By Jason Keidel
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You can tell me if it’s laudable or laughable, but there’s a simmering sentiment that Joe Girardi has been the American League’s best manager this year.

Girardi, like most former catchers, is supposed to specialize in handling his pitchers. And a juggling job he has done – a kind of cut-and-paste with a starting staff that was supposed to have Cliff Lee and Andy Pettitte. He had neither, instead stuffing his rotation with two graybeards (Garcia and Colon), an injury-prone prodigy (Hughes), a clear head case (Burnett), and still lead his club to the best record in the AL. If a starting staff is as strong as its weakest link, Girardi has moved and welded his all year with aplomb.

When a skipper can trot six or so All-Stars onto the diamond on any night, his job is largely done for him in the field and the batter’s box. Or is it? Between slumps, age, and injuries – even Mark Teixiera lost a lot of his groove this year – nothing is assured in the quirky cauldron of baseball.

A successful skipper’s serendipity is easily measured, too. In this case it came in the form of Ivan Nova, a rookie who’s 16-4 (plus 8-0 since the All-Star break), and David Robertson, who went from good to great in (forgive the cliché) a New York minute.  Robertson’s numbers are something out of an Xbox season – 1.09 ERA, 66 IP, 99 SO, 1.14 WHIP, living up to his handle, Houdini.

The lone starter who kept Girardi from gobbling antacids all season was CC Sabathia, who plays the lone position where being branded a horse is a compliment And it doesn’t hurt to have the immortal Mariano Rivera, the laconic, iconic closer whose job seems to be equal portions saving games, saying grace, and assuring us he’s human. The man turns 42 in a month and somehow still pitches with glee and gratitude, like a tyke fresh from a game of catch with his dad.

Since the All-Star break, Freddy Garcia (4.45 ERA) and Bartolo Colon (2-6, 5.06 ERA) have inched closer to their ages than the ephemeral fountains of youth they found for the first half of the year. Burnett has been, well, Burnett: a brownout from the jump, despite his recent, decent start against Boston. Has $82 million even been more poorly or sorely spent?

Plus, Girardi has had to learn on the fly when to coddle and cajole, something his predecessor (Joe Torre) mastered. He’s got an aging club, including a few Hall of Famers, one of whom (Derek Jeter) has sipped some elixir, making those of us who called for his funeral look somewhat silly. Rafael Soriano, who looked and pitched like quintessential roadkill the first half of the year, has been exponentially better (2.31 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, not including last night) since. No doubt there’s a physical component to the reliever’s improvement, but Girardi should get some credit for the metaphysical healing. Soriano started the year as though the lights were way too bright for a man used to a freckling of fans in his old stadium.

The Joba and Hughes Rules were grotesque failures. One hurler is hurt all the time, while the other had Tommy John, perhaps proving that this correlation between pitch counts and long-term health needs to be recalibrated. Even if Girardi and his GM (Brian Cashman) get the blame for pampering young pitchers, he should also get a nod for finding the band-aids to slap on the holes they left behind.

In a sense, managing the Yankees is a thankless job because most of you reasonably assert that if you toss $200 million against the wall, something must stick. And no one will feel sorry for a squad that can flex its checkbook and buy the best players. So if Girardi fails it’s because (in recent corporate parlance) the Yankees are too big to fail. If Girardi wins, well, what else do you expect from a titanic bankroll, $2,500 regular-season seats behind the dish, and your own television network?

Joe Girardi is an interesting man. He’s clearly smart, has an engineering degree from Northwestern, yet he’s often ornery to the point of paranoia.  He speaks with an odd affectation, nodding three times after answering a question, as if to assure the questioner that he’s provided the proper answer. He reacted hysterically when reasonably asked about his tete-a-tete with Burnett when he pulled the pitcher from that game in Minnesota. And Girardi pulled off the impossible exacta of getting fired from Florida while winning Manager of the Year during his rookie stint with the Marlins.

We’re all pulsing with paradoxes, and managing a team in a town like New York City would infect most sane men. But it’s clear that Girardi gets a little better at things each year. But is it enough? Is he Manager of the Year? To wit, would he be fired for being bounced in the first round of this year’s playoffs?

It’s not a silly question. Billy Martin was fired in 1978 after winning the World Series in ’77. Bob Lemom was fired in 1982 after reaching the World Series in ’81. And Torre was shown the door after 12-straight trips to the playoffs (including those six World Series appearances, winning four).  A Steinbrenner still owns this team, and even if the son (Hal) doesn’t share his old man’s temper, the maddening mandate of a World Series every season produces its own theater.

Yet after dissecting G.I. Joe’s job – which has been admirable by any reasonable measure – I vote for Joe Maddon, who loses Crawford, Pena, Soriano, etc., works with a fraction of the payroll ($41 million, according to USA Today) of his peers, and still has his team wiping their cleats on October’s doormat.

A penurious place like Tampa is a turnstile for free agents who make their bones in an empty ballpark. And unless they sign (or trick) studs like Longoria to long-term deals, the bulk of their best players understandably leave for the luxury (see: money) and more complimentary climes of wealthier teams. Maddon runs his squad with the steadfastness of a surgeon, and the equanimity of a professor, clad in his black-rimmed glasses and quirky platitudes, riding a bicycle to work, meditating on odd mantras while somehow connecting with players young enough to be his grandchildren.

Baseball bubbles with fun debates. Would Billy Beane be a genius if he had New York’s payroll? Would Maddon be as magical with A-Rod and Cano in his lineup? It makes you wonder whether men tethered to certain circumstances thrive because of their limitations, not despite them. We don’t really know. But we do know Maddon prospers in a place where most men would perish. He can run my club any day.

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