 2005 ALDS, may have led to a heightened sense of pressure for the main ringless players on the 2006 Yankees team – like A-Rod. However, the fact that Alex Rodriguez was the league MVP in 2005 starts to poke some holes in that theory. It seems odd that A-Rod did not feel the performance impacting pressure in 2005 like he did in 2006. So, maybe the 2004 ALCS had nothing to do with it? (Perhaps the Yankees just knew that the Red Sox could pitch, pardon the pun, rings around them in 2004?) This still does leave the 2005 ALDS end result as a possible cause for more pressure in 2006. Was this your finding? Or, was there something else out there that made 2006 more pressure packed than most other Yankees seasons?
Michael Morrissey: There is no doubt that the guys like Mussina, Giambi, A-Rod, et al. feel a heightened sense of being ringless. In fact, there’s an anecdote early in the book where it’s addressed as a team. They all, in one form or another, shared that sentiment. They all could’ve played anywhere; they came to where they thought they had the best chance of winning a World Series ring. Yes, Rodriguez agitated for a trade, but he would’ve only played in a couple of competitive cities once he realized the mess that he was in with Texas.
Now, I don’t personally think that the fact that the team collapsed in 2004 and suffered a disappointing early exit in ’05 was the only cause for what happened in the ’06 playoffs. For those that think the collective playoff failures, however, causes a snowball effect that rears its head every October, I’d tend to accept that as part of the reason for the pressure.
As for A-Rod, he had a terrific year in 2005 but then was terrible in the playoffs, and he admitted trying to carry the whole load – which he addresses in the book. In ’06, I believe the lineups the manager put forth contributed a great deal to A-Rod feeling pressure and not performing.
As far as the ultimate defeat, I feel that the Game 2 swing was pivotal, and the Yanks looked flat for the final three games after Damon’s homer. Part of that was Detroit pitching, but part of that was an energy thing, a chemistry thing, even a lineup thing, whatever you want to call it. And consider this: if Yankee fans were asked at the beginning of the year if they wanted Jaret Wright – a back-end starter the entire season – to pitch a Game 4 facing elimination, what would they have said? So ultimately, there was also some unsupported optimism (or hope) in the back end of the rotation by people in the organization.
WasWatching.com: I was all set to ask you some questions about the process of writing the book at this point. But, something you just said begs me to ask for more on it. In your opinion, in what way did Torre’s line-ups contribute a great deal to Rodriguez feeling pressure and not performing?
Michael Morrissey: In my opinion, the decision to bat A-Rod sixth to begin the Division Series was either very poorly thought out or simply misguided. Based on what I observed before and after, it had a strong effect. Now, keep in mind the Yankees won the first game with a timely RBI single from Gary Sheffield and without any contribution from Rodriguez, who stung the ball a couple of times. That said, the lineup decision turned workout day into an absolute circus, I feel that played on A-Rod’s psyche. How many ballplayers would ask himself these questions: why is Skip bumping me down to sixth? I haven’t hit there in 10 years. I’ve been hitting cleanup much of the season. I finally jumped out of my latest slump. I’m swinging good. The guy hitting cleanup has been hurt all year. The guy hitting cleanup has way worse numbers than I do off Nate Robertson. I’ve tattooed Robertson over my career. Why make a change now? What’s Skip trying to prove? Why is he doing this to me?
If you want to dismiss it as one writer’s opinion or armchair psychology, that’s OK. But the proof is in the pudding. If you look back on the coverage of workout day, it became a gigantic story.
Now, if Torre’s initial intentions were to take the heat off Rodriguez and try to get him to relax by hitting sixth, you can chalk it up as a noble but failed experiment. As soon as the Yanks lost, though, A-Rod was back up to fourth. So much for relieving the pressure. When they lost again, he was dumped to eighth.
Objectively, based on where A-Rod batted most of the season, through thick and thin, based on where he batted after Matsui and Sheff returned, based on stats against the Game 1 starter, based on the probability that Sheff was not in midseason form (something he admitted in November), based on the likelihood that a commotion would be made if/when the manager changed the lineup from what it was in September – all these things are evidence that Torre made a mistake. Messing with A-Rod’s spot in the lineup (and thereby his head) affected him, in my view, and he went 1-for-14. Torre has historically made his career on putting out brush fires. He’s one of the best ever at it. But in my humble opinion, he created one here – and it raged out of control into a forest fire.
The issue is discussed at great length in the book, and I’m curious to what your readers think. Were they perplexed when they initially saw A-Rod dumped to sixth for the playoff opener? Were they thrilled that he wouldn’t be in the heart of the order? What did they think of the Game 3 and Game 4 lineups?
