Girardi Needs a New Number

It’s been nearly two years since ex-Yankee manager Joe Torre packed his bags and headed west, and it’s been nearly two years since current Yankee manager Joe Girardi sat down with the Steinbrenner family and convinced them he was the guy who could lead this team to its next World Series championship.  Torre won four in his 12 years in New York and the Yankees went to the playoffs every year under Torre’s leadership.  Girardi had some big shoes to fill.

No two guys were more different than Torre and Girardi.  Torre was a player’s manager.  He was a media darling who always measured his words and always seemed to say the right things.  He had this aura about him that seemed to have a calming effect in the clubhouse.  He looked like your dad, or granddad or uncle Joe.

Girardi, on the other hand, looked like a recruiting poster for the United States Marine Corps.  Intense is a word that comes to mind when describing Girardi.  Girardi came into the Yankees clubhouse with just one year’s experience under his belt.  That year was spent managing the Florida Marlins in 2006.  Girardi did a fantastic job in the sunshine state; so much so that it earned him the National League Manager of the Year Award.

He was also the first manager to earn that award and then get fired in the same season. The incident that caused his dismissal came in August during a game when he and owner Jeffrey Loria got into an argument over Loria’s heckling home plate umpire Larry Vanover.  When Vanover complained to Girardi he and his bench coach Gary Tuck told Loria to stop.  Loria apparently didn’t like being told what to do and wanted to fire Girardi on the spot.  He said that Girardi swore at him, but people who know Girardi know he’s a devout Christian and doesn’t use profanity to get his point across.  Loria bided his time and got his pound of flesh at the end of the season when he sent Girardi packing.

Of course, Girardi was no stranger to the Yankees.  He spent four years in pinstripes (1996-1999), winning 3 rings along the way.  He was their everyday catcher, but gave way to another Yankee staple; Jorge Posada.  After his playing days ended Girardi was hired by the Steinbrenner owned YES Network as a commentator.  He spent the 2004 season as a broadcaster and as the host of YES’ “Kids on Deck.”

That lasted one year, at which time Girardi decided to pursue a coaching career.  He moved out of the broadcast booth and went into the Yankees dugout as Torre’s bench coach for the 2005 season.  He continued to host “Kids on Deck.”  When the season ended Girardi went south and became the Marlins manager.

At the end of the 2006 season Girardi was unemployed, but after losing out for the managing job with the Chicago Cubs and turning down a shot at the Washington Nationals Girardi went back to the YES Network where he was hired as an analyst.  He worked approximately 60 games in 2007.  In June of that year Girardi interviewed for the Baltimore Orioles manager’s position, but ultimately turned it down when offered.

As one door closed another door opened.  At the end of the 2007 Torre and the Yankees management had a parting of the ways.  Torre headed for Los Angeles and the Yankees went looking for a new manager.  They found him in the broadcast booth.

Girardi was apparently just the guy the Yankees were looking for.  He was a no nonsense type of personality.  Many of the Yankees coming into Spring Training for 2008 admitted they were not in the best of shape when they reported to camp in 2007.  They knew Girardi wouldn’t put up with any lack of preparation, because he would probably be in as good as or better shape than his entire squad.  They were right.

The first thing Girardi did was take the number 27 to signify he was going to lead the Yankees to their 27th title.  However, 2008 wasn’t the year.  The Yankees plagued by injuries, clubhouse in-fighting and other issues missed the playoffs for the first time in 14 years.  They ended up in 3rd place in the AL East behind the surprising Tampa Bay Rays (division winner) and Boston Red Sox (wild card).  It was a huge disappointment for an organization whose sole purpose is to win the World Series every year.  Anything less is considered a complete failure.

In the off season the Yankees made some drastic changes.  Gone were Mike Mussina, Jason Giambi, Carl Pavano and Bobby Abreu.  General Manager Brian Cashman went out and secured three premium replacements in CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett and Mark Teixeira.  He also landed some role type guys, the most notable being Nick Swisher.  Swisher would proved to be invaluable during the course of the season.  They also resigned Chien-Ming Wang, Brian Bruney, Melky Cabrera and Xavier Nady.

Early in April Nady, who was slated to be the everyday right fielder reinjured his right elbow requiring a second “Tommy John” surgery on it.  That ended his 2009 season and Swisher was inserted into the everyday lineup.  Swisher responded by hitting 29 homers and driving in 82 runs.

Wang was another key element the Yankees were hoping to rely on to get them into the post season.  Wang was coming off a serious foot injury he suffered in a game against the Houston Astros in June of ’08.  Wang had previously won 19 games in ’06 and ’07 and had compiled an 8-2 record before the injury.

However, the Wang the Yankees saw wasn’t the one they saw before the foot injury.  A guy possessed with a power sinker that batters described like hitting an anchor suddenly was very hittable and he was giving up a lot of fly balls.  After amassing an 0-3 start and an ERA of 34.50 the Yankees removed Wang from the starting rotation and sent him down to Tampa to work on mechanics.  He returned in May and was inserted into the bullpen, and eventually the rotation, but the results weren’t any better.

After Wang recorded a 1-6 record the Yankees put him back on the disabled list and on July 30 he had season ending shoulder surgery and is expected to miss up to a year.

Two other pieces of the Yankees puzzle were Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera.  Both returned after having shoulder surgery.  Posada had the more severe injury requiring a season ending procedure to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder.  Rivera had minor surgery to clean up his throwing shoulder.  Both responded very well.  Posada ended the season with 22 home runs and 81 RBI.  Rivera saved 44 games in 46 chances this season, which is the most he has saved since saving 53 games in 2004.

