Saturday, March 6, 2010

Q&A with Chris Donnelly, Author of Baseball's Greatest Series

 Originally published at Pinstripe Alley.

Chris Donnelly is the author of Baseball's Greatest Series.  He agreed to answer a few about his new book on the Yanks-Mariner's '95 series.
PA: Your book is subtitled "The 1995 Matchup that Changed History."  For a division series between two team that didn't make the World Series, that seems like hyperbole.  Why is this series so important?           
Chris: The Seattle Mariners were leaving Seattle that year.  There is no question or doubt about it.  The owners had made clear that they wanted a new stadium or they were leaving, most likely for Tampa.  A public vote to approve a new stadium had failed in September, but the Mariners historic run allowed them to maintain momentum in the public eye.  The series was the culmination of that.  Had the Mariners not beaten the Yankees, it would have been difficult for them to keep that momentum going, because the legislature was set to meet that week to work on a new stadium funding formula.  Because the Mariners won and were playing in the ALCS, the pressure stayed on the legislature to get the deal done.  One member who was heavily involved in the negotiations essentially said they couldn't have gotten the stadium deal if the Mariners were no longer playing.  So, in short, if the Mariners hadn't won that series, we are looking at the Tampa Bay Mariners right now.

On the NY side, the dismantling of the Yankees after that loss was like nothing that had ever happened before in Yankee history.  Nothing even comes close.  The majority of the scouting staff was dismissed. Gene Michael was demoted from general manager. The assistance general manager went to Toronto.  Buck Showalter was not brought back as manager.  Every coach with the exception of Willie Randolph was not brought back.  In three straight days in November, the Yankees lost Mike Stanley, Don Mattingly and Randy Velarde, perhaps the three most popular players on the club.  In fact, when the Yankees won the series in '96, only nine of the players on the world series roster had been with the team the year before when they lost to Seattle. It is highly unlikely that any of this would have happened had the Yankees won that series.  But, because they didn't, and because all those changes occurred, the Yankee dynasty of the late '90s was created.  The effects are still felt today.  Had Buck Showalter been manager of the team in '96, they do not trade for Joe Girardi and if Joe Girardi does not become a Yankee then, it is highly unlikely he winds up as manager of the team now.

From a fan stand point, the series went a long way towards bringing back the thousands of fans each team had lost due to the player's strike, and probably did the same for fans of the game in general.
PA: In the discussion over "bringing fans back to baseball after the strike," the two most frequently cited events are the Sosa-McGwire homerun race in '98 and Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig's record for consecutive games in '95.  Why would you argue that the '95 series was as important?        
CD: I won't argue that the '98 season was not the key reason for baseball's comeback, because it most certainly was.  But, with all due respect to Cal Ripken and his tremendous accomplishment, his breaking of Gehrig's record had very little impact on the game outside of the night he tied it and the night he broke it.  There was no long term impact of the record.  The division series, however, had long lasting impacts, particularly in Seattle, which had struggled for nearly two decades with poor attendance.  In '95, they drew 1.6 million fans, eight best in the league.  The next year, they drew 2.7 million, fourth best in the league.  The next year, they drew 3.1 million.  There is no doubt the series played a role in that attendance boost.

PA: Who did you interview?  Which Yankee gave you the best story or most interesting insight?    
CD: I interviewed approximately 70 players, coaches, managers, team personnel, and umpires.  Members of the Yankees '95 team that I spoke to included Don Mattingly, Randy Velarde, Tony Fernandez, Wade Boggs, Dion James, Paul O'Neill, Mike Stanley, Jim Leyritz, Jack McDowell, Buck Showalter, Brian Butterfield, and Glen Sherlock.  There isn't any one particular story I enjoyed best.  Generally, I liked hearing each of them tell stories about their teammates, some of whom they hadn't seen since '95. Hearing about each guy's individual personality and traits was a lot of fun.  I also enjoyed when they dissected the game beyond what we see on camera.  Wade Boggs would describe pitches from the series and how he hit them...then you would look at the video of that at-bat and see he was exactly right in his description of everything.

PA: What's the best story/ tid-bit that didn't make the book?    
CD: The majority of what I wrote made it into the book, so there was nothing of great substance that got left out.

PA: If the Yankees had closed out the ALDS but lost to the Indians, how do you think the '96 team would have been different?      
CD: Unless they had been swept by the Indians, which I doubt would have happened because they were one of the few teams that played them well that year, I am not certain Steinbrenner would have been able to not bring back Buck Showalter.  Showalter was the key.  If he is still manager, it is highly likely that guys like Stanley, Velarde and perhaps even McDowell return and that would have completely altered the make up of what we now know as the '96 Yankees.

PA: What was difficult/ challenging about researching the franchises and the season for the two teams?    
CD: I did not want this book to be strictly for baseball insiders or just Yankee/Mariner fans.  I wanted to make sure that all baseball fans, and even those who don't follow the game, could read and enjoy this book.  Because of that, I wanted to cover every possible angle I could and especially stress all the things leading up to the series that made it so important.  That took a bit of time, because the more I discovered, the more I had to look into.  All told, it took almost two and a half years to research and write the book.

PA: How has writing this book changed the way you remember the '95 ALDS?           
CD: It has altered my perception of those who took part in it, especially from the Yankee side.  Many Yankee fans I'm sure do not look favorably on Jack McDowell, but after writing this, I can't think anything but admiration for the man.  Pitchers of his grit are rare, then and especially now.  McDowell was someone who believed in taking the ball and going nine and that was that.  And if you look harder at his performance in the series, you will see his stats betray his actual body of work.  If a few ground balls had been hit a little closer to the Yankee infielders, McDowell comes away from that series unscathed.

PA: The Yanks-M's rivalry from '95-'01 was certainly an interesting one. We saw two star shortstops who were close friends, a few of playoff matchups, and a slew of players who had or would play for both teams.  What aspect of the rivalry did you find most dynamic?       
I think there was an admiration by both teams of each other, while at the same time, there was some "hatred" of each other as well.  There was definitely bad blood between some Yankees, Jim Leyritz especially, and Randy Johnson, and between '95 and '99, the teams engaged in at least three bench clearing brawls.  The energy that happened when these two teams played was fantastic, and it always led back to the '95 series.

PA: What parts of the book were the most emotionally challenging for you to write?  What parts were technically challenging (took the most revision to 'get right')?       
As a Yankee fan, I think Game 5 was the hardest.  Not necessarily because they lost, but the manner in which it happened and the fact that so many little things happened in that Game 5 that, had even just one of them gone the Yankees way, they would have won that game.  Technically challenging was probably the last chapter about the Mariners getting a new ballpark.  That really took the most amount of research and time because I had little knowledge of how it happened when I started the book.

PA:  What are you working on next?      
I am in the early research phase of my next project, which will deal with both the Yankees and Mets.  The story will mesh the two teams together, but how I am doing that I am keeping tight lipped for now.  The one hint I will give is that this does not involve the Subway Series.  I am hoping to have it out within the next two years or so.

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