Good Morning
Good Morning

Bookshelf: A Yankees double-header

For the New York Yankees, the 2010 offseason was a tale of two superstars, both of whom they wanted to re-sign. On the one hand, there was Derek Jeter, iconic shortstop and face of the franchise, on the verge of becoming the first Yankee to record 3,000 hits in a career. On the other was Mariano Rivera, the best closer in the history of baseball, on track to set the all-time record for saves. Complicating the narrative was the drama of an aging team, bounced out of the playoffs by the younger, hungrier Texas Rangers. How would the Yankees balance past and future? Such questions exist at the center of two new books, each of which seeks to deal with the Yankees as they were and as they may be.

At the outset of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26), Ian O'Connor acknowledges that "Jeter decided not to make major contributions to this book." The Yankees' captain, he informs us, "did not want fans to think he was basking in his own glory," but more to the point, I think, is his notorious reticence. In part, this has to do with his awareness of his legacy in the heritage of great Yankees, but as "The Captain" makes clear, it is also the result of the self-possession that has marked him since childhood.

Jeter was born in 1974 and raised in Kalamazoo, Mich., the son of a black father who was a substance-abuse counselor and a white mother who was an accountant. They're often cited as role models for their son. But equally significant, O'Connor writes, was his maternal grandfather, a New Jersey maintenance worker whose work ethic -- "We used to open presents on Christmas Eve," Jeter's sister recalls, "because our grandfather worked every Christmas Day" -- rubbed off on his grandson. As O'Connor observes, Jeter's career has been defined by plays most players wouldn't make (his flip throw to Jorge Posada during the 2001 American League Division Series; the 2004 catch against Boston during which he crashed into the stands, cutting open his chin).

As fun as this is to remember, it also highlights a fundamental weakness of "The Captain": its sense of hagiography. O'Connor touches on Jeter's frustrations as the championship run of 1996-2000 winds down, but while he hints at the shortstop's complicity in an increasingly dysfunctional clubhouse culture, he never really examines what it means. With the arrival of Alex Rodriguez in 2004, Jeter had to deal with a complex rival, and his refusal to embrace him created a difficult dynamic for the team.

This is important, not just because it reflects on Jeter's glory days but also because of the way O'Connor treats him in the present, when his skills have diminished to the point that it's an open question how long he will play. Even as O'Connor raises the issue, he shies away from it, relegating Jeter's contentious 2010 contract talks to an epilogue focused on his desire, rather than his continuing ability, to win.

Charley Rosen's "Bullpen Diaries: Mariano Rivera, Bronx Dreams, Pinstripe Legends, and the Future of the New York Yankees" (Harper, $25.99) deals with many of the same issues, from both a broader and a more narrow point-of-view. Rather than focusing on Rivera, it looks at the Yankees bullpen; instead of spanning several seasons, it zeros in on 2010.

This should have been a good idea, for the heart of baseball is in the day-in, day-out minidramas that recur across 162 games. Rosen, though, never gives us more than an extended game log, 300-plus pages from spring training to Game 6 of the American League Championship Series. If you were there, you know all this already; if not, there's no reason to care.

Even more troublesome is his inability to frame a larger point-of-view. This is especially glaring when he discusses the Yankees' possibilities for 2011, many of which -- including the idea that Rafael Soriano (5.40 ERA, on the disabled list until mid-July) is an essential pickup -- have already been discredited. The result is a less nuanced commentary than the wishful thinking of the fan.

"Bullpen Diaries" comes with its obsolescence built in. It's one thing to recall the championship years, as O'Connor does throughout "The Captain," and another to record a season that comes up short. These books remind us that, for all the team's history, the Yankees today remain suspended between tradition and competition, between aging heroes and the need to move ahead.

More Entertainment