For the last 18 years, Yankee fans have been spoiled. The Yankees have been contending for playoff spots and World Series rings ever since 1996. In that time we have won the World Series 5 times, won the American League championship 7 times, won the division 13 times, and made the playoffs in every year except 2008. In this period of time, the Yankees have largely been managed under the leadership of two men – Joe Torre and Joe Girardi. Though they had different management styles, but they both had their challenges and they both had the will to win.
Both managers started out their respective tenures replacing well-respected and popular managers. Buck Showalter took the Yankees from the worst team in the American League to a playoff contender. After the 1995 collapse in the playoffs against the Seattle Mariners, the team was essentially overhauled and Showalter was abruptly replaced. “Clueless Joe”, as the New York Daily News labeled him, took over and proceeded to win 4 World Series titles in the next 5 years. Only once did he fail to reach 90 wins, and only twice did he fail to win the division. He took the team to the playoffs in every year of his time as manager.
Joe Girardi also replaced a popular manager – Joe Torre! For some time, there had been reports of disputes between the George Steinbrenner and Joe Torre. Following the 2007 season, Torre turned down what he thought was an insulting offer, and the Yankees brought in Joe Girardi. To make matters worse, in his first managerial season, the Yankees failed to reach the playoffs for the first time since baseball went on strike in 1994. Nevertheless, Joe recovered well. After some major acquisitions in the off season, the Yankees reached the World Series for his first managerial World Series ring in 2009.
Both had to make changes needed by the team. Joe Torre transformed the homer-happy Bronx Bombers into a team focused on baseball fundamentals – getting on base, stealing bases, sacrificing runners over. He popularized the role of the setup man – with future Hall-of-Famer Mariano Rivera owning the 7th and 8th innings and setting up closer John Wetteland. He had huge success with that approach, going 70-3 when leading after 6 innings, and was a model duplicated throughout baseball. Joe Girardi had to change the mood of the clubhouse, as it became a source of contention among some. Joe Torre had a strict no-loud-music policy, so when Nick Swisher came to Joe about it, the rule was suspended and Swisher clubhouse mayhem went into full swing.
Joe Torre had a great sense of loyalty to the players that helped him succeed. He inherited closer John Wetteland who had blown a game in the fateful Mariners division playoffs. Joe did not give up on him, and Wetteland had a great year in 1996 and a World Series MVP. After the 1997 postseason failure, many thought that Mariano Rivera might not be able to handle the pressure of postseason play. That is a joke now, but it was his first postseason as a closer and he blew a critical game by giving up a home run to Sandy Alomar, Jr. But Joe did not give up on him either. The result was Mariano Rivera’s Hall of Fame career and status as a Yankee legend.
Joe Girardi, on the other hand, has had much more success with the younger talent. In 2006 he won Manager of the Year by taking a very bad and very young Florida Marlins team and making them competitive (they made a respectable run at the wild card that year). It was primarily due to the development and mentoring of young talent, guiding them to handling major league play. That skill was premium when he joined the Yankees as manager, as he had to manage a changing of the guard. Aging legends like Jorge Posada had to be respectfully led into retirement while younger talent had to be phased in. The challenges remain today, as he has to handle the flurry of young talent coming up, substituting in for injured stars.
There were two key things that they had in common. One was the unfair criticism to which they have been subjected. It is part of the job for managers to take shots from the peanut gallery. We get that. However, the fickleness and the wild swings in the public opinion, in light of their successes, are baffling. If you believe the public commentary, Torre went from Clueless Joe, to superhero, to the guy who was asleep in the dugout.
Girardi, likewise, is under similar criticism. If you’ve read the comments on him, you’d think that he spent the last 6 years struggling to get over .500. Meanwhile, this will probably be only the second time in his managerial career that he failed to reach 95 wins. No manager is perfect, and some of his decisions are questionable. But in the larger body of work, which sometimes required him to field a team of players that were the best available due to injuries to key players, he has performed spectacularly.
Despite his successes, people insist on playing target practice with his “binder”. When did researching and understanding your opponents’ weaknesses become a bad thing? When did having statistics readily available to help with decision-making make you a bad manager? A manager places his infielders on a shift to get pull hitters out, and he’s a genius. Bring in a left-handed pitcher to face a left-handed hitter, and the manager is mixing and matching well. Teach a pitcher to throw first-pitch strikes, and you’re teaching good pitching fundamentals. All of these practices are based on known and respected statistics. But when Joe puts it on paper and consults it, then he doesn’t know how to manage. I don’t’ understand that way of thinking.
The other thing they had in common was winning. Whether it was/is their clubhouse interviews or roster changes, their words and actions oozed with a determination to win. You can argue about various aspects of someone’s playing or managing career. But winning is the one metric against which everyone is evaluated. It is hard to argue with stats. Joe Torre had a total managerial record of 1173–767 (.604) with four World Series titles in six tries and twelve trips to the postseason in twelve seasons. Joe Girardi, as of this writing, is 553-395 (.583), has a World Series ring, and is almost there with his fifth trip to the postseason in 6 seasons.
Despite all of the criticisms, Joe Torre and Joe Girardi have handled enormous pressures and were able to win. During their time, we have not had to think about whether or not our team can win, as fans of most other teams do. We think about how we’re going to get to the World Series, not if we’ll be over .500. Thanks to these two, we have been spoiled.
--Ike Dimitriadis, BYB Writer
My blog is: Shots from Murderer's Row