Jim Baumbach is an investigative / enterprise sports reporter for Newsday. A Long Island native, he started working
Mere minutes after the Yankees clinched their first division title in ages -- OK, since 2006 -- Joe Girardi made sure to connect with the people who control his fate. And in the course of his brief congratulatory chats with George Steinbrenner, Hal Steinbrenner, Brian Cashman and a handful of other team officials, the Yankees' manager said he had one simple theme. He wanted to say thank you.
"I mean," Girardi said, "I know I'm extremely blessed to have this opportunity."
You can't blame the guy for looking at the many All-Stars (and some future Hall of Famers) spraying champagne at each other Sunday, then saying he feels as if he stepped in you know what.
Heck, he should give thanks. There probably are close to 27 or 28 managers who'd trade spots with him in a second. That's part of the reason Yankees managers don't typically win the Manager of the Year award. Because of all the talent they have to play around with, they're expected to win. Or else step aside.
Girardi knows that all too well, as this effectively was his walk year. He freely admitted many, many times this season that if the Yankees didn't make the playoffs, he knew he'd be looking for work. "That's the way it is here," he said Sunday. "I understand that."
Because the Yankees didn't pull a repeat of 2008, Girardi deserves credit, of course. But in a weird twist, perhaps what he deserves the most accolades for was knowing when to get out of the way.
This Yankees team is a machine, and clearly he learned enough from his first-year foils to know he's not here to control everything. As long as the current core group of players from the late 1990s championships is around, the job of the Yankees' manager is more like a tour guide than a drill sergeant.
As champagne sprayed around the clubhouse Sunday, it was interesting to hear Girardi credit the veterans on this team for letting the newcomers with strong personalities take such an active role so early. Because of the Yankees' stunning championship run in the late 1990s, the home clubhouse used to be an intimidating place for newcomers, even for those freshly signed to multimillion-dollar contracts. Remember, it took Jason Giambi years to feel comfortable.
Yet this year, you have a first-year player, Nick Swisher, acting like a walking, talking Red Bull, sometimes going out of his way for attention. Then there's A.J. Burnett creating a craze with his whipped-cream pies. We're still waiting for Derek Jeter's first walk-off hit to see that scene.
Still, that these new guys felt comfortable to be themselves is a testament not only to the veterans' openness but to Girardi's willingness to let the players have their clubhouse to themselves. Don't forget: This is the same manager who banned candy from the clubhouse the moment he got here.
Sunday, players lined up in defense of him, making sure he gets his share of credit. "We buy into Girardi's system," Johnny Damon said. Mariano Rivera said Girardi did a "tremendous job." Andy Pettitte expressed relief that returning to the playoffs saved his former catcher's job.
"He knows he's got to win here," Pettitte said. "The organization stresses that, and I'm just happy for him. He's gotten behind us and gotten us playing like a team."
Making the playoffs means Girardi's job is safe, at least for a while. All the more reason for him to give thanks.