David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
No offense to Greg Bird, but the two-day Ping-Pong match between Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi on whether Alex Rodriguez should be forced into first-base duty wasn't exactly a vote of confidence for the rookie.
Heading into the Red Sox series, Girardi talked openly about possibly deploying A-Rod at first against Boston's two lefty starters, Eduardo Rodriguez and Henry Owens. Bird's only crime? Inexperience, and at 22, with less than 20 games in the majors, Girardi preferred a more veteran, righty-hitting lineup for the slugfests that usually take place at Fenway Park.
Well, it took about 48 hours, but Girardi eventually backed down to the GM -- who wants no part of A-Rod at first base -- with the manager saying before Wednesday's series finale that Rodriguez would only be used there in an "emergency" situation. So unless half the roster catches chickenpox from the Royals, we don't envision A-Rod over there any time soon.
Girardi's loss, however, turns out to be a win for Bird, who showed up Wednesday to see his name in the lineup vs. Owens. We're not sure if the manager still entertained the notion of starting Rodriguez at first until that same morning, but by the time Girardi spoke to the media at 2 p.m., he had done a 180 on the subject.
Suddenly, Girardi was saying things like, "I don't think Alex is ready to do it," which fell more in line with Cashman's unblinking stance from the previous two days. And with both of them now on the same page, the Yankees' plan going forward is to use Bird as the everyday first baseman, for as long as Mark Teixeira remains sidelined with the bone bruise in his lower right leg.
In yesterday's 13-8 victory, that looked like a smart decision, and Bird's 2-for-4 afternoon, which included a long home run off Owens into the rightfield corner, helped the Yankees' brain trust feel much better about it. Bird went back-to-back with John Ryan Murphy during the Yankees' eight-run second. He also drew a walk and scored in the third.
"I think he's been producing pretty well," Girardi said. "I'm pleased with the way he swings the bat. I think he gives you a real good at-bat every time he goes up there. And he's taken his walks."
Bird is hitting .254 (16-for-63) with three homers and 12 RBIs in 18 games, so it's not like he's giving some token effort from the No. 6 spot, where Girardi had him yesterday. It also was a welcome rebound from Monday night, when Bird bobbled a potential double-play grounder to let an insurance run score, then later struck out looking with the bases loaded for the second out of the ninth in the 4-3 loss.
Bird beat himself up a little that night, standing up in the middle of the clubhouse -- where the Yankees usually do their postgame interviews in the cramped Fenway space -- and insisting that he had to do better. But he clearly had it out of his system by Wednesday.
"That's just part of baseball," Bird said. "So understanding that, I think you just learn to deal with it and get them the next day. You hear that a lot, but it's kind of the mentality I have."
It's really the only way for a fresh call-up to survive in the majors, and especially when they've been thrust into a playoff race, as Bird has been since the Yankees summoned him from Triple-A Scranton on Aug. 13. Back then, the strategy was for Bird to spell Teixeira occasionally at first base, and maybe inject some youthful energy into what was looking like a tired Yankees' lineup.
Since Bird's Aug. 13 call-up, the plan has changed considerably. On Tuesday, the Yankees discovered that Teixeira's bone bruise would keep him sidelined for at least another two weeks and perhaps put the remainder of his season in jeopardy. That elevated Bird from being a high-profile temp to the Yankees' full-time first baseman. And no platoon with A-Rod, either.
"I have a good feeling about it," Girardi said.
The Yankees don't have much of a choice. Chase Headley, Dustin Ackley and Brendan Ryan have been floated as possible fill-ins at first, but the best option remains Bird.
Now he just has to prove that's the case.