There is reverence attached to the New York Yankees dynasty of the late 1990s and early 2000s. And deservedly so. From 1996 to 2003, the Yankees went to six World Series, winning four of them.'
The “Core Four” of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada exemplified the “Yankee Way” that originated in the 1930s when another dynasty under manager Joe McCarthy won five World Series during the 1930s.
But several postseason disappointments — including the meltdown in the 2004 ALCS — made it clear the old guard needed some new blood.
That is what happened in 2009. The Yankees opened a new ballpark, and the team opened its wallet to bring in some key players. The result was the Yankees’ 40th American League pennant and 27th World Series title.
Authors Mark Feinsand and Bryan Hoch take a fresh approach and connect solidly in Mission 27: A New Boss, A New Ballpark, and One Last Ring for the Yankees’ Core Four (Triumph Books; hardback; $27.95; 287 pages).
Feinsand covered the Yankees during the 2009 season for the New York Daily News and currently is an executive reporter for MLB.com. Hoch, meanwhile, has covered the Yankees for MLB.com since 2007.
The Yankees traditionally have won pennants in bunches, so the 2009 flag represented a season that stood by itself. Certainly, the Yankees believed they had the personnel for another run, but it didn’t happen even though the team reached the postseason after the ’09 season.
What makes this book such an interesting read is that Feinsand and Hoch widen their focus beyond the Core Four. That’s because there are so many interesting, free-wheeling characters — Nick Swisher (who wrote the book’s foreword), Mark Teixeira, Johnny Damon, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, to name a few.
There were many key moments in that season, but one of the biggest happened before spring training ever began. General manager Brian Cashman’s ability to convince Sabathia to come to New York was huge, not only because of his pitching ability, but also because of his knack for creating a convivial clubhouse. Feinsand and Hoch note that Sabathia was not sold on signing with the Yankees, but Cashman convinced him because the pitcher was “a strong, team-first personality” who could help “mend a clubhouse in need of a makeover.”
Sabathia was concerned because he’d heard the Yankees had a broken clubhouse, and Cashman did not mince words.
“That’s one of the reasons we’re talking to you,” Cashman told Sabathia. “Not because of who you are as a player but someone who brings people together.”
Swisher is the unsung hero of Mission 27, a player with a strong, bubbling personality that fit in well with a winning team. It was easy for Cashman to pry Swisher away from the White Sox, where the first baseman did not mesh with manager Ozzie Guillen and the Chicago coaching staff.
Teixeira, meanwhile, was a surprise acquisition. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s on!’ That was huge,” hitting coach Kevin Long told the authors. “This was a big piece, and we knew it. We knew how valuable Tex was.”
Signing a new group of free-spirited players allowed Alex Rodriguez to relax and bond with players outside the Core Four. Whether he was ever accepted in the Core Four axis is open to debate, but Rodriguez realized he could bond with other players who could pick up the team. A-Rod could relax, and that would be the difference.
Rodriguez had a rocky start before the season, holding an awkward news conference during spring training to address steroid use. No one was comfortable, and although the team leaders stood behind Rodriguez, their body language made it clear they did not necessarily stand with him. An injury that hampered Rodriguez early in the season also was a concern.
Feinsand and Hoch excel at bringing out details that led to the Yankees meshing as a group. In the chapter called “A Visit From the Principal,” Cashman makes an unannounced trip to Atlanta in late June and reads the Yankees the riot act — in a calm, effective tone.
“His missive cut straight to the point: You’re better than this. Prove it,” the authors write of Cashman, who never raised his voice “from its usual peppy monotone” during the meeting.
“There was no need to; the results spoke volumes,” the authors write.
“You don’t have to yell to get your point across,” Teixeira said. “Some guys just have a look, a tone. Cash had both.”
The second key event was a birthday party Rodriguez threw at his mansion in Rye, New York. It was a swanky affair, with A-listers like Kate Hudson (A-Rod’s girlfriend at the time) and rapper Jay-Z. What made the party notable was the move away from elegance to just plain fun. Rodriguez, on a suggestion from Sabathia and Burnett, blew out the candles to his birthday cake and then jumped, fully clothed in his expensive threads, into his Olympic-sized swimming pool.
Even manager Joe Girardi jumped into the pool.
“For Rodriguez, the acceptance he felt on the night of birthday party offered another indication that he was moving past his early season drama,” the authors write.
Feinsand and Hoch compare A-Rod to the Andy Dufresne character from The Shawshank Redemption, “who crawled through a river of sewage and came out clean on the other side.”
Amazingly, the Cashman dress-down and A-Rod party were not discovered during the season; imagine what fun the New York tabloids would have had with that. Feinsand and Hoch, both fine reporters, did not have an inkling, and it was only through their research for Mission 27 that these fascinating nuggets came to light.
There are some good anecdotes about Burnett, who smashed whipped cream pies into the faces of players who were being interviewed on postgame shows for their heroics during the game. That helped puncture the myth of the haughty Yankees and injected some fun into the equation.
Guys like Burnett and Damon kept the clubhouse loose. “Johnny Damon was a guy I always tell people took us from being the uptight Goldman Sachs executives to more of a kind of college frat house,” Rodriguez tells the authors.
Still Burnett had his issues with Posada, and the two battery mates could never work smoothly together. Now, Burnett speaks with regret about Girardi’s decision to have Jose Molina catch him, instead of Posada. The emotional catcher remains bitter about it.
“I felt like he stabbed me in the back,” Posada tells the authors. “It hurt me deeply.”
Molina, for his part, said he did not feel sorry for Posada and basically said the catcher needed to get over it. “Posada’s griping behind closed doors rubbed Molina the wrong way,” the authors write.
“I wasn’t mad; I was just kind of disappointed because a teammate is a teammate in the good times and the bad,” Molina told the authors.
“We’re all tough athletes, but everyone’s got a heart,” Burnett told the authors. “I could tell his was hurt and I hope he knew mine was.”
The book opens with an oral history, with players, coaches and personnel recalling the Yankees’ World Series-clinching win on Nov. 4, 2009. The biggest takeaway from that chapter was the injury Rivera was fighting. The all-time saves leader had a strained left oblique, and no one — reporters, and especially the Philadelphia Phillies, trying to save alive in the Series — knew about it.
“Every time you throw a pitch, it feels like a knife,” Rivera tells the authors. “That was pain. That wasn’t soreness. That’s pain.”
The authors were blessed with cooperation from most of the players and executives from that 2009 squad. Jeter is a notable exception, although he is quoted in several places. But the other three Core Four players were happy to speak with Feinsand and Hoch, and it helps give the reader a unique perspective about the pressure that follows players who don the pinstripes.
Rodriguez was also particularly candid, which gave the book more heft.
It’s not an easy job.
Mission 27 is a detailed, behind-the-scenes look at the most glamorous franchise in the major leagues. Feinsand and Hoch present an engaging narrative, rich with detail and firsthand perspective. Even if you are not a Yankees fan, you can still appreciate the hard work and attention to detail.