The Crisis Manager

By Talese, Gay | The New Yorker, September 24, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Crisis Manager


Talese, Gay, The New Yorker


One summer afternoon in 1974, a nine-year-old boy sat in Busch Stadium, in St. Louis, watching the Cardinals play the Montreal Expos. He sat next to his aunt, in the front row, near the left-field foul pole, and every half inning he rose and pleaded with the players as they exchanged warmup tosses in the outfield: "Throw me a ball!" For most of the game, he was ignored. But, just before the bottom of the seventh inning, the Expos' left fielder, a thirty-one-year-old slugger named Bob Bailey, flipped the boy a ball--and then watched as it bounced off his small, outstretched hands and fell back onto the playing field.

"Son," Bailey said, retrieving the ball and reaching up to hand it to the boy, "if you want a ball, you gotta learn to catch it." He spoke softly, sensing the embarrassment that the boy must be feeling. Bailey remembered the kindness shown him by a major-league player when he was a kid. His father had been a high-school teammate of the Cleveland Indians' pitcher Bob Lemon, and, once, Lemon took young Bailey on a tour of the clubhouse and introduced him to many of the Indians.

Bob Bailey never forgot that experience, and it reaffirmed his desire to play among such men--which he started doing in 1961, with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. In a seventeen-year career in the majors, he had a hundred and eighty-nine homers in 1,931 games, while knocking in seven hundred and seventy-three runs and posting a career batting average of .257. He made his final plate appearance in 1978, with the Boston Red Sox, as a pinch-hitter in the playoff game in which the New York Yankees' shortstop Bucky Dent hit a three-run homer in the top of the seventh at Fenway Park, to lead the Yanks to a 5-4 victory that propelled them toward a World Series triumph. The Yankees' manager at that time was Bob Lemon, the old Bailey family friend. After the game, Bob Bailey walked over to congratulate Lemon. A couple of weeks later, shortly after marking his thirty-sixth birthday, on October 13th, Bailey retired as a player.

On October 14th, in East Peoria, Illinois, the boy who, four years earlier, had fumbled Bob Bailey's gift ball in St. Louis turned fourteen. The boy's name was Joe Girardi. He went on to be an outstanding defensive catcher in high school and college and later spent fifteen years in the major leagues--as a catcher with the Chicago Cubs (1989-92), the Colorado Rockies (1993-95), the New York Yankees (1996-99), the Cubs again (2000-2002), and, finally, as a backup catcher with the St. Louis Cardinals, playing his last game at Busch Stadium on September 20, 2003, at the age of thirty-eight.

Now, at forty-seven, Girardi is in his fifth year as the manager of the New York Yankees, and, except for his graying hair, which he wears trimmed close to his scalp, he appears to be as physically fit as most players on his team. Standing just under six feet, with broad shoulders, narrow hips, and a flat stomach hardened by daily CrossFit workouts, Girardi is five pounds lighter than his playing weight, of two hundred. The only obvious reminders of his burly strength as a plate-blocking catcher are his thickly muscled forearms, which he began developing as a child, assisting his bricklayer father on weekends.

His voice, however, is soft, reflective, and cautious. He is a straight arrow from the Midwest in the middle of the tabloid hurly-burly of New York City. Even now, as the Yankees are suffering an injury-plagued late-season slide, he is nearly always unperturbed. This stalwart mildness of manner--added to the fact that the Yankees have won only one World Series under his guidance, in 2009--has disappointed many fans. Earlier this year, in the Post, the veteran sportswriter Mike Vaccaro wrote, "Yankee fans are still a little lukewarm about Joe Girardi," and he went on to compare Girardi unfavorably to the late Billy Martin, the colorful, volatile manager whom the Yankees' owner, George Steinbrenner, fired and rehired four times during the seventies and eighties. …

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