WasWatching.com: Well, I can tell you what I wrote when I first saw that Torre decided to bat Rodriguez 8th in Game 4 of the 2006 ALDS:
“Mark down today’s date: October 7th, 2006. This is the date that we can look to when judging the acquisitions of Giambi and A-Rod. The results of today’s starting line-up tell you everything you need to know. In a ‘must win’ or die game, the manager of the team feels that he cannot count on these guys to be major factors towards a chance to win.”
As far as the readers of WasWatching.com, if I recall correctly, the reaction was a mixed bag. Some were fine with the decision whereas others thought it brought cause to no longer defend Torre’s moves. Some thought it was a sign that A-Rod must leave town and others thought that Torre should be fired for the decision.
You mentioned this matter is discussed at great length in the book. Was that hard to do? Do you have any concerns about this, or anything in the book, creating a situation where it may damage your standing with those you still need to report on? Are you expecting that you may have to do some fence mending this Spring?
Michael Morrissey: It wasn’t necessarily hard to do, because I’m a writer who has been taught at the Post to shoot from the hip. You can’t really hedge your analysis or criticism based on the fact that someone might not like it, or else the readers, in the end, are the ones who suffer. It was my opinion, and my editor at Doubleday backed me, that whitewashing what turned out to be a disappointment wouldn’t be right, wouldn’t be true.
Now, that said, I’m sure some people will be unhappy when the book comes out, but I’m not worried about it damaging my standing with them.
Sportswriting has changed so much just in the course of a generation or two. I encourage all your readers to pick up the great Jerome Holtzman book, “No Cheering in the Press Box.” It’s a great read about a bygone era, and any baseball or history fan should enjoy it. I’m mentioning it because there are a couple of great anecdotes about how certain writers were, among other things, sycophants for the players. Nowadays, there’s a wariness between athletes and sportswriters, at best. At worst, it’s a downright confrontational relationship. Doing the job in the clubhouse has never been more difficult.
I recall the great Peter Gammons – who I can unabashedly say was my sportswriting hero growing up, and the reason I got into this industry – saying that early in his career, he used to occasionally shag fly balls for some of the Red Sox players during early BP. Folks, if I tried to do that nowadays – I say this half-jokingly – the security guards would probably hustle me off the field and right out the Stadium.
So that was a roundabout way of saying that things have changed. To really answer the question, while I highly respect Brian Cashman and Joe Torre and all they’ve done in building and sustaining the premier franchise in sports, I’m not afraid to report on what I felt were the team’s shortcomings. The same holds true for the players. I don’t think the standing will be damaged, because much of the book is based on what people have told me through their own eyes. Additionally, the reporting of the results is unmistakable. In other words, you can’t argue that a franchise that demanded nothing less than a 27th world championship since the first day of spring training lost to an inexperienced (if not inferior) club, which in turn lost to an 83-78 club in the World Series.
As far as certain anecdotes or certain candid remarks, yeah, some people end up looking bad. Savvy Yankee fans can probably even guess who they are. And I’m sure some Yankees might be offended by them when the book comes out. But all I can do is stand by my reporting and my analysis, and I’m fully comfortable with that.
WasWatching.com: Speaking of life in the Yankees clubhouse, from your view, has there been much of a change there in terms of the overall climate and how people relate to each other, now, as compared to 6 or 7 years ago? In what way? If the change has been in the wrong direction, is it something that can be corrected this season? What would that require, in your opinion?
Michael Morrissey: I arrived in New York after the 2000 season was already underway, so I missed most of the camaraderie that may have existed on the earlier teams. That already seems like a long time ago, and I remember them as not often in the clubhouse and kind of grumpy – maybe because I was a “rookie” that year, or maybe because I so vividly remember them losing 15 of 18 at the end of the regular season. I guess the point is, I don’t think it’s a radical change to what the press saw last season and in ’00.
I can speak to this: I think in 2006, the Yankees were better than they were during ’04 and ’05 (I was on the Mets beat in 2002 and 2003, so I can’t speak to those years). The fact that a player tried to do something out in the clubhouse, like Sal Fasano and the chess game with the B List guys and the fact that players tried to grow mustaches, even if it was only a few and for a few days – these are moves forward. But they’re small moves. If you ask your friends who might follow other baseball teams religiously, ask them about all the goofy, off-beat stuff that their teams do over a six-month period. Seems like even when you think about it in your own head, there’s more gung-ho stuff that happens elsewhere, from the Frat Boy A’s of the early 2000s to the Idiot Red Sox of ’04. Even the Mets openly crowed about how loose they were last year, and I seem to remember a Sports Illustrated cover piece on just that topic (which the Mets then blew up a replica of and hung proudly on their clubhouse wall).
