From 1998 through 2001, Buster Olney served as the New York Times‘s primary Yankee beat writer. It was, for both team and reporter, a great run: Three championship seasons, including the magical 1998 campaign, culminated by the stirring post 9/11 World Series against the Diamondbacks. Through it, Olney brought us onto the field and into this team’s clubhouse, achieving the fairly astounding feat of making a daily newspaper column about a game that been televised and then dissected in highlights seem not only compelling but entirely fresh.
Olney has since moved on to ESPN as a columnist, but with Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty he returns to the Yankees with a more comprehensive and provocative account of this run than was possible in the daily pages of the Gray Lady. It’s an extraordinary book: an honest history of the Yankee team that took its first title in 1996, with a series of intimate portraits of the key figures on the field, the bench, and the executive suite.
Olney’s central conceit is that with the loss to the Dbacks, this Yankee dynasty came to a close, and the book itself is framed around the seventh and deciding game of that 2001 series, opening in its first chapter with pregame pep-talks from Gene Monahan (surprisingly inspirational) and Mariano Rivera (a freaky dud) and closing in its last with Luis Gonzales’s fateful 9th-inning blooper (ugh).
Did the Yankees’ run of greatness end with that hit? Olney argues that the team that returned for 2002 had lost much of the core structure (O’Neill and Cone, most prominently, but also supporting players like Brossius and Girardi) and that Steinbrenner’s overbearing management had stripped away the young talent that was the backbone of the team while handcuffing Brian Cashman, his able general manager.
This all may be true, but one still can’t help questioning the validity of Olney’s conclusion. If any figures have defined the Yankees "dynasty," surely those two men are Torre and Jeter, and both are still around. So is Rivera, arguably the team’s MVP over this long haul, not to mention Bernie Williams. More to the point, the Yankees have now won 100 or more games in the three seasons since 2001. Last year, they made it to the series after an LCS against the Sox that will go down in history as one of the greatest ever. For many of us, the games against the Marlins were almost an afterthought. And if they win this year, which is certainly possible, then what?
Olney is harshly critical of Steinbrenner throughout this book, but one is left wondering whether his own standards have been colored by the Boss’s must-win attitude. Whatever happens, the story of this Yankees team does not seem to be over. When it is, we’ll be happy to have Olney chronicle it for us yet again.