With every word about an egregious mistake he refused to own, Joe Girardi twisted deeper the knife he had plunged into the New York Yankees’ postseason life. It is one thing to be a manager who so believes in his instinct that he ignores the cardinal rule of the job – trust your players – and in the process exposes his own fallibility. It’s something different altogether to explain it away in a fusillade of fallacies that bared his flaws and insecurities even more.
In the aftermath of Cleveland’s rollicking 9-8 victory in 13 innings over the Yankees that handed the Indians a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five American League Division Series, Girardi endeavored to defend the indefensible – and painted himself as laughably inept, stubbornly arrogant or perhaps both, enough so that the Instagram account of his closer liked a comment that called Girardi “a complete imbecile.”
The game situation revealed the folly of Girardi’s decision. The Yankees led 8-3 in the sixth inning after chasing AL Cy Young favorite Corey Kluber in the third. With two on, two out and two strikes against Cleveland left fielder Lonnie Chisenhall, Yankees reliever Chad Green pumped a 96-mph fastball inside. It grazed something before landing in catcher Gary Sanchez’s glove. Umpire Dan Iassogna thought it was Chisenhall’s hand and awarded him first base. Sanchez immediately pointed to Girardi, certain the ball hit Chisenhall’s bat for a foul-tip third strike.
Slo-mo replay proved Sanchez correct. Only Girardi, who two months ago made a public show of criticizing Sanchez’s bona fides behind the plate, didn’t heed the word of the player crouching a foot from Chisenhall. He waited for guidance from his replay team. It did not come within the 30 seconds to call for a replay challenge, Girardi said, so he passed on the opportunity. Two pitches later, Francisco Lindor walloped a game-changing grand slam off the right-field foul pole. Two innings later, Jay Bruce hit a game-tying home run. In the 13th, Yan Gomes yanked the 10th pitch of his at-bat against Dellin Betances down the third-base line to score Austin Jackson and train the focus back on Girardi, exactly where it belongs.
Where to begin with the bungling? First, the impetus behind the decision itself. It’s important to understand that managing a major league team is exceedingly difficult – that managers must make by-the-minute snap decisions. Now in his 10th year managing the Yankees, Girardi surely understands the dynamics of the game that play into each one. In this case, he was one out away from the seventh inning. Starting in the eighth, umpires have the discretion to call for challenges. Pocketing both of his challenges for one inning is conservatism run amok. Girardi had almost nothing to lose by challenging. If replay officials confirmed the call, Chisenhall would be in exactly the same place he would’ve been otherwise. If it was overturned, it’s 8-3 and Lindor is leading off the seventh.
Girardi’s explanation was … well, watch him bury himself with his own words.
“Being a catcher,” Girardi said, “my thought is I never want to break a pitcher’s rhythm. That’s how I think about it.”
Being a catcher. That ineffably damning clause really is paramount. That is Joe Girardi, New York Yankees manager, saying he knows best and anyone else can kick rocks. That is Joe Girardi literally appealing to authority – himself. That is Joe Girardi saying the moment that allowed the Indians to register the greatest come-from-behind postseason victory in franchise history exists explicitly because he’s the expert. That is Joe Girardi, the emperor, disrobing himself.
And the rhythm hokum. Girardi is so concerned about disrupting a pitcher’s rhythm that more than half of his challenges as a manager have come with a Yankees pitcher on the mound. It’s even more astonishing because when it comes to replay, no manager is as good as Girardi. Of the 128 challenges he has issued, 94 have been successful. In the four years of challenges, calls are overturned about 52 percent of the time. Girardi is over 73 percent.
Green, still in rhythm, spun a slider low and in, Lindor’s nitro zone, and watched it fly deep into the Cleveland night. Girardi’s reason for keeping Green in was particularly rich, too: “He’s had success off Lindor.” He had faced Lindor twice this year. Both at-bats ended in strikeouts, yes, but Girardi knows that a two-at-bat sample size means less than nothing. In previous years, Lindor faced Green twice and walked both times. Girardi wouldn’t dare have made the argument last year that Lindor owned Green.
Part of being an effective manager is taking responsibility for mistakes, not just because people are smart enough to see through excuses but because the temperature in a clubhouse turns arctic otherwise. As unlikely as it is that Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman liked the post that called Girardi an imbecile – a reckless social media manager is almost certainly the culprit – it nevertheless reflects Girardi’s standing. The best managers – Terry Francona in Cleveland, for example – engender respect bordering on reverence. Neither player nor social media manager would dare impugn Francona, no matter how badly he biffs a game.
Girardi’s rant about Sanchez’s defense in August displayed a manager so desperate he turned to public shaming as a motivational tactic. Being a catcher, Girardi surely understood the last thing any player needs, particularly one like Sanchez who was struggling behind the plate, is a manager confirming his inadequacies. Being a catcher, he should realize baseball problems are best solved in-house.
The worst sort of manager is the supercilious one – a man so caught up in what he knows that he can’t see the error of his ways. “There was nothing that told us that he was not hit on the pitch,” Girardi said.
Except Gary Sanchez.
All the standard criticisms of Girardi as a manager – that he’s too reliant upon his binder of facts and figures – ran up against a far more grievous offense Friday: He was too reliant on himself. The Yankees had a chance to steal home-field advantage against the 102-win Indians and lock down the series at home. Now, they need three straight wins against a team that has lost four times in its last 39 games.
Girardi’s contract is up at the end of the season, and Game 2 certainly didn’t inspire oodles of confidence that he’s the right person to shepherd the franchise into an era with wondrous talent and money to spend. One game does not a future make or break, but then one game can remind that someone in a position of power and privilege, even one a decade into his tenure, has plenty to learn.
Being a manager, Joe Girardi should know that. It’s a shame he still doesn’t.
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