On Oct. 13, with a sunny sky smiling down upon Yankee Stadium, Joe Girardi stood in a navy pullover behind a protective screen near third base.
On the mound, tattooed fireballer A.J. Burnett was trying to chip away the rust of a long layoff and somehow salvage an unimpressive season.
Things were not going well.
Burnett had already hit two batters—two of his own teammates, this being a simulated game—and sent a wild pitch back to the net.
Behind the screen, Girardi spat. He put his hands on his hips. He crossed his arms. And, as if to focus, he dropped into a catcher’s crouch.
For Girardi, whether to rely on the struggling Burnett in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series—and risk putting the team in a 3-1 hole to the upstart Texas Rangers—would become one of the more dramatic decisions of what has been a mostly undramatic tenure.
Over the course of three years, despite daily meetings with the press, Girardi has somehow remained a minor character, directing an ensemble cast of big personalities—without inspiring the adoration or frustration of his predecessors.
Year One was a nonstarter, with a lineup at once too young and too old, and without the starting pitching capable of pulling the team into the playoffs. In his second year, a revamped roster seemed to coast to a World Series on a surfeit of talent, some of which was finally playing up to its potential. It was the kind of efficient, unspectacular act of managing that seemed fitting in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s well-ordered city.
Shortly after being traded to the Yankees in the winter of 1995, Girardi changed the greeting on his home answering machine to Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.”
Girardi grew up in Peoria, Ill., and graduated with an engineering degree from Northwestern, before rising to the big leagues with the Chicago Cubs. The Colorado Rockies plucked him in the 1992 expansion draft.
Girardi was excited to don the pinstripes. And he was excited about New York, where he could take his wife to Broadway shows.
“As a player, you like to sometimes get away and be able to hide, and sometimes in the smaller cities it’s harder to do that,” Girardi told Yankees Magazine a few months after the trade. “But in New York, we’ll just fit in as another Italian couple.”
“I remember when he first came here as a catcher—very early in the season. I mean—you know what the clubhouse is like—just filled with writers and reporters, just jammed,” recalled longtime beat reporter Jack O’Connell, who had come to know Girardi during spring training. “He said, ‘Is it like this every day?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, it’s like this every day, Joe.’”
As a relatively quiet, defensive-minded catcher, Girardi wasn’t exactly looked to by the tabloids for three-inch headlines. But he was replacing the popular, power-hitting catcher Mike Stanley, which made for at least a minor drama—until the fall, when Girardi hit a key triple off Atlanta Braves ace Greg Maddux in Game 6 of the 1996 World Series, kick-starting the three-run inning that would clinch the Yankees’ first championship since 1978.
Over time, he grew more comfortable with the press, occasionally opening up. He told The New York Times about he and his wife’s struggle to conceive children (they would succeed a few months later), and, before taking over as manager, he would weep in front of a reporter when discussing his father’s battle with Alzheimer’s.
Girardi became one of Joe Torre’s most reliable “soldiers,” as Torre put it in his book The Yankee Years (Doubleday, 2009), and during spring training in 1999, Torre asked him to deliver the news to teammates that the manager was fighting cancer.
And Girardi did his best to learn from Torre, a manager who preached a mutual trust with his players, and who hired Girardi as his bench coach in 2005.
All of which was supposed to help Girardi when Yankees brass chose him—over Yankees legend Don Mattingly—to replace Torre in 2007.
But his first press conference did not go well. He quarreled with the media over some minor points and generally failed to live up to Torre’s deft handling of the rabid New York press.
“Look at the act he had to follow!” New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica said. “The other guy”—Torre—“nobody’s ever going to be the other guy. Just the show he put on every afternoon with the media, there’s never been anything like it in the history of anything.”
Torre had won them over the hard way. On his first day in 1996, the Daily News dubbed him “CLUELESS JOE” on its back page. He was, after all, a career loser—894 wins and 1,003 losses—who had never won a playoff series, and could reasonably be written off as another flailing gasp by the famously impatient George Steinbrenner, who had already chewed through 21 managers in 23 years.
But Torre had been around the block—as a nine-time All-Star and one-time Most Valuable Player—and, perhaps most importantly, he wasn’t particularly uptight about failing again.
The Brooklyn native had an unflappable demeanor that romanced the New York media, and even writers who didn’t particularly like him always felt like they were getting enough grist to feed their readers.
