Thursday May 13th, 2010

Joe Girardi has both the easiest and hardest job in his profession. It is easiest, of course, because he gets to plug All-Stars into his lineup everyday -- managing the Yankees is like playing fantasy baseball when you get all the draft picks and make all the rules.

But the very thing that makes the Yankees easy to manage -- piles and piles of that sweet, delicious New York-market money -- is what makes them hard to manage. Managing the Yankees is like dating a supermodel; it sounds like a dream but then you start thinking of all the ways you can screw it up.

And when you manage the Yankees, there are plenty of people ready to tell you precisely how you screwed it up. It would be simplistic and unfair to paint the New York media as relentlessly negative or hopelessly cynical. But I think it's fair to say that after every loss in New York, there are more people probing the body to see which part caused the death. There are more questions, more story angles and many more chances for one of those questions or story angles to blow up on the back page of the tabloids.

"It comes with the job," said Yankees catcher Jorge Posada, who shared a position with Girardi many years ago. "Obviously, everybody watches everything he does. He's under a microscope. He's been able to do an amazing job being able to put all those things away and really take care of what is important: us winning ballgames. He does an amazing job communicating with the guys."

Maybe the best thing you can say about Girardi, in his third season, is that he is rarely the story anymore. It's his team and he doesn't have to show it. And it's easy to forget, after the 2009 World Series and in the middle of another march toward 100 wins, that Girardi's tenure could have been a disaster.

Yes, disaster. That's not a word we normally associate with the Yankees. But consider:

1. Girardi replaced Joe Torre, the most beloved Yankee manager ever. Torre was not technically fired -- his contract was up -- but the team chose not to retain him, and Torre milked the situation with a masterful press conference in which he got people to feel bad for him by telling them not to feel bad for him. The Steinbrenner brothers were seen as jerks for offering Torre an incentive-laden deal that they knew he couldn't accept. None of this had anything to do with Girardi, but when he replaced Torre, he was guilty by association.

2. Girardi was a World Series-winning Yankee player -- dare I say it, a True Yankee -- but he got the job over Don Mattingly, the most beloved Yankee of the 20-year pre-Jeter era.

3. Girardi had been fired in Florida for clashing with management. Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria still owed Girardi a nice chunk of money, and Loria does not like spending money, but he went home, wrapped up all his pennies and nickels in paper, paid Girardi, then asked for the wrappers back. He could not wait to get rid of Girardi.

As a general rule, if you have trouble getting along with sports owners, it's not a good idea to go work for the Steinbrenner family.

4. Girardi took over at a transitional time for the Yankees -- the only season since the mid-'90s when management privately believed the team might not make the playoffs. This was a problem for Yankee fans, who generally expect their team to win the World Series twice a year.

In Girardi's first year, the Yankees missed the playoffs and he rubbed people the wrong way with his tendency to bend the truth about injuries. Then, last year in spring training, the A-ROD STEROIDS SCANDAL OMG! OMG! hit, and the Yankees started 15-17 and Alex Rodriguez was hurt and they were old and, well, Girardi could have been fired right then and there. Stranger things have happened in the Bronx. Stranger things happened to Billy Martin every couple of years in the '70s and '80s.

But Girardi navigated his way through all of that and showed he was the right man for the job. His greatest attribute is that he is unflappable. How much did this have to do with the Yankees recovering, winning 103 games and the World Series? It can't be quantified. But it had to help.

Girardi overmanaged at times in the 2009 postseason. He went to his bullpen too early and often, had relievers getting up and down all the time -- it looked like a carousel ride out there.

But when he got ripped for it, Girardi just went out and managed the next game. When Nick Swisher struggled, Girardi didn't bury him -- he sat him for a game, let him clear his head and put him back in the lineup.

You can say he is lucky to have this roster, and you'd be right. But that doesn't mean everybody could handle it. Tigers manager Jim Leyland, for example, is a great manager for Detroit but wouldn't last 10 minutes with the Yankees. Leyland cuts off questions, he sometimes bullies reporters when the topic is not to his liking, and last week, he decided not to hold his traditional pregame media session for two days. Last year, when Miguel Cabrera went on his infamous late-season all-night drinking binge, then was alleged to have gotten into an altercation with his wife, Leyland testily dismissed reports as "gossip."

Leyland gets away with this in Detroit because the media there is pretty forgiving, because he has the respect of his players, and because on most days, he is as funny and insightful as almost anybody in baseball. Ninety percent of the time, Leyland is extremely likable. Detroit seems to focus on that 90 percent. New York would not cut him the same slack.

The Yankees are the biggest business in baseball and Girardi has thrived because he is all business. But he has loosened up a bit, too. He ducked into the Yankees clubhouse Tuesday, looked around for a player, didn't see him and cracked, "Why can't I find anyone, ever?" The good news for Joe Girardi is that these days, the mob isn't looking for him.

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