Commentary

Girardi must hold Burnett accountable

It's high time the Yankee manager takes a stand against his pitcher's behavior

Updated: August 23, 2011, 8:26 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- Either Joe Girardi is one of the staunchest managerial defenders of any and all players who have ever worn a Yankees uniform or he is a lot more afraid of his own players than he is of looking foolish and untruthful on live television.

There really is no third choice.

Girardi pulled A.J. Burnett from Saturday night's game at Target Field for putting the Yankees in a 4-0 hole before walking the bases loaded with two out in the second inning.

Burnett left the field to a standing ovation, although it was tough to tell if the applause was coming from Twins fans thanking Burnett for the help, or Yankees fans thanking Girardi for giving him the hook.

[+] EnlargeA.J. Burnett
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesGirardi pulled Burnett after less than two innings of work.

These events are not in question, but what happened just after Burnett handed his manager the baseball and began his long stalk to the clubhouse most certainly is.

His exit line, delivered over his shoulder and in apparent anger, was clear to even the most rudimentary lip-reader. ESPN standards of decency prohibit the reproduction of Burnett's words here, but anyone who was watching the game knows exactly what they were, and anyone who wasn't can by now surely figure them out.

And when they were repeated back to Burnett in the clubhouse after the Yankees' 9-4 loss to the Minnesota Twins -- precisely the words you think they were -- Burnett put on that rueful grin that he adopts after performances like these and admitted, "Sounds about right."

So we know what Burnett said leaving the mound, and judging by the tape, we have a pretty good idea of who he was talking to.

He was talking to Girardi.

The manager who, by Burnett's admission, "has taken my back every day I been here." The manager who has mounted a spirited defense of Burnett no matter how poorly he has pitched or how badly he has behaved.

The manager who continues to defend the indefensible, even after Burnett embarrassed him one more time before a sellout crowd at Target Field and countless more in front of television screens across the country.

Maybe Burnett, Girardi and Russell Martin were being truthful after the game when they each recited, in turn, a version of events that had Burnett cursing the fates over a full-count pitch to Joe Mauer that was called ball four by home plate umpire D.J. Reyburn.

But if that is the case, then why did Girardi confront Burnett in the clubhouse a few innings later and demand, "What's -----?" the dashes a poor stand-in for the obscenity Burnett so clearly tossed over his shoulder in the manager's direction?

"He came in and we talked about what was said," Burnett said. "And I explained to him, you know, I'm not gonna do that. I told him, 'Look, man, it's not you. I told him, as ticked off as I am, not at you.'"

But obviously, Girardi needed to hear that from Burnett because, he, too, thought the harsh words were directed at him.

And why not? It was just 17 days ago in Chicago that Burnett, staked to a 13-1 lead after three innings against the White Sox, found himself unable to work out of the fifth, allowing the lowly Chi-Sox to pull to within six. And as Girardi, rightly, came out to get Burnett two outs shy of what he would have needed to get his first-ever win in August as a Yankee, the pitcher slammed the ball into the manager's hand, again without looking him in the eye, stalked off the mound and tore his jersey off as he stormed down the steps to the clubhouse.

"A.J. was angry at himself," Girardi said afterward.

Well, it's about time someone other than A.J. got angry at A.J. Someone like the manager, who turns the other cheek each time he gets his face publicly spat on, or the GM who signed Burnett to the five-year, $82.5 million deal and now admonishes fans to "smoke the objective pipe" and see A.J. through pinstriped glasses.

So instead of taking issue with his pitcher, Girardi chooses instead to direct his wrath at Jack Curry, who is only asking the most obvious and reasonable questions in his capacity as an interviewer for the Yankees-owned YES Network.

But Girardi has never once stood up to Burnett, not in Chicago, not last year when he foolishly injured himself by slamming his hands into the clubhouse door after one bad inning against the Rays, and not Saturday night when everyone in Target Field but A.J. seemed to know it was time to go.

The full transcript of the Girardi/Curry exchange can be found here, but the gist of it was that the problem, according to Girardi, is not A.J.'s, but everyone else's. It is especially the problem of The Media, who look to concoct a conflict between pitcher and manager out of whole cloth.

"Well, you can write what you want and you can say what you want, but he was pissed about he thought he struck out Joe Mauer," Girardi said. "And I asked if they thought it was a strike, and the guys said they thought it was a strike."

Then, the conversation took a surreal turn when Girardi, in an attempt at sarcasm, told Curry he and A.J. had "had a fistfight is what we had."

If this were Billy Martin, there would have been no doubt he was telling the truth and little question about who would have won.

But this was Joe Girardi, a pussycat around his players who becomes, by turn, condescending, petulant and bullying with the people who cover him.

Trust me, we in the media can take it; being verbally abused by the people we cover is often all in a day's work, and something we rarely take personally.

But for a manager to ignore the repeatedly disrespectful behavior of one of his players and worse, try to turn it around on a man or woman simply asking him to explain what the television cameras clearly saw, well, it doesn't not speak to much managerial authority in the clubhouse.

If you think the problem with A.J. Burnett is that he is rarely, if ever, held accountable for his actions either on the field or in the clubhouse, you may well be right. Both Girardi and Cashman gave you a pretty good look at the way things are done around here.

After Girardi's mini-blowup -- it lasted a minute and 22 seconds on my recorder -- the talk turned to more important issues for this ballclub, such as the pitching rotation and when Burnett will be removed from it.

"We're still on a six-man rotation because we need to be," Girardi said. "We need this guy to pitch, that's the bottom line. We need him to pitch the way he's capable of pitching."

All year long, Girardi has insisted that Burnett is a better pitcher than he was last year. But on this date last year, Burnett's record was 9-11 with a 4.80 ERA. This year, it is 9-10 and 4.96.

So if there is improvement, it must be of the sort that is only apparent to the expert eyes of Girardi and Cashman. More likely, both know that what they bought is what they got, that this guy is never going to be more than what he was, and if they are holding out hope that, at 34, Burnett might finally be on the verge of growing up, they can keep on waiting.

What Burnett pulled Saturday night at Target Field is no different from what he pulled last year and what he will no doubt pull next year and the year after that.

And if Girardi wants to continue to turn a blind eye to it and shout down those who would point out the truth, well, then he is either one thing or he is the other.

And neither is very good.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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