By Jason Keidel
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Politicians often brand Big Apple mayor the second-hardest job in our republic. The only harder and hotter seat than Gracie Mansion is the Oval Office.
Perhaps you may consider a third job — manager of the New York Yankees, which, suddenly and surprisingly, is now vacant. Like the mayor or POTUS, you’re not only expected to perform day and night, and say and do the proper thing all day every day, but you also have 4 million people (fans) who think they can do your job better than you can. And like the POTUS, you live and work within the fishbowl of America’s brutal media.
When the Yankees refused to re-sign manager Joe Girardi — a de facto firing, by all accounts — something smelled. No MLB club won more games than the Yankees did during Girardi’s 10 years at the helm. They never had a losing season. And during a universally labeled rebuilding year, he got the Yanks within one game of the World Series.
I’m hardly a conspiracy theorist. I’ve never been a Grassy Knoll guy. But I don’t believe Girardi got fired because he didn’t embrace analytics enough or because he had low-end communication skills or he couldn’t embrace and develop younger players.
Something happened inside the halls or walls of Yankee Stadium. I have no proof of this. No fingerprint, empty shell casing or smoking gun. Just intuition. Girardi won Manager of the Year during his ephemeral tenure in 2006 with the Marlins, a barely pubescent group who didn’t know a thing about winning in the big leagues. But this is the same man whom, 11 years later, suddenly can’t relate to youngsters?
Yeah, just look at the way he stunted Aaron Judge’s growth. Look at the way he ruined Gary Sanchez. Lord knows he wrecked Luis Severino’s fastball. Maybe Chad Green would have had a 0.71 WHIP (instead of 0.74), or 105 strikeouts (instead of 103) over 69 innings pitched. Name one verified time Girardi stunted a young Yankee’s growth, or even a corresponding rumor.
For this, he was canned, asked not to return, to clear out his office with the solemn surprise of a longtime outfielder who was one of the three best at his position for a decade.
At the time, Oct. 26, I branded it impulsive, brutish and childish. It felt like a Steinbrenner move, all right — George Steinbrenner. As though the Old Lion were revived to jettison one more successful skipper, for old time’s sake. None of it felt planned or proper, but rather reflexive and infantile.
What makes the decision to say sayonara to Girardi even more baffling is that it was made long before the team’s dreamy October run. Hal Steinbrenner said exactly that this week, that even if Girardi won five more playoff games, he still would have been fired.
“I’m sure there would have been more pressure (to keep him),” Steinbrenner said. “It maybe would have been a more difficult decision to make, but I still believe I would have made it because I felt that’s what’s best for the organization going forward.”
Let’s understand this. No club in the history of team sports is more tethered to winning or more accustomed to it than the New York Yankees. Nor is any team more unashamed or unabashed in its public dedication to victory. Yet the owner of the team said that winning the World Series — their only goal every year — would not have saved Girardi’s job.
And in case you wonder if Steinbrenner really meant what he said, he doubled down on the sentiment.
“This is not something that came from two or three weeks,” Steinbrenner said. “It came from two, three, four years and everything we observed in that time period.”
Huh? What exactly has happened over the last four years to tell Steinbrenner that Girardi lost his grip on the Bronx Bombers? Forget the last four years; look at the last four months — or the last four weeks. After Girardi’s epic blunder in the ALDS against the Indians, during which he neglected to challenge that umpire’s call on the hit batsman, we all wondered if that would cost Girardi his job and the series. Yet the team he allegedly lost and could not connect with on any meaningful level totally had its skipper’s back and won the next game and the series. Then they were up on the eventual World Series champions in the ALCS, beating the Houston Astros just as many times as the Dodgers did.
And you still wonder why some of us say something smells? That something happened between G.I. Joe and his bosses behind closed doors? You still doubt this possibility? And it’s not as if Girardi wasn’t down with the team’s eternal mission statement. Without prodding or provocation, Girardi started his career with jersey No. 27, to remind us all that his only goal is to win World Series No. 27 — which he bagged in just his second year. If that weren’t enough, Girardi changed his uniform the next year to No. 28. But the team wasn’t comfortable with Girardi’s competence or unflinching devotion to winning?
Had the Yankees been bumped in the wild-card game to the 85-win Twins or lost in grotesque fashion to Cleveland, you could have at least understood why the Yankees evaluated Girardi’s job performance but not fire him. Once they came back from 3-1 down to beat what many considered the best club in baseball, Girardi’s next contract should have been a fait accompli.
Yet now we’ve got a dozen names jammed into the managerial blender, spinning a dizzying cocktail of rumor, whisper and conjecture. Only two problems with this beverage: Joe Girardi’s name isn’t in it, and though it’s named after Hal Steinbrenner, it tastes an awful lot like George Steinbrenner.
Please follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel