By Jason Keidel
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Enough fans have cursed me for putting a premature postmortem on the Yankees. They even call me a closet Mets fan, which is more cutting than any voodoo or vulgarity.
No matter our disagreement on the Pinstripe State, we are simpatico on one thing. Joe Girardi is managing his a– off. During the Steinbrenner Empire, the Yankees have been a cutthroat operation, a zero-sum, World Series or sayonara endeavor. But if you take a jeweler’s eye on the job Girardi has done, it’s impossible not to tip your cap.
Aside from jamming the eject button on Andy Pettitte the other day and letting Joba Chamberlain combust on the mound, G.I. Joe has done a David Copperfield job on his club this year.
The Yankees have been a walking triage since spring, with more wounded limbs than 1944 Bastogne. Girardi must have winced every time someone asked for an aspirin.
• Derek Jeter was supposed to start the season. Then he didn’t. Then he came back. Then he didn’t. He’s just now getting his creaky limbs back into form.
• Kevin Youkilis was supposed to swat at least .290. Yet as of A-Rod’s return, the Chicago Cubs’ pitching staff had more homers than the Yankees’ total from third base.
• Francisco Cervelli got hit by a pitch and followed Tex into darkness.
• Ichiro Suzuki is finally acting his age.
• The Yanks were forced to fetch Lyle Overbay, Vernon Wells and Travis Hafner from a retirement home.
• CC Sabathia has stunk.
• Hiroki Kuroda essentially went oh-for-August.
And if the apocalyptic rate of injuries weren’t enough, there was A-Rod, a corporeal, Page Six billboard. The star of the Biogenesis drama, A-Rod not only wrought white heat on a cold team, he made everything exponentially worse by his foot-and-mouth malady, taking his fight straight to the tabloids.
And yet Girardi handled it with the calmness of a mortician, sliding the beleaguered third baseman into the lineup as if he were merely a Class A call-up. Such a scandal could drag a team across the hot coals of last place. Yet the Yanks started winning, aided colossally by Alfonso Soriano, who’s partying like it’s 1999.
And it can’t help to watch old salt like A.J. Burnett and Russell Martin live La Vida Loca along the Monongahela River, leading the formerly forlorn Pirates to first place.
As they say on the street, Girardi has been a pimp. Up until a week ago, the Yankees were the only team in a pennant race with a negative run differential. Girardi had to perform a rain dance to get the Yankees’ anorexic bats to produce runs. At some points this spring the Yankees’ lineup looked like a casting call for Bull Durham.
With all due respect to his iconic predecessor, Girardi has improved upon Joe Torre’s enmity for pitch counts and bullpen rest. The former skipper rode Jeff Nelson, Ramiro Mendoza and Mike Stanton like borrowed donkeys. Torre tapped his arm so often in the seventh inning he may have gotten tennis elbow. Girardi actually takes the pulse of his pitchers before trotting to the mound and summoning his next hurler. Rarely do you see the same number on the mound two games in a row.
Since I read their last rites, the Yankees have hopped a few teams in the playoff chase, including Baltimore on Wednesday night. Now only the nose-diving Tampa Rays are between the Yankees and a place on their annual perch — October. Navigating the minefield of injuries, bad luck and back-page fodder with this kind of aplomb has earned Girardi the nod as top manager of the American League.
It’s impossible to dislike Jim Leyland, a baseball lifer who can belch better anecdotes than anyone in his husky, Marlboro baritone — but it’s not too tough to fill out a card with Prince Fielder, Torii Hunter, and Miguel Cabrera (perhaps the best right-handed hitter since Joe DiMaggio). And if you survive that car wash of nuclear bats, they’ve got a turnstile of muscular pitching limbs, led by Max Scherzer, who entered the week at 19-1.
Boston has performed a revival that would make Jimmy Swaggart blush, but rookie managers don’t tend to get Manager of the Year. Joe Maddon has always worked his magic under the radar, but Tampa can’t even convince their own fans to pay attention, much less America’s elitist baseball scribes.
But one of them will probably win because the Yankees are seen as the preeminent bullies of baseball, the emblem of reckless, voracious capitalism. They can’t see Girardi over the stacks of cash they pay their players. It’s silly, but the Yankees’ managerial job has often been framed as a padded chair from which any manager can just flip a switch and watch his coddled millionaires do their thing.
There still isn’t enough pitching in pinstripes to convince yours truly that they have a full September sprint left in them. But they’re fighting like Buster Douglas in Tokyo. And the credit goes to one man, who has soldiered on like a war horse.
G.I. Joe is your Manager of the Year.
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