Commentary

Joe Girardi needs to change his ways

If Girardi wants to last, he'll learn protecting players isn't best way to shield himself

Updated: August 24, 2011, 10:19 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- No matter how many veins in his neck appear ready to blow, Joe Girardi will survive a televised meltdown here or there. He has bought himself some time with a World Series title in 2009 and with an almost-certain third postseason trip in four years on the job.

But there will come a day when Girardi finds himself in dire need of clubhouse allies with more than a little front-office clout. His standing as manager of the New York Yankees will be in doubt, and an influential player or three might make the difference in whether Girardi stays or goes.

When weighing that inevitable threat, Girardi likely feels pretty good about the things his team would say about him. "I just think it's important that your manager always has the players' backs," he told me Tuesday, "and that they have yours."

We were standing outside his locker room hours before the Yankees staged a breathless endgame rally in a 6-5 loss to Oakland, and three days after Girardi had covered for a pitcher who wasn't worth the trouble.

"Let me ask you a question," the manager said. "Do you have children?"

"Yes, a 15-year-old son."

"Would you berate him in public?"

If he cursed at an umpire, or at me, after turning the 2011 Twins into the '27 Yanks, yes, I would.

So whether A.J. Burnett told the truth about his profane exit in Minnesota isn't the big-picture issue. Girardi should understand that his refusal to reprimand a player with a growing pattern of poor performances and juvenile responses could hurt his long-term credibility as leader of this team.

Girardi's predecessor, Joe Torre, protected his players with the best of 'em. Yet when a David Wells, Carl Pavano, Ruben Sierra or Kevin Brown forfeited the benefit of the doubt through actions deemed detrimental to the cause, they were on their own.

Not that Torre got it right all the time. "Joe Torre was good at it, but there were times when he didn't have Alex [Rodriguez's] back," general manager Brian Cashman said. "Joe was very good at it for most of the players but not all of them."

[+] EnlargeJoe Girardi
AP Photo/Jim MoneJoe Girardi has a habit of going to bat for his players -- no matter what they've done.

Fine. But Torre is a leading scholar on the human condition compared to Girardi, who believes in shielding his players from criticism at all costs, even if there are accountable Yanks who would rather their manager call out an underachiever prone to unprofessional acts.

Girardi didn't unload on Burnett the other night, but on the YES Network reporter who happened to ask the first Burnett question, Jack Curry. Girardi took the pitcher at his word, even if there was so much circumstantial evidence betraying that word, and suddenly looked and sounded like the overmatched manager he was in 2008.

Never mind that Burnett had no business cursing out an ump (or his manager) and bolting the dugout for the clubhouse (for a second time) after Luis Ayala allowed all three runners he inherited to score. On muscle memory, Girardi assumed the role of chief enabler for a guy who needs one like he needs another tattoo.

Instead the manager should have realized Burnett was itching for a fight.

"They talk about a team being a family, and you wouldn't air your family grievances in public," Girardi said. "The only time that happens is when someone sues and it becomes a court case and nobody likes it. So it doesn't make sense to do it."

It makes plenty of sense at the appropriate time. When Jorge Posada benched himself against Boston because he didn't care to bat ninth, Girardi downplayed Posada's degree of insubordination in an attempt to cover for him, hanging Cashman out to dry and leaving Derek Jeter to follow his manager's lead -- a choice that earned the captain a humiliating trip to the principal's office.

Sometimes it's just smarter to tell the truth, the whole truth.

"It's kind of set up in a way that I'm the attack guy, and Joe's got their backs in the clubhouse," Cashman said. "I'm the one who comes after people publicly if it's needed."

Yes, in recent years, the GM has taken on all comers. But the front office can't be the sole dispenser of overt rebukes. The Yankees are playing 162 games for Girardi, not Cashman.

"If a player is giving max effort and doing everything possible for us to succeed," the GM said, "then we'll have his back. But if a player puts himself ahead of the Yankees, then we don't have his back. I don't think A.J. put himself ahead of the team."

I do. And I'd bet a stack of A-Rod's poker chips that some of Burnett's teammates agree.

But this isn't about only a wayward $82.5 million arm. In 2008, Girardi needed a neon invitation to sit Robinson Cano when the second baseman was all but begging to be disciplined. The manager later would play the fool by lying about Mariano Rivera's shoulder injury.

"My job is to protect the player," Girardi told reporters after the lie was exposed. "You may not like it, but I'm their manager and that's what I have to do."

Cashman and PR man Jason Zillo worked on Girardi that offseason, pleading with him to rip a page from the Tom Coughlin manual and soften his approach. Cashman and Zillo asked him to quit lying about injuries, to quit making a tough job tougher.

It worked. Like Coughlin, Girardi became a little less tense and a little less distant and won a championship. Only the manager suffered a relapse in 2010 and again the other night in Minnesota, where Girardi was more worried about deking and dodging -- he declined to tell reporters he had confronted Burnett in the clubhouse midgame -- than doing the right thing.

"I'm not sure why a player needs to be held publicly accountable," Girardi said. "I think things of that nature should be taken care of inside the clubhouse. As long as the guys in that room know what you're doing, that's all that matters."

On Tuesday night, after A-Rod was scratched with a sprained thumb, the guys in that room made the Yankee Stadium tremble like it did a little before 2 p.m. ET. Down 6-0 with four outs to go, the Yanks closed to 6-5, bases loaded, two gone in the ninth.

Nick Swisher's dramatic blast was caught at the center-field wall, and Girardi fielded the most pressing postgame question -- Why bunt a white-hot Derek Jeter in the ninth? -- with relative ease.

The manager survived another tough night in a tougher market. But if he wants to keep this job as long as Torre did, Girardi will learn that protecting your players isn't always the best way to protect yourself.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter."

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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