Since Babe Ruth arrived in New York in 1920, the Yankees have won at least one World Series championship -- actually, make that at least two -- in every completed decade except one. After losing to the Dodgers in the 1981 Fall Classic, not only did the Bombers not win it all again until 1996, they spent the next 13 years in the baseball wilderness, not even appearing in the postseason, their longest post-Ruth absence ever.
It was the insight of Greg Prato to fill in those blanks by focusing on those largely unexplored chapters of the team's history in "Just Out of Reach: The 1980s New York Yankees."
The first thing to understand is that this is an oral history, not an attempt to analyze the decline and then rise of the organization. In the introduction, Prato, a self-professed fan, wonders why a team with stars like Don Mattingly, Dave Winfield, Rickey Henderson, Willie Randolph, Graig Nettles, Goose Gossage, Tommy John, Ron Guidry, Dave Righetti and Phil Niekro didn't have more success. He casually mentions the lack of a Wild Card, which wasn't instituted until 1995. Then he steps aside and lets those who were around the club during that era carry the narrative.
It's not surprising that former owner George Steinbrenner looms large in these pages and while the outline that forms -- demanding yet generous, meddlesome yet committed to excellence -- is familiar, the book fleshes out the portrait with some telling details.
For example, third baseman Mike Pagliarulo (1984-89) tells a story about visiting Randolph's house shortly after joining the team. In the basement was a Nautilus machine and Pagliarulo laughingly observed that Randolph didn't look like he was into lifting weights. Randolph explained that after the Yankees lost the '81 World Series, The Boss bought top-of-the-line workout equipment for every player because he thought they needed to be stronger.
Pitcher George Frazier (1981-83) recounts learning that his father had suffered a stroke during the annual Mayor's Trophy Game against the Mets, an in-season exhibition that meant a lot to Steinbrenner. While the traveling secretary scrambled to find Frazier a flight to Springfield, Mo., the owner came to the locker room and told Frazier that a limo had already been sent to pick up his wife and kids and that his private jet was waiting to fly them home.
This is an approach that has pluses and minuses, of course. It's always interesting to hear the unfiltered memories of those who were present during interesting times. At the same time, memories are both fallible and subjective.
Baseball has changed a lot in the past 35 years and there are are numerous reminders scattered throughout the book. When the players went on strike in 1981, pitcher Ron Davis (1978-81) took a job as a waiter in a Manhattan restaurant -- and made more money than he did playing baseball. The minimum salary when he broke into the Majors, he said, was $17,000.
What emerges, then, is an absorbing recollection of now-it-can-be-told, behind-the-scenes flashbacks organized loosely by years and individual personalities. More than 25 observers, ranging from Hall of Famer Gossage to role players such as Barry Foote and Brian Fisher, as well as a broadcaster, newspaper reporter, sports memorabilia store owner and a stand-up comedian who's a Yankees fan share their stories of an era that has been largely overlooked.