Point being, I think the Yankees are always going to be one of the most buttoned-down teams in baseball compared to others. The guys I talked to in ’06 thought the chemistry was really strong for the most part, even A-Rod I think said it was the best since he had been there. But Gary Sheffield argued that the Yankees can do much better in that area, and it’s something that we talk about in the book.
One thing that could get better would be the perception around A-Rod, from the media, fans, and, yes, his teammates. The fact that everyone from Rudy Giuliani to Darryl Strawberry is commenting on the Rodriguez boobirds and the Jeter/A-Rod dynamic is not a good thing, Yankee fans. On that topic, the status quo in ’07 would not be a good thing. That can be corrected by Rodriguez sprinting out of the starting blocks and staying hot until he wins the league MVP and a World Series title. I know Yankee fans would gladly take that.
Otherwise, I think the contagious enthusiasm the young players like Cano and Cabrera show will continue to positively affect the vets, and I think you’ll see good chemistry as long as they keep winning. Having Sheffield and Johnson out of town and not moping around certainly helps.
WasWatching.com: The constant commenting on A-Rod thing is tough – because it’s such a deep topic that always seems to pull you back into it. For instance, right now, I should ask you about how the Yankees can get more “younger players” into the clubhouse, given that their starting eight on the field and their DH are locked up for the next few years. Or, maybe I should ask about what one thing you want your readers to take away from “The Pride and the Pressure.” But, the suggestion that Alex getting out of the gate in good fashion will help him this season with respect to the focus on him, forces me to ask this question: Wasn’t A-Rod the A.L. Player Of The Month For May last season? Did that help him last year in the long run? It seems, at least to me, that Rodriguez tanked in June when Matsui and Sheffield went out. And, that’s when the heat and booing started up heavy for Alex. Could it just be that it’s in the Yankees best interests to make sure they have big bats around Alex so that he doesn’t have to feel like he has to carry the team and then start pressing? See, it’s so easy to just keep talking about A-Rod!
Oh, and, by the way, any thoughts on getting more younger position players in the Yankees clubhouse and what it is you want readers to take away from your book?
Michael Morrissey: [Laughing] We’ll get to the last two questions, I promise. I was kind of joking that A-Rod needed to jump out of the starting blocks and then keep going, put his stamp on a year to remember like the year McGwire hit 70 or George Brett hit .390, etc. etc. We all know that isn’t likely to happen, and there will probably be some slump or rough patch over the course of a six-month season when Rodriguez gets booed again. That’s what makes sports so interesting: how do you handle the adversity?
I think you make an excellent point that Matsui and Sheffield going down came right around the time A-Rod slumped, either through coincidence or through pressure by the fans and media (or even self-imposed pressure). His final numbers, though, were something that virtually any hitter would gladly accept.
The Yankees, in my humble view, need to convey on the most personal, human level possible that Rodriguez is their most pivotal player for 2007 and beyond, and that they are on board to help him navigate the ups and downs of New York. Whether that’s Brian Cashman, whether that’s Joe Torre, whether that’s Derek Jeter, whether that’s a combination of people, I think the Yanks need to make a good-faith effort to put A-Rod at ease beginning in spring training, and make him understand that “the ship ain’t sailing without him,” to use a term.
Cashman mentioned something about bedside manner regarding Andy Pettitte the last time the lefty was on the free-agent market. He said their bedside manner could’ve been a little better in courting Pettitte back in ’03.
In my mind – and this is one man’s view – the Yanks’ bedside manner regarding A-Rod needs to be much better in ’07. If Rodriguez fails, if he opts out of his contract when the year is up, at least the club can say it did everything in its power to make it work out.
The Yankees can get younger by using what they have and properly grooming what they want to have. By playing Melky Cabrera regularly (two or three times a week when the other outfielders need a day off), that will help the energy level. Pitching-wise, they’re preparing for a life without Mussina, Pettitte, Clemens, etc. They simply need to make wise choices in how they bring guys like Phil Hughes along and get a little bit of luck on the health aspect with these young prospects. My understanding is the team doesn’t really have any great young infielders on the come, so it’s up to someone like (outfielder) Jose Tabata to make a difference in a few years.
The thing I think I want readers to take away from the book is what a unique, precious and privileged thing it is to be a Yankee – and a Yankee fan. These players understand that, and I hope it comes through vividly. I can say unequivocally the organization is filled with good men and good women who care, and that the baseball operations department – starting with Brian Cashman – is absolutely focused on winning that next world championship. They are, for the most part, dedicating every available resource to do that.
However, with the tradition and the excellence comes a trade-off, and I hope the book portrays that properly. There are no medals for finishing second. Nobody that I know of is sporting “2006 AL East champs” T-shirts around town.
