Amid A-Rod's final days, Yankees manager Joe Girardi under pressure
- Although Yankees manager Joe Girardi has stuck by Alex Rodriguez through the years, the attention surrounding A-Rod's retirement is beginning to cause some strain.
BOSTON—There was never much hope that Alex Rodriguez’s relationship with the Yankees would end well. But even through team president Randy Levine’s reported comments in 2013 that he would prefer that A-Rod never step on a field again, and through general manager Brian Cashman’s suggestion shortly thereafter that his designated hitter “should just shut the f--- up” after A-Rod tweeted that he had been cleared to return to the field after left hip surgery, and through Rodriguez’s since-dropped lawsuit against New York’s team doctor, Christopher Ahmad, three months later, there was always manager Joe Girardi.
Girardi stuck up for his player during that tumultuous 2013 season and Rodriguez’s 162-game suspension in '14 for his involvement with the Biogenesis doping scandal. Rodriguez credited the support of his skipper, for whom he’s played since 2008, with keeping him mentally prepared to return to the team.
“I think he is the gold standard of the modern-day manager,” Rodriguez said this previous winter.
So the deterioration of their bond has proved to be one of the more painful parts of an otherwise predictably unpleasant breakup. New York announced Sunday that Rodriguez would be released and then become a special advisor following a final home start this Friday, a decision principal owner Hal Steinbrenner did not run by the manager. (The Yankees will pay Rodriguez the remaining $26 million of the 10-year, $275 million deal he signed after the 2007 season.) At the press conference announcing the plan, Girardi promised he would “find a way” to get his former star as many at bats as he wanted. But he reversed course Tuesday afternoon, announcing instead that Rodriguez would start only Thursday’s game against Red Sox knuckleballer Steven Wright, because the team liked the matchup.
“My heart can get tugged at,” Girardi explained. “I think I got caught up in the emotions. I’m human.… I’m not saying he won’t play these next two days, but I’m managing to win the games. This is a very important series for us. This is one of the teams we’re chasing.”
New York started the series 4 1/2 games back in the wild-card race, which Boston led. Rodriguez, a 14-time All-Star and three-time AL MVP who is sitting at 696 career home runs, came into the series hitting .204 and slugging .356 and had started in just one of the team’s previous 15 games. Once a Gold Glover at shortstop and among the best all-around players there of all time, he has played the equivalent of three games in the field—one at first base, two at third—since 2013.
Rodriguez was clearly hurt by the news. “I’m disappointed,” he said on Tuesday afternoon. “When I heard him say I could actually play in all four games, I was really excited. I don’t know what happened. I guess I play on Thursday.”
As it turned out, Rodriguez got to play on Wednesday after all, when Girardi called on him to pinch-hit in the seventh inning with the Yankees trailing 4-2 and the tying runs on base. Rodriguez flied out to right amid a chorus of boos, and even though New York rallied to take a 6-4 lead that inning and won 9-4, the damage had been done between player and manager.
They did not speak except to say hello until the sixth inning of the game, when Girardi told him to be ready to hit. It was a reporter who informed Rodriguez on Wednesday afternoon that the Red Sox had scratched Wright from Thursday's start due to a right shoulder injury and would replace him with lefty Eduardo Rodriguez—and a reporter who assured him when he nervously asked what that meant for him that he was still starting. “Yes! Thank you!” A-Rod answered excitedly.
The situation has devolved at times into a sideshow. It took until the 14th minute of Girardi’s pregame press conference on Wednesday for him to answer a question about a player other than Rodriguez, and he spent much of the time before that blaming reporters for encouraging the controversy. Girardi was criticized during Derek Jeter’s final season, in 2014, for refusing to drop the shortstop—who finished the season with a .617 OPS—from the No. 2 spot in the batting order, and he continues to play first baseman Mark Teixeira, who announced last Friday he would retire at the end of the year, despite his .196 batting average. The manager says he had no other options in either case; in Rodriguez’s, there are other players he’d like to rotate through DH. Wednesday's choice was Gary Sanchez, a highly regarded 23-year-old catching prospect who went 4-for-5.
“My job description does not entail a farewell tour,” Girardi said. “My job description is to try to win every game and put everyone in the best possible position to do that, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
The fans have certainly not been immune from voicing their opinions. Rita Battey, 70, a lifelong Yankees supporter from Smithfield, R.I., scored a field-access pass for batting practice and came armed with a hot-pink “TY ALEX WE <3 YOU” banner.
“You should play Alex!” she yelled as Girardi walked by.
“You should apply for the [manager] job!” Girardi shot back.
The chaos has also taken a toll on the other 24 Yankees. Third baseman Chase Headley went 2-for-5 with the game-tying RBI on Wednesday, yet the only reporter who approached him after the game wanted to talk about A-Rod.
“It’s certainly been an uncomfortable situation for everybody,” Headley says. “We’re going to be professional about it, try to minimize the circus as much as we can. I’m ready for it to be over because I think he’s ready for it to be over. I hope he gets the send-off he deserves. This is tough.”
It won’t get easier until at least Friday, when the Yankees have planned a pregame ceremony. (The Red Sox have said they will not honor him before his start Thursday; the most acknowledgement he got Wednesday was a persistent “We want A-Rod” chant and at least one banner-size photograph of his 2004 brawl with Boston catcher Jason Varitek thanks to Doug Jebb of Westport, Conn.) But the rift with Girardi, his onetime champion, may take longer to heal.
“No one individual is ever bigger than this game," said Girardi. "No one. No one, no one, no one. And I’m not going to forget that, as much as I care about him, as much as we’ve been through together. Hopefully, when we all get away from this, he remembers more good than bad.”