David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Joe Girardi grew up in the Chicago suburbs writing essays about one day playing for the Cubs. He was the original catcher for the expansion Rockies, and when Colorado traded him to the Yankees in 1995, Girardi was as clueless about the Bronx as any other Midwestern tourist.
Funny how life works sometimes. All these years later, there is no more integral part -- short of Hal Steinbrenner himself -- than Girardi in the franchise's efforts to maintain the bridge between the Yankees' championship past and the ongoing quest for No. 28, which could take a while.
This is not a knock on Brian Cashman, or any other member of the front office, from the scouting department to player development. Their jobs are to secure the talent to make it possible, and with five World Series rings in the last 18 seasons -- only missing the playoffs twice during that stretch -- it's been a very successful run.
But Girardi, along with Derek Jeter, is the only remaining link to those glory days that still wears pinstripes. There is added meaning to that, especially during this transitional phase in the Bronx, and the Yankees recognized his value Wednesday by making him the second-highest paid manager in the game with a four-year, $16-million contract.
With six years in, that sets up Girardi for a full decade at the Yankees' helm, which would be only two years fewer than Miller Huggins and Joe Torre. Billy Martin served five terms under The Boss, but never longer than four seasons consecutively. Let's face it, after Joe McCarthy and Casey Stengel, managing the Yankees usually meant renting an apartment rather than buying a house.
What the Yankees need now, however, is stability, and locking up Girardi does that, in a number of ways. Not only is he comfortable here, having settled in the leafy suburbs with his family, Girardi knows the landscape. He won titles playing with the Core Four, and in his second year as manager, ended the nine-year championship drought working with Cashman and the Steinbrenner brothers.
Just sticking around this long is an accomplishment in itself, and Girardi realizes that he is approaching a rarefied status that few ever get the chance to reach. Mariano Rivera got there. So did Andy Pettitte, and Girardi had the best seat in The House That Ruth Built to witness that history.
The Yankees, by virtue of this contract, are hoping Girardi someday has the chance to go out like that. With a few more rings first, obviously. And in choosing to stay on in the Bronx, whether he says so publicly or not, Girardi is giving himself a real shot at Yankee immortality. There's nothing else like it in sports.
"I'm not worried about making a legacy," Girardi said about watching Rivera and Pettitte say goodbye. "But the impact on my life was how fortunate I am to be a part of something so great. I felt really blessed. At times it brought me to tears because I realized how fortunate I was to be around two great men. That was special to me. This place is special."
With only Jeter left on the roster, the Yankees will feel somewhat less special next year. Just as Cashman did in the days after this 85-win season ended, Girardi acknowledged they have plenty of work ahead of them this winter. Getting him signed was the easy part.
As much as Girardi wanted to remain with the Yankees, the team's decision-makers realized they needed him even more. When Girardi floated the idea of the four-year deal -- a full season longer than the typical extension -- Steinbrenner relented. It doesn't count toward the luxury tax anyway, so what's an extra few million with the future of the Yankees at stake.
That future is in the hands of a Northwestern grad who never really wanted to be a Yankee in the first place. Now, Girardi can't picture himself anywhere else. He feels like he's home, and part of something that no other team could offer. As Torre said recently, winning in New York is the summit, and he should know. By returning, Torre's protege is looking forward to the climb again.
"I want to be a part of it," Girardi said. "And I want to be a part of us getting back on top. That was important to me. I want to be a part of getting back to where I think we should be."