WasWatching.com: As a Yankees fan, it’s great to hear from someone with access to the inner workings of the team that there are good people, who care, and who are focused, working the controls. It’s interesting that you said there are “no medals for finishing second.” It reminds me of that old Bill Parcells book “No Medals for Trying.” Maybe that can be the Yankees team slogan for 2007?
You said the Yankees need “a good-faith effort to put A-Rod at ease” and that “the Yanks’ bedside manner regarding A-Rod needs to be much better in ’07.” I’m a believer in root cause analysis as part of any sound remediation plan. Do you have any opinions on what brought cause for the Yankees (both in the clubhouse and the front office) to develop a bedside manner towards Alex that causes him not to be at ease? If the Yankees put a Band-Aid on the situation, without changing why it happened, isn’t it likely to develop again? By this I mean, if the Yankees reaction is the result of something in A-Rod’s control, should not he also be charged with making some changes in 2007? Does this make sense?
Michael Morrissey: This is my opinion, but I simply think A-Rod is a high maintenance superstar. Furthermore, I think Joe Torre grew frustrated or exasperated trying to figure out what made Rodriguez tick and get him to relax in 2006. Obviously, Rodriguez had a great year in 2005, so it was perplexing to see him struggle through long stretches the year after, especially defensively – where he regressed. I think the manager, who has so much on his plate, figured his cleanup guy would break out of it. But that it took Jason Giambi to exhort the manager to action (see SI’s “Lonely Yankee” story) is telling. Torre usually knows the right thing to say, and a little goes a long way with the stuff he says. A-Rod either didn’t take it to heart or didn’t hear the right thing about relaxing, trusting yourself, understanding the Yankee fishbowl, etc., etc.
Beyond that, the Jeter/A-Rod relationship is something that could get better. There’s no denying it. Everyone from Mike Lupica on down wrote about a relationship that was called various degrees of “frosty” over the course of 2006. For the fans, I’ll say it’s not a case of sportswriters making this stuff up; it’s the most respected names in our industry remarking on the dynamic. The fact that Jeter said at the World Series that there’s nothing more he can do tells me it’s likely that nothing will change, though.
The fact that this has always been Jeter’s team and A-Rod is an outsider coming to New York are root causes of the comfort level, I’d say. Again, though, he won the MVP in 2005, so it’s not like he’s a bust. He had one “bad” year where the media perception was certain key people might’ve hung him out to dry a little. It can get better by him finally realizing and actually believing that, like it or not, he’ll be booed by some until he’s cheered at the end of a victorious World Series, and for that to not distract him from the day-to-day task at hand. He certainly needs to relax more, no doubt about it.
WasWatching.com: I suppose, in some way, A-Rod might be better off being ignorant and/or apathetic towards people’s opinions of him. The need for approval thing is just not working in his favor – at least last season. Perhaps having a buddy like Mientkiewicz on the team this year will provide some sort of confidant option to him – much like Fran Healy was for Reggie Jackson back in the day when Jackson was not getting along with his manager and teammates in the Bronx? As a Yankees fan, I hope it all works out.
In closing, and getting back to your book, was there something that happened, or came to your attention, in the process of writing “The Pride and the Pressure” that surprised and/or pleased you more than anything else? If so, what was it and why does that item or event stand out? Related, was there one item or event that you wished had not happened?
Michael Morrissey: I’m not sure I was surprised by any one thing. Having said that, there are one or two things that a couple of the key figures on the team said that will certainly be surprising to people. Although there are opinions baseball fans have of certain people or certain events around the Yankees, I think there will be some coloring in.
The death of Cory Lidle was certainly something that I wish hadn’t happened. I had a chance to speak with him a few times, and although I learned people in baseball were divided on him, I found him to be a very humble, very down-to-earth guy. There is a lengthy interview with him at the end of the book, and I hope even Yankee fans who didn’t get to know him/like him gets something from his feelings about being a Yankee.
I just wanted to thank you for this interview, and I wanted to welcome Yankee fans everywhere to my blogs (at Amazon and MySpace). In the next few months, I’m going to try to begin posting regularly about the Yankees, the book, and other events inside and outside the baseball world. Thanks all, and good luck with your team this year!
WasWatching.com: Thank you Michael – for your time and candor in answering these questions. I’m sure that Yankees fans will appreciate and enjoy what you’ve shared here, will be sharing in your blogs, and have shared in The Pride and the Pressure: A Season Inside the New York Yankee Fishbowl. Best of luck with all your projects!
That’s it. Once again, our thanks to Michael Morrissey for granting WasWatching.com this interview!