NEW YORK — Some guys like to sneak up on their target.
Joe Girardi put his on the back of a uniform:
And no sooner had Girardi delivered a 27th World Series title for the most storied franchise in American pro sports than he began plotting for the next one. No surprise there. The man always has a plan.
“We’ll see,” he said, “if anyone is going to charge me for No. 28.”
It’s yours, Joe. No one on the Yankees wore the number in the World Series, and by the time the next one rolls around, no one else would dare. Come to think of it, just about everything else in town will be yours for the asking, too.
It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Girardi was a hero in New York long before he parked his backside in the manager’s chair two years ago. That was because of the three World Series rings he won wearing pinstripes and the time he spent learning the trade as a bench coach under Joe Torre.
But this one was different. Girardi couldn’t hand off the credit fast enough.
“As a player, it’s what you dream about ever since you were a little boy. As a manager you still have that joy, but the joy is for other people … and the behind-the-scenes work that it takes. It starts with the Boss and his family and Brian Cashman,” Girardi said, crediting the Steinbrenners and his general manager first, then naming just about everyone on the organizational chart.
Girardi is smart that way, but genuine, too. As much as he’s a stickler about getting things exactly right, the one thing he never forgets is that baseball is still a game played by people.
“Joe pushed all the right buttons,” Yankee captain Derek Jeter said. “He was great to play for. Right from day one, we thought we had a special group and he was leading us.”
It’s no coincidence that catchers like Girardi, who wind up orchestrating the game on the field, make the best managers. Or that Philadelphia’s Charlie Manuel was the only one of the four managers whose teams reached the league championship series who didn’t play the position. Like Girardi, the Dodgers’ Torre and the Angels’ Mike Scioscia are former backstops as well.
None, however, was shaped by the experience more than Girardi.
He was ripped for micromanaging his bullpen throughout the postseason and called too smart for his own good. Critics said Girardi ran the game like an engineer and cited his bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from Northwestern as though it made a slam-dunk case. Much, too, was made about the binder of statistics stuffed with scouting reports and statistical matchups that sat on the bench never more than an arm’s reach away.
Yet the one decision that drew the most fire — letting backup Jose Molina catch starting pitcher A.J. Burnett instead of front-liner Jorge Posada — was strictly a seat-of-the-pants move. And it might have saved the Series. Girardi stuck with his decision after losing Game 1 at home and was rewarded when Molina, a better defender than Posada, called a nearly flawless game behind the plate and made a pickoff throw to first that was a pivotal play in Game 2.
What few people remembered is that Girardi was in a similar position in 1999. He was the Yankees’ No. 1 catcher at the time, but it was already clear to everyone else in the organization that Posada was the future. Despite the loyalty that was forged between Girardi and Torre, Posada got the start for Game 4 of the World Series over Girardi. It was a lesson in team-building he never forgot.
In a sense, that day prepared him for this one. Girardi learned the best thing he could do as a manager was put his charges in a position to succeed. He put that lesson to work in his first managing job, a one-year stint with the lowly Marlins, pushing an unproven collection of youngsters into the 2006 NL wild-card race, despite the lowest payroll in the game. For his effort, though, he got fired immediately afterward, despite being named NL manager of the year.
When Girardi picked up his walking papers, all Girardi said, wisely, was thanks for the opportunity. He got mentioned for nearly every job that opened up in the interim, making the short list with the Cubs, Orioles, Nationals and even the Yankees, when Torre nearly got fired in 2007. But by then, Girardi had already hatched a more ambitious plan.
“I really believe in this club,” he said. “I’ve always believed in this organization.”
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at) ap.org
Jim Litke/The Associated Press