Down the stretch of this year’s major league baseball season, as the New York Yankees nearly let a ten-game American League Eastern Division lead vanish for good, a very close friend of mine, a lifelong, diehard Yankee fan, kept complaining to me, an equally lifelong, diehard New York Met fan, about his team’s manager, Joe Girardi.
According to this friend of mine (who will remain nameless in this article for the purposes of cutting him the same slack that he refused to give to Girardi) it was all Girardi’s fault that the Yankees stumbled through much of the summer and early Fall and were caught in the AL East standings by the Baltimore Orioles.
All the while, I warned my friend, “I know that many Yankee fans unrealistically expect their team to win every game, even though every MLB team in most regular seasons, no matter how good or how bad, will win at least 54 games and lose at least 54, and their seasons will be determined by what they do in the other 54 games…”
“But, just be patient,” I continued. “Let’s see if the Yankees hold on. I am pretty sure they will still win the East and get the top seed in the AL playoffs, and they’ll probably get to at least the AL Championship Series, if not win another World Series title,” I assured him.
“They won’t! Girardi can’t manage! He’s blowing it!” my friend insisted.
Of course, as the fan of a team which currently holds the MLB record for blowing leads in consecutive Septembers, hearing that alone was tough for me to take – even more so when considering that my good friend was ignoring what happened three years ago, when Girardi guided the Yankees to their MLB-leading 27th World Series title.
In stark contrast, as a Met fan I will next season be waiting exactly that many years since my own team’s last world championship, which in my more than three decades of following the Mets, has been the only world title I’ve seen them win, and only one of two that they’ve captured in their 51 seasons.
Seeing ex-Mets Angel Pagan (now with the San Francisco Giants) and Carlos Beltran (a St. Louis Cardinal) excelling and opposing each other in the 2012 National League Championship Series, because the Mets couldn’t afford to keep either of them, while the Yankees always seem to be able to spend enough to cover any mistakes, only makes it worse.
On the Yankees, sure enough, I was right, as my friend’s team won its division, and even finished as the AL’s best team, holding off the scrappy Orioles by two games, before beating them again in the postseason, to reach the ALCS against the Detroit Tigers.
There’s no doubt that with by the highest payroll in the league by far, perhaps that should have happened. However, sports don’t often work out that way, and with the many key injuries the Yankees have endured this season, it could be argued that Girardi should not only have been given a break by my friend and many other Yankees fans like him, but even praised for steering the Yankees to the 18th division title in their history, and their third in five years under Girardi.
The evidence of that was on Wednesday night, in Game 3 of the ALDS, when Girardi took a gamble that paid off, knowing full well he’d have been severely ridiculed by throngs of Yankee fans and the media alike, had it not.
Pinch-hitting for Alex Rodriguez, the game’s most expensive player, with 40-year-old reserve Raul Ibanez, one of the Yankees’ lowest-paid players, affirmed Girardi’s under-appreciated but accomplished leadership, the type that Girardi is receiving credit for from the likes of my friend, only now that Yankees are playing for their unprecedented 41st league pennant.
With the 37-year-old Rodriguez mired in a disappointing 1-for-12 slump that included no runs batted in and seven strikeouts in the ALDS, Girardi thought nothing of telling the former superstar and his $30-million salary to take a seat, while he let Ibanez, making $1.1 million this season, come off the bench to win New York’s biggest game of the year.
The gutsy move saved the Yankees’ season, as Ibanez responded to his manager’s challenge by making baseball history on several different levels.
First, came a game-tying, pinch-hit, solo home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to tie the game, 2-2, and later, a walk-off homer to stun win Game 3, and stun Baltimore, 3-2.
It didn’t matter that until Ibanez’s timely blasts, the Orioles had won 16 straight extra-inning games this season, or that they were a perfect 76-0 this year when leading after seven innings; or that no player as old as Ibanez had ever hit a walk-off home run in MLB postseason history; or that in the long and storied history of the Yankees, no player in franchise history had ever hit a game-tying homer in the ninth inning or later of a postseason game; or that Ibanez became the first major leaguer ever to come off the bench and hit multiple home runs in a postseason game.
All that mattered was that Girardi believed in Ibanez and that Ibanez had even more faith in himself.
“I liked Girardi all along,” my often over-reactionary yet good-natured friend texted me the next morning, while poking fun at himself for earlier jumping to a premature conclusion about Girardi.
If he liked that, he must have loved what Girardi did in Friday night’s series-deciding Game 5, when Rodriguez, who in his 19th major league season and now a mere shell of his former part raw talent, part steroid-induced, yet hugely productive self, was benched after going just 1-for-4 in Game 4 and failing in another big spot.
