In Game Two of this year’s ALDS, Yankees skipper Joe Girardi made undoubtedly the biggest mistake of his managerial career. In the bottom of the sixth, Cleveland’s Lonnie Chisenhall appeared to be hit by a pitch, loading the bases. Yankees’ catcher Gary Sanchez immediately clamored for a review, and sure enough, replay showed that the ball had struck Chisenhall’s bat, which would have been strike three, inning over. But Girardi didn’t challenge. The very next batter, Francisco Lindor, hit a grand slam, and the Indians went on to win.
It’s a good thing that Girardi has a professed aversion to social media, because that night, the internet tore into the Yankees’ manager. Twitter replies are certainly not the most level-headed reactions, but I was shocked and ashamed by just how many people were calling for Girardi to be fired.
Of course, the Yankees went on to beat the Indians, and fell only one game short of the World Series. It seemed as if the anti-Girardi sentiment had been properly and deservedly quieted.
But on Thursday, the Yankees announced that Girardi will not return as manager next season. I was floored.
The details of the parting are still unclear. It seems that Girardi was seriously contemplating retirement to spend more time with his family, and he’s always struggled with the stress of managing. If this is the case, then I suppose all’s well that ends well.
But this is clearly not the full story. Alongside the news of Girardi’s departure, ESPN reported that general manager Brian Cashman had recommended to owner Hal Steinbrenner that Girardi not be brought back. Cashman and Girardi have clashed throughout the season, especially over the catastrophe that was Chris Carter and the ALDS replay disaster.
In his press release, Girardi’s exact words were “the Yankees have decided not to bring me back.” That doesn’t sound like someone who decided to call it quits. It sounds like the defeated words of someone who has been shown the door.
In a column back in April, I wrote “in Cashman we trust.” He is mostly responsible for the Yankees’ current tantalizing position; a young team on the verge of a dynasty. But if this was indeed more of a Cashman force-out than a Girardi stepdown, it was a horrible mistake.
No, Girardi is not a perfect manager, and some would argue not even one of the best in the league. His Game 2 decision, while it was just one call in one game over a ten-year stint with the team, was simply inexcusable. More generally, he has also always struggled with knowing when to pull a pitcher, and he has clearly never been embraced by the fanbase as warmly as his legendary predecessor, Joe Torre.
That said, Girardi is an excellent manager. Just ask the slew of teams around the MLB, including that team in Boston and the other one in New York, who are in the midst of managerial overhauls. It is a difficult process with unpredictable results. With Girardi, the Yankees had constancy, reliability, and dependable leadership.
The narrative on Thursday was that Girardi did not have the support of his clubhouse, that he did not connect with the young talent. The media’s consensus is that with the youth movement, the Yanks need to find a younger voice with a stronger bond to the Baby Bombers.
This is, frankly, absurd.
No one embodies the Yankees’ clubhouse voice more than Todd Frazier. Yes, Frazier was only acquired back in July, but in that short time, he became the unquestioned heart and cheerleader of the team. He started the “thumbs-down” rallying symbol, he’s always the first out of the dugout after a home run or big play, and most of all, among an inexperienced group of talent, Frazier has been an invaluable source of veteran leadership.
When the Yankees defeated the Indians in Game 5 of the ALDS, completing an improbable 0-2 comeback, Frazier said this after the game: “This one is for Joe. He got a lot of criticism after that second game, and we talked a lot, me and him. I couldn't be happier for him.”
Perhaps Frazier does not speak for everyone in the clubhouse. But if Frazier could feel that strongly for and feel that emotionally tied to a manager for whom he had played for a mere three months, it shows that Girardi could still very much connect to his players in a meaningful way.
Apart from Frazier, numerous other Yankees past and present, including Sanchez, Derek Jeter, David Robertson and Johnny Damon have all expressed messages of appreciation for Girardi and shock at the announcement, and I’m sure more will comment in the coming days.
Despite not being loved by the fanbase unanimously, I’ve always thought that Girardi is an excellent spokesman in his relations with the media. And for every mistake he’s made, he’s made far more great decisions. In this postseason alone, he was masterful in of the Wild Card Game, expertly navigating the bullpen after a nightmarish short start by Luis Severino. In Game 4 of the ALCS, he chose to have Chase Headley pinch-hit for Austin Romine, a move that forced Sanchez to catch, and certainly would’ve drawn criticism if it failed. Instead, Headley delivered a huge RBI double to spark the Yankees’ game-winning comeback.
Girardi was an intelligent spring-puller, a veteran leader for a young team, and a steady voice in good and bad. Great managers don’t come along very often. Girardi was a great manager.
When I look at the Yankees’ social media platforms today, I see an outpouring of support for Girardi, and quite a few who are upset at the decision. But I can’t help but wonder, how many of those fans were also calling for his firing after Game 2 of the ALDS? Yankees fans aren’t as spoiled and arrogant as their reputation makes them out to be, but it’s often those few ignorant voices that are the loudest. And I think those who were calling for Girardi’s head will soon wish they could take back their words.
And perhaps that is what really doomed Girardi. Not that he struggled as a manager, but that he failed to be human, to be charismatic enough in the public eye.
In his final press conference as manager for the New York Yankees after a Game 7 loss to the Astros, Girardi was noticeably choked up, fighting back tears throughout his responses. Maybe it was just the pain of a difficult loss, but many thought the tears were for CC Sabathia, who had pitched what may be his last game in pinstripes.
“CC will always be special to me because of what he stands for, and the great player that he is. The great man that he is. I'm not saying that he won't be back. But there's no guarantees for me,” Girardi said.
Those final words take on a whole new meaning now, and perhaps Girardi saw the writing on the wall. For all the talk of not being personable, for not showing enough passion, those were the most emotional and genuine words I’ve heard from any manager in a long time.
Thanks, Joe, for number 27, and for an unforgettable 10 years. The real Yankees fans will miss you dearly.