Mariano Rivera. Andy Pettitte. Alex Rodriguez. CC Sabathia. Mark Teixeira. That litany, which would normally read like a roll call of the franchise’s most accomplished All Stars, has this year doubled as the team’s disabled list. However, despite these significant injuries, the Yankees have persevered by mixing and matching a roster full of platoon players. Usually, when a ballclub has success under such adverse conditions, the skipper is given consideration for the Manager of the Year award, but because of the Yankees’ high payroll, Joe Girardi is likely to get only token support.
The last thing on Girardi’s mind is the Manager of the Year award, so the Yankees’ skipper would probably laugh at a campaign promoting his candidacy. Foremost on his mind is the hard charging Orioles and the increasingly competitive American League, not the recognition that comes with a Manager of the Year trophy. However, that doesn’t mean Girardi’s handling of the Yankees’ depleted roster isn’t worthy of some praise.
Since taking over for Joe Torre after the 2007 seasons, Girardi hasn’t gotten much credit for his managerial prowess. Instead, he is more often the butt of jokes for his much exaggerated reliance on a binder full of statistical matchups. However, those misguided quips (of which I am just as guilty as anyone of making) ignore the much more significant role he has played steering the Yankees through a transition period without the typical bumps and bruises that sometimes follow the passing of the baton from a legendary manager.
The 2012 Red Sox are a perfect example of what can wrong during a transition year. After eight mostly successful seasons under Terry Francona, the team’s stunning collapse at the end of 2011 convinced Boston that it was time to go in a different direction. Whether or not that was a sound decision, the road the team took turned out to be a detour. Almost from day one, new manager Bobby Valentine found himself embroiled in controversy, which seemed to envelop the team like a pall, eventually leading to the dramatic roster cleanup that occurred at the end of August. As a result, the Red Sox are now potentially faced with another transition period, while fans are left to wonder exactly when the team will re-emerge as the perennial contender they had become under Francona.
In 2008, Girardi faced a similar challenge when he took over for Joe Torre, whose “mutual parting” from the Yankees was as acrimonious as Francona’s “decision” to walk away from Boston. Like the Red Sox, the Yankees decided to go in a different direction, hiring the more intense and involved Girardi as a replacement for the more placid and diplomatic Torre (sound familiar?). And, just like Valentine, Girardi experienced more than a few early bumps along the way.
From the early days of spring training, it was evident that the Yankees were under new management. On March 10, after Francisco Cervelli was injured during a home plate collision, Girardi criticized the Rays for their aggressive play. It was something the diplomatic Torre would have never done. The ensuing spring melee between the two teams, which many believed stemmed from the earlier incident, also wasn’t in Torre’s playbook. Regardless of the motivation, the 2008 team was no longer Torre’s Yankees.
During the early part of the season, Girardi didn’t make many friends with his micro management. His penchant for keeping information close to the vest (including, according to some, outright lies) rankled the media, but even the team’s snack menu wasn’t beneath his purview. Of course, none of these issues would have carried much weight if the team had been playing well. Unfortunately for Girardi, that wasn’t the case. At 14-15, his first month as Yankees’ manager was a rough one. What’s more, it didn’t take long before the media started second guessing his every move. By the middle of May, some were even referring to the environment around the team as a reprisal of the Bronx Zoo. So much for a grace period.
As the Yankees continued to struggle, the season was punctuated by a series of closed door meetings that seemed to fall on deaf ears. Although there wasn’t much vocal dissent in the clubhouse beyond Jorge Posada’s mild protests about being limited behind the plate, enough grumblings emerged to make some suggest Girardi was on the hot seat. An eight-game winning streak at the end of July brought about a reprieve, but just when it looked like the Bronx Bombers were about to make their run, the team wilted in August, falling 12.5 games behind the upstart Rays.
The irony of the Yankees’ and Rays’ position in September was hard to ignore, especially in light of the Spring Training confrontation, which many interpreted as Girardi asserting a more aggressive posture for the pinstripes. Now, with the prospect of missing the playoffs for the first time in 13 seasons starring the team in the face, some began to question whether their new manager’s “clenched-jaw vibe” was responsible for the team’s poor play down the stretch.
For the first time in 15 years, the Yankees were playing out the string in September. Considering the disappointment, it would have been easy for Girardi and his players to mail in the last month. Instead, the Yankees went 17-9 during the final stretch, ending the year with a respectable 89-73 record, which, if not for the emergence of the Rays, would have been good enough to win the wild Card.
I’d have to say Joe’s done exactly what I thought he was going to do. But you’ve got to realize one thing: Joe’s not playing. He puts us on the field and puts us in the best position to go out there and win games, and we haven’t done it consistently up to this point.” – Derek Jeter, quoted by AP, September 9, 2008
Early in September, Girardi was given the dreaded vote of confidence, so it’s hard to say if the team’s late season surge saved his job. Regardless, the fact that Girardi, who benched Robinson Cano in the middle of the month for a lack hustle, didn’t throw his hands up after a frustrating season had to make an impression in the clubhouse, which, perhaps thanks to the leadership of Derek Jeter, he never seemed to lose. Clearly, the 2008 season hadn’t gone the way he had hoped, but by preventing his team from spinning completely out of control and being willing to admit and address his shortcomings, Girardi laid the foundation for a return glory the following season.
When Joe Girardi took over in 2008, he was presented with a daunting list of challenges. Not only did he have to fill the shoes of a legendary manager, but he also had to give orders to a roster of Hall of Fame players who had recently been his teammates. In addition, he was handed an inexperienced rotation featuring an untested Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes, lost ace Chien-Ming Wang for the season in June, and was tasked with managing Joba Chamberlain’s controversial evolution from a reliever to a starter. Meanwhile, the Yankees’ up-the middle strength under Torre was tested as Posada’s injured shoulder limited his time behind the plate, while Cano and Melky Cabrera each took a significant step back in their development. If the 2008 team wasn’t Torre’s Yankees, it really wasn’t Girardi’s fault.
Since taking over as Yankees’ manager, Joe Girardi has piloted his team to a championship, two division titles, three playoff appearances and the best record in the major leagues over the past five seasons. However, his best job as a manager may have been that first tumultuous year. Although it wasn’t an easy transition, Girardi’s ability to adapt allowed the Bronx Bombers to quickly reestablish themselves as the league’s pre-eminent team without the drama now unfolding in Boston. Considering what might have been had the Yankees experienced a similar fate, if Girardi deserved a Manager of the Year award, it probably should have come five years ago.
Because of the uncertainty regarding the Yankees’ extensive injury list, the team isn’t guaranteed its typical roster of All Stars as it heads down the stretch of another pennant race. One thing they can count on, however, is a steady hand leading the way. Under Torre, that calming influence always seemed to be an advantage. Over the next month, Girardi will get the chance to show just how well he learned from the master.