Joe Girardi and the era of stability

There is nothing quite so underappreciated as stability.

Stability doesn’t make headlines. It doesn’t sell books or newspapers. It’s silent and safe. It’s perfectly boring. Stability is wallpaper. You don’t even notice it until it suddenly isn’t there anymore.

From the moment George Steinbrenner purchased the New York Yankees in 1973, they were anything but stable. The team saw 21 managers hired and fired through the first 22 years of Steinbrenner’s stewardship. 21! Some years saw the team end up as champagne-soaked World Series champions, others as the literal worst team in the league. It didn’t matter. The one constant through it all was the dizzying turbulence of flying under King George.

Then, suddenly and inexplicably, it stopped. Like a plane finding a clear patch of blue sky after a two-decade-long lightning storm, the chaos and tumult that had become such a staple in the Bronx simply vanished. The Yankees became…stable. Since 1996, the team has won seven American League pennants, five championships and never had a losing season. They did all that under the management of just two men: Joe Torre and Joe Girardi.

That era came to an end on Thursday, as news broke that Girardi would not be returning to manage the team next season — this coming just days after he helped take the team to Game 7 of the ALCS, far exceeding even the wildest expectations any reasonable fan or pundit had for the 2017 roster. The news sent shockwaves through the baseball community, particularly as it became clear that it was the team and not Girardi who made the decision to move on after a decade-long relationship.

The transition from Torre to Girardi almost exactly ten years ago was not nearly as controversial. Despite his Hall of Fame managerial tenure, the writing was on the wall for Torre by the time the team made its third consecutive first-round playoff exit in 2007 — that sour run coming on the heels of the greatest collapse in the history of the sport in the 2004 ALCS. The cruelty of playoff variance aside though, it had become quite clear that Torre did not have the same magic touch with the mid-2000s incarnation of the team as he did with the group he led to glory in the late nineties. New blood was needed, and Girardi — after a brief but successful stint as manager of the Florida Marlins — was tabbed as the man for the job.

The decision proved prudent, and the transition was seamless. Girardi took the team back to the promise land in just his second year as manager, winning the 2009 World Series over the Philadelphia Phillies. His teams would make the playoffs in each of the next three seasons, reaching two more ALCS but ultimately falling short of the Steinbrenner standard.

Beginning in 2013 though, things began to erode. Players that had served as the foundation of the team for the previous 20 years began to finally age out. Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte retired after the 2013 season, and Derek Jeter said his farewell a year later. Meanwhile, the Yankee front office let the logical successor, Robinson Cano, walk to Seattle in free agency, even as the mercenaries that made 2009 possible began to show their cracks. CC Sabathia seemed to be a shell of his former self. Mark Teixeira became injury-plagued and non-productive. Alex Rodriguez was a mix of the two, with a year-long suspension for PEDs thrown in for good measure. And so the homegrown stars of the nineties and free agent behemoths of the 2000s gave way to past-their-prime players like Lyle Overbay, Vernon Wells, Travis Hafner and Brian Roberts. This, by any logical measure, was the Yankees reaching the end of their life cycle. It was time to bottom out, as all teams do, then wipe the hard drive and reboot the system. It was time to rebuild.

Thing is, the Yankees never bottomed out. They won 85 games in 2013. Then they won 84. In 2015, they won 87 games and improbably earned a Wild Card spot. After the front office finally sold off assets at the 2016 trade deadline and embraced the rebuild, Girardi’s team immediately went 17-11 in August. They wound up with 84 wins. Over those four seasons, the Yankees out-produced their pythagorean record by 17 games and remained plausible playoff contenders deep into September without fail. And all that before this year — the first year in full-on rebuild mode — where the team won 91 games, beat Minnesota in the Wild Card game, overcame an 0-2 deficit to knock off the best team in the American League and took the other best team in the AL to the absolute brink of another pennant. Girardi has bore the brunt of what the general public perceived to be down seasons for the Yankees, but the truth is that he’s been overachieving with misfit rosters for years.

None of that is to say he’s perfect. I’ve been harsher on Girardi over the past month than ever before. His ALDS Game 2 replay debacle nearly derailed a magical season, and his bullpen management in the Houston series left something to be desired. There are perceptions that he’s too intense, that he’s too loyal to his binder of numbers. There’s evidence that he mistrusts his young players, particularly Gary Sanchez.

The problem is, there are bigger and uglier nits to pick with almost every other manager in baseball. Two other 2017 playoff teams were dissatisfied enough to dump their managers already, and if Joe Maddon’s bullpen management over the past two postseasons hasn’t made you throw things across your living room, it’s only because you’re not a Cub fan. Are there five managers in baseball that are clearly better than Joe Girardi? Are there three? It’s easy to look at Girardi’s flaws and assume the grass must be greener elsewhere, but the rest of baseball’s managerial landscape says that the Yankees have long had one of the nicest lawns in town. It will be hard to do better than Girardi. It will be much, much easier to do worse.

If that’s disconcerting to you as a Yankee fan though, then you should at least try to understand the opposite side. As additional reports leaked out Thursday, it began to feel like Girardi’s dismissal was ultimately Brian Cashman’s decision. If there’s solace to be found here, that’s it. Cashman is the architect of this team, and no one goes from rebuild-mode to ALCS Game 7 with arguably the brightest future in baseball over the span of one year without careful and meticulous planning. Cashman has earned more trust than anyone in the organization and perhaps anyone in baseball over his tenure as Yankees GM. If he recommended a new direction, it’s probably safe to say it’s because he believes it’s the best course for the team and not some personal grudge or haphazard Steinbrennian-decision resurrected from an era gone by.

We aren’t privy to the goings-on in the Yankee clubhouse. We don’t know what the atmosphere is. We don’t know how Sanchez feels about his (now former) skipper, or if Aroldis Chapman’s Instagram faux pas was really just an accident or something more. It is entirely within the realm of possibility that Girardi is not the right man for this team. You can believe that to be true while also acknowledging Girardi as one of the best managers in the game. The ideas are not mutually exclusive, and Cashman may be the only person in the Yankee organization trustworthy enough to make that determination.

Cashman certainly has a plan. He probably has a name or three in mind, and has for a while. Maybe it’s Rob Thomson or Tony Pena. Maybe it’s Dave Martinez, Raul Ibanez or even Jason Giambi. Maybe it’s none of those guys at all. Maybe whoever it is will be the Yankee manager for the next decade and stability will reign once more.

For at least a moment though, the New York Yankees are unstable. They haven’t been for a long while. Did you notice?


Lead photo: Thomas B. Shea / USA Today Sports

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