The No. 28 worn on the back of Joe Girardi, like the 27 before it, is both a mission statement and the means to identify the Yankees’ manager. Anyone familiar with the team’s proud World Series history can tell you the the significance of those digits.
Girardi’s number refers to what many multi-time champions proclaim is their favorite title: the next one. Only for Girardi, it’s now been eight years since he and the Yankees won the World Series — or even appeared in the Fall Classic. And the longer that No. 28 stays frozen on his back, the more uncomfortable it becomes, like a pinstripe bull’s-eye.
Joe Torre, who presided over the Yankees’ turn-of-the-century dynasty, was ousted after a seven-year title drought, but that included a pair of failed World Series trips in 2001 and ’03. The only other managers in the past 40 years to bring the trophy home to the Bronx were Billy Martin (1977) and Bob Lemon (1978), after getting swept by the Big Red Machine in the 1976 Fall Classic.
The challenge that Girardi faces now, here in 2017, more closely resembles what Buck Showalter faced in his final year, when the transitional Yankees earned the first-ever wild card and were KO’d by the Junior Griffey-led Mariners. With the Core Four still in development, Buck split for expansion Arizona after feuding with George Steinbrenner and it was Torre who benefited from the Boss’ cash and the Yankees’ bumper crop of young talent.
Despite Girardi’s contract being up at the end of this season, there’s every indication he’ll be back for 2018. But with the Yankees prepping for just their second playoff game in five years — they don’t have a win since 2012 — Girardi does acknowledge that the title gap, represented by the number stitched on the back of his uniform, needs to be closed.
“I don’t necessarily think you feel pressure,” Girardi said this week. “It’s frustration that you feel.”
By Yankees’ standards, the 2017 season figured to be relatively stress-free as Hal Steinbrenner switched his emphasis to holding on to his most valuable prospects with an eye toward shaving payroll in the short-term. Under that plan, this season could have been perceived as a Hall Pass for Girardi, if his primary responsibility was indeed overseeing the Bronx rebuild.
But Girardi isn’t wired that way. When he insisted back in March that these Yankees might possess the ability to defy conventional wisdom and surprise people around the league, Girardi didn’t seem to be merely toeing the company line. With a deep farm system, solid veteran leadership and the flexibility to swing a few key trades, Girardi saw that potential.
The Yankees also had another valuable asset that often gets overlooked, and that was Girardi himself, a manager whose preparation is second to none. Combine that with his in-game tactical skills, and he deserves as much credit as anyone — maybe short of Aaron Judge — for the Yankees reaching the 90-win plateau for the first time since 2012.
When the Yankees clinched a playoff berth last Saturday in Toronto, Girardi made sure to first mention all of the team’s departments, from ownership to general manager Brian Cashman to those in the scouting and development ranks. It shouldn’t be forgotten, however, that Girardi helped pilot the Yankees through a handful of significant injuries and kept the team on point through their early second-half swoon. While his occasional quick hook can be grating on the rotation members, Girardi always seems to maximize the players available to him, from the length of the bullpen to the last spot on the bench.
And Girardi does it with a cool, detached confidence that you would expect from a Yankees manager with the bold fashion sense to sport the club’s title count on his back. Girardi said the idea stemmed from his admiration for Tony La Russa, who picked No. 10 when he took over as manager for a Cardinals franchise that was stuck on nine championships.
After La Russa led St. Louis to the World Series crown in 2006, however, he decided to stay with the No. 10. That probably was the safe play. And not what Girardi did after the Yankees won No. 27 in 2009, his second season at the helm. The next spring, Girardi chose to double-down and asked for No. 28.
“I think you have to, right?” Girardi said, smiling.
CC Sabathia remembers Girardi telling the team he was switching numbers and the reason why the following February in Tampa. It didn’t surprise him.
“That’s what we’re all here to do,” Sabathia said. “That’s what this organization is about. It’s the goal we have every year.”
A goal that now feels much closer than it has in a while, with the Yankees getting here sooner than most had expected. Except for maybe Girardi, who wears that goal every day, to every game. The number he is relentlessly trying to change.