“I always said, when he leaves, it’s going to be like 100 guys left the room,” Lupica said. “Whether you liked him or not—just the face and the presence. So [Girardi] is following Father Flanagan of Boys Town.”
“You know who Girardi is? He’s Ralph Houk following Casey Stengel,” O’Connell said.
Houk was, like Girardi, a former catcher who inherited a historically talented team and steered them to victories that were largely expected.
Houk replaced Stengel in 1960 after seven World Series titles, inheriting a team chocked with Hall of Famers. He presided over Roger Maris’ 61-homer season, and—in three seasons—won two championships and a pennant. But Houk never quite emerged from Stengel’s long shadow, and, after returning for eight pedestrian seasons in the late 1960s and early ’70s, he never quite ascended into the Yankee pantheon.
“There’s only one Casey Stengel,” the former Army major told the media at his introductory press conference. “I’m Ralph Houk.”
“Stengel in New York was the best publicity man they ever saw,” said Roger Kahn, who wrote Boys of Summer (Harper & Row, 1972), and spent many evenings with the manager inside Yankee Stadium. “There was a press bar in the catacombs of the stadium, and if you wanted to talk to Stengel, you just go there and he’d be there talking and bending his elbow. And Stengel’s approach was that there were two kinds of writers in the world, my writers and the other people. If you covered the Yankees, you became one of his writers, and then he would pretty much open up and tell you anything you wanted to know. But, of course, he left you on your honor not to embarrass him.”
Like Houk before him, Girardi is a different breed.
Shortly after the simulated game, the manager bounded into the spacious interview room for one of his obligatory sessions with the press. Without smiling, Girardi set his hat on the interview table and slouched down on his elbows like a kid at the dinner table.
The Yankees hadn’t played in four days and wouldn’t play for two more, and a few dozen reporters were in need of an off-day angle.
“You know what you’re writing?” one reporter hollered across the press room just before Girardi walked in.
The first question tried to glimpse ahead. Had Girardi decided on his starters for Game 2 and Game 3?
“No, I apologize,” he said. “I think the proper way to do it is to have our discussion with our scouts and everyone involved, and then we’ll have our rotation. Sorry.”
Perhaps there was a story in the past. What did the manager remember about the day the team nearly traded for Rangers ace Cliff Lee?
“I just remember discussions with [general manager Brian Cashman], and talking about things with Cash, and things that were going on,” Girardi said, explaining that managers are on the field and don’t always get much information. “I remember there was a lot of discussion, there was a lot of discussion about players we were interested in. That it was possibly going to happen, that it wasn’t going to happen. Those are the things I remember.”
Another tried current events. Where did he watch the Rangers’ series-clinching victory the night before, and what did he think of Lee’s sterling performance?
“I watched at home, in between doing some things with my family,” he said. “Cliff Lee—‘once again,’ that’s probably the best way to describe it.”
Like Houk before him, Girardi generally does whatever he can to deflect the media’s attention to his players.
“The only thing he really demands of us is that we be on time and play hard, and that’s not hard to do—at this stage in our lives,” said ace left-hander CC Sabathia, one of several amiable veterans who were signed before last season.
“But I think it’s harder to manage a group like this, just because you have so many guys in here making a lot of money, and so many superstars,” Sabathia said. “That could be a little difficult. But he does a great job of managing personalities.”
The position has always been a balancing act between big personalities, but, by all accounts, it’s a different job for Girardi than it has been for anyone in 30 years.
“Managing the Yankees has gotten easier since Field Marshall George von Steinbrenner has moved on,” Kahn said.
“It certainly made good copy—the tension between the manager and the front office,” Kahn said. “Who is running the team now? [Lonn] Trost? Randy Levine? There’s no character like Steinbrenner getting mad. How many fans know what Levine looks like? You don’t have that huge counterbalancing force.”
Whether Girardi wins or loses with Burnett—whether he falls short of another championship or not—he will be subject to a decision by a reasonable committee of Yankees executives, not the impulsiveness of The Boss.
“It certainly seems like ownership lets him do his thing, like the front office lets him do his thing,” one beat writer said. “They know that he’s a company guy and they’re not worried about Joe Girardi going out there and ripping somebody or saying something stupid or any of that. If you had a loose-cannon type of manager—which I don’t think they would—but if you had Ozzie Guillen, I think they’d be a little more careful of what he would say. Joe Girardi isn’t going to go out there and call a guy out to the media, be on the bulletin board or any of that.”