Alex Rodriguez continued to struggle both on and off the field.  In spring training he admitted to using performance enhancing drugs for 2001-2003 while playing for the Texas Rangers.  He was also linked to a notorious New York madam and Madonna, as he divorced from his wife Cynthia.  Then the biggest blow came when A-Rod had to have surgery performed on his right hip to remove a cyst and repair the labrum.  He was expected to sit out up to 10 weeks.

While A-Rod was gone Teixeira struggled at the plate in April and the Yankees looked to be performing a death spiral.  In their first 28 games the Yankees were 13-15.  Somehow, Girardi managed to hold things together and managed to hold onto his job.  For once nothing was coming out of the front office intimating that a managerial change was imminent.

On May 8 Rodriguez returned to the lineup and that was the day the Yankees took off.  The Yankees were a completely different team.  After going 0-8 against the Red Sox the Yankees went 9-1 against them in the final 10 games to split the season series 9-9.  They also held their own against the always tough Los Angeles Angels by winning three of the final four games against them and also splitting the season series 5 apiece.

The Yankees were the only team to win more than 100 games  as they ended the season with a 103-59 mark, eight games in front of the second place Red Sox.

Nonetheless, winning 100+ games meant nothing in the playoffs.  The last team to win that many games and then go on to win the World Series was the 1998 New York Yankees when they won 114 games.

After failing to even make the playoffs in ’08 Girardi knew he had his work cut out for him.

The Yankees didn’t disappoint.  In the divisional series the Bombers overtook the Minnesota Twins in each game to sweep them 3-0 to advance to the Championship Series.  They ended up facing the Angels.

As we all know, the Angels had met the Yankees in two previous divisional series and beat them both times.

It wasn’t an easy series even though the Yankees vanquished the Halos in six games.  In the two games the Yankees lost Girardi was scalded for questionable pitching and personnel moves.  As always playing or managing in New York puts a permanent bulls eye on your back.

This journey brought the Yankees back to the stage they had not set foot on since losing to the Florida Marlins in 2003 and had not won since 2000.  It wasn’t going to be any easier for them, because they were facing a team that had everything the Yankees had.  Pitching, hitting, defense and power.  The Philadelphia Phillies were the defending champions and they were trying to be the first National League team to repeat as World Series champions since the Cincinnati Reds did it in 1975-76.

The brightest spot for the Phillies in the World Series was lefty Cliff Lee.  Lee was as dominant a pitcher as you could find in Game 1, and the Yankees offense was completely shut down.  Sabathia was very good as well, but not as good as Lee.  Sabathia gave up two homeruns to Chase Utley and the Phillies eventually won the game 6-1.  The one run the Yankees scored was unearned, but it helped them avoid not scoring in a World Series Game 1 for the first time in franchise history.

Another piece of history not favoring New York was the fact that in the last six World Series the team losing Game 1 went on to lose the Series.

Fortunately, this edition of the Yankees was no ordinary team.  They came back and took Game 2 and then went into Philadelphia and won the first two games giving the Yankees a 3-1 series lead.   Girardi seemed to be pushing all the right buttons.

In Game 5 New York went up against Lee again.  Although not as dominant as in Game 1 Lee had more than enough to stifle the Yankees’ bats.  Philadelphia insured the Series went back to New York trailing the Yankees 3-2.

Last night Girardi went to his game hardened warrior.  Pettitte has pitched in more post season games than nearly all of the pitching staff combined.  Going on 3 days rest Pettitte gave the Yankees all he had, but with two outs in the 6th inning Andy’s 37 year old body was tired.  Girardi went and got his veteran and turned the ball over to Joba Chamberlain, Damaso Marte and the incomparable Mariano Rivera who kept the Phillies off the scoreboard.

The last batter of the Series, Shane Victorino, grounded out to 2B Robinson Cano to end the game.  Once Teixeira secured the ball in his glove to record the last out the wild celebration began.  Number 27 was no longer a goal, it was a reality.

Lest anyone forgets this Series was dedicated by the team to its ailing owner George Steinbrenner.

”This is what the Steinbrenner family has strived for, year after year — to deliver to the city of New York,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said to reporters following the game. “To be able to deliver this to the Boss, the stadium that he created and the atmosphere around here, it’s very gratifying to all of us.”

For the core four, Jeter, Posada, Pettitte and Rivera, it was their fifth time in the winner’s circle, and it took nine years to get there.

“You realize how difficult it is to get here,” Jeter told the media. “I never lost sight of the fact that it’s very difficult to get to the World Series, let alone to win one. You realize and remember how hard it is.”

For all the guys who had never tasted World Series champagne it was a special night indeed.

World Series MVP Hideki Matsui put it this way.  “My first and foremost goal when I joined the Yankees was to win the world championship,” Matsui said. “Certainly, it’s been a long road and a very difficult journey. I’m just happy that after all these years, we were able to win and reach the goal that I had come here for.”

To be sure the man who pulled all the strings was Girardi.  In two short years he took the Yankees from the outhouse to the penthouse.  Now he’ll have another type of target on his back.  Since Girardi has finally guided this team to a world title he will be expected to do it again.

In order to accomplish that, however, he’ll need to trade in his number 27 for a 28.  Where is Shelley Duncan anyway?

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