As the Yankees were trying to end the Orioles’ season, Rodriguez struck out for a ninth time in the series, when all that was needed was some contact, just enough to give New York the lead in a 1-1 game, with one out and runners at second and third in the bottom of the eighth inning. Instead, Baltimore went on to a 2-1 win in 13 innings to even the series at two games apiece.
Rodriguez was replaced by third baseman Eric Chavez in the lineup for Game 5, and although Chavez was 0-for-3 with two strikeouts, the confidence that Ibanez had from Game 3 carried over to the series clincher. While starting as a designated hitter, Ibanez broke the ice in what had been a pitcher’s duel, with a single up the middle to give the Yankees a 1-0 lead – an advantage that New York would not relinquish. The Yankees won 3-1, to take Game 5 and the series from the Orioles.
Remaining as professional as possible, Rodriguez didn’t sulk or question Girardi’s moves, even though deep down, he had to be upset – if not over being pinch hit for in Game 3, then probably when he was a healthy scratch from an all-or-nothing contest in Game 5.
Time will tell if that will spark Rodriguez to success in in the ALCS, but the one-time feared slugger owes that opportunity to Girardi’s bold decisions.
Had Girardi not pinch hit for Rodriguez, there’s a very real possibility that the Orioles would not have simply tied the series with a Game 4 win, but might have very well upset the Yankees in four games and subsequently boarded a plane for Detroit to start the ALCS on Saturday night.
Instead, the Tigers will be coming to the Bronx for Game 1 of the ALCS, where they will not only have to contend with the AL’s top seed, but with a manager who has shown he’s every bit as capable as former Yankee manager Joe Torre at meshing the many egos that typically make up the highest player payroll in the game.
Still, in any sport, at any level, it’s mostly all about the players. Managers and coaches often receive far too much credit or blame, and if Ibanez hadn’t come through and the Yankees would have lost the series to the Orioles, there’s a good chance that this very article would have either not been written at all or taken a drastically different tone.
The bottom line is that Girardi can’t hit for his players. He can’t help that he has often overseen underperforming underachievers throughout his ultra-expensive lineup, which all season long has waited around for home runs rather than also playing small ball and manufacturing runs.
Even with Ibanez’s two huge homers, a lineup that features a starting infield alone (when Rodriguez is included) that makes more money than many entire rosters around the league, scored just one run in game, two runs in two others, and three runs in two more in this year’s ALDS, aside from a five-run, ninth-inning outburst that broke a 2-2 tie and gave New York a 7-2 victory in Game 1 – and that’s with nearly another full game’s worth if innings being played in the series, thanks to the extra innings that were played in Games 4 and 5.
Certainly, Girardi had more talent at his disposal than Baltimore manager Buck Showalter, but with that, also comes far more pressure and greater expectations than what the Orioles faced.
Showalter knows both sides of that spectrum very well, having started his managerial career with the Yankees between 1992 and 1995, where he cut high-priced veterans in favor of the core group of younger players who immediately turned the Yankees into a World Series champion dynasty under Torre, upon Showalter’s undeserved dismissal as New York’s manager.
In a much smaller market like Baltimore, with a young, overachieving team like the Orioles, a decision like Girardi’s to pinch-hit and bench a player like Rodriguez during the Yankees’ most critical points of their season wouldn’t have caused a fraction of the scrutiny for Showalter had he done something similar for his own team, and it didn’t work out.
Thus, Girardi now merits acclaim, since it did.
Meanwhile, as the struggling Mets will be lucky to keep their only true stars and potential all-stars – home grown third baseman David Wright and pitcher R.A. Dickey – on their roster next season, the AL all-star team will likely be littered with Yankees descending upon the Mets’ home park at Citi Field, as the Mets prepare to host MLB’s 84th all-star game next year.
So, here’s a message to my friend who should now have a different view of Girardi as he leads the Yankees into the ALCS with the chance to win yet another World Series title for the franchise:
A Yankee fan grumbling to a Met fan about his manager these days is like an exorbitantly wealthy passenger whining about the chauffer of his own tricked-out stretch limousine to a stranded driver of a broken down car on a highway shoulder.
That’s not to suggest that Mets’ manager Terry Collins doesn’t have the ability to put his team in the fast lane to victory if he were to switch places with Girardi. He does, but not without the necessary horsepower to finish first, the way Girardi is fortunate enough to have, and the way Girardi can skillfully manage such talent.
Hence, Yankee fans should take heart that with Girardi, they’ll still have a good chance to once again get to the finish line in style, while as a Met fan, I’ll probably have to hitch a ride to nowhere, and get dropped off in a bad place somewhere in the middle of next season.