- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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NEW YORK -- Barring some unfathomable collapse between here and October, or much more of what his team showed against the New York Mets, Joe Girardi will be thanked for the not-too-distant memories in the form of a new contract. Brian Cashman said as much Sunday night, when the general manager of the New York Yankees all but took his guy off the pending free-agent market.
"We'd like to have Joe Girardi back," Cashman told ESPNNewYork.com before the Yankees lost a rain-shortened, 3-0 decision to the Red Sox and the three-game series with it, falling for the seventh time in their last eight games.
"We have a great interest in keeping him, and hopefully Joe will be here. ... I think there's really no reason to believe Joe won't be here."
Even the franchise's second failure to reach the postseason since the players' strike of 1994, and a second on Girardi's watch, likely wouldn't cost the man his job. Cashman made a good call in picking Girardi over Don Mattingly in the wake of Joe Torre's stormy exit in 2007 -- a truth apparent long before Mattingly started fighting for his managerial life with the last-place Dodgers -- and the GM wants to give his hire every chance to succeed long-term.
Working on an expiring contract, Girardi hasn't been offered a new deal as a matter of team policy. The Yankees don't believe in adding on to existing contracts, unless, of course, they're inspired to lock up a Robinson Cano this year, or a Russell Martin last year.
Cashman acknowledged deviating from the team's policy to account for what he called "unique players," but didn't need to remind the fan base that Torre once worked World Series games without a contract, and that the GM himself has been forced to carry his own deals through the last nickel.
"It's a players' game," Cashman said.
A players' game that requires a strong leadership figure in the dugout.
"We picked the right guy in Joe Girardi," Cashman said. "It's an almost impossible to task to replace Joe Torre; just look at what happened in Los Angeles when they had to replace Phil Jackson. It's hard to replace iconic, Hall of Fame people, but Joe Girardi came in and did it without being Joe Torre, media darling, and that's a huge feather in his cap."
Did the charisma-free Girardi really replace the avuncular Torre, everyone's favorite storyteller? Not quite. Torre won four World Series titles and a dozen postseason series in his first five seasons in the Bronx. Girardi won one World Series title and five postseason series in his first five.
But Cashman doesn't see that numbers game as a fair fight. "Look at Joe Torre's roster, his starting rotation, his bullpen, his lineup," he said. "Joe Girardi hasn't had close to that kind of talent. Joe Torre did a great job for us, and I'd never diminish what he accomplished, but we should've won four championships in five years with that roster. We had Secretariat, and we rode that horse."
And no, that thoroughbred doesn't run like it used to. Girardi won his title in 2009, the fifth for Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Jorge Posada. Of the three active members of that four-man band, only the retiring Rivera remains at the very top of his game.
Pettitte is due back Monday night, and Jeter is due back who knows when. If Alex Rodriguez returns, chances are he will do so as half the slugger he used to be.
So it would appear Girardi has reason to sweat, reason to devolve into that tense and distant manager who turned his first year in the Bronx, 2008, into a case study of how not to handle a big-league gig in a big-league market.
Ratings are down, crowd figures are down, and run-scoring hits are down, too. The Yankees are 31-25. They suffered a humiliating four-game sweep at the hands of the Mets before losing two of three to Boston, and they'd be out of the playoffs (barely) if the season ended today. But Girardi hasn't come across as one big bulging vein this year. Not yet, anyway.
"At times he's been stressed out in the past," Cashman said, "and he hasn't been as much this year. I do think he looks more relaxed, and probably because the expectations are not there."
The expectations aren't there after a devastating series of injuries stripped the Yanks of their star power. Before watching his watered-down team lose this 5½ inning game to Boston, Girardi sank into a soft cushion chair in his Yankee Stadium office and played the part of a manager who was loose, confident, undaunted by his team's recent play, and unafraid of the expiration date on his contract. He exchanged small talk with a reporter about the Knicks, asking if they had any shot at Dwight Howard (they don't).
Girardi admitted that he felt the engulfing shadow of Torre in the early days of his administration. "Oh, definitely," he said. "Joe left an expectation here. It was Joe's run that brought the Yankees back to what the Yankees had always been, and I knew I'd always be compared to him.
"But Joe gave me the advice of, 'Be yourself.' He told me that not once, but a number of times. 'Be yourself. Be yourself.' It was the second time someone had told me that. The first time was when I first got here as a player [in 1996], and really struggled because I was trying to hit home runs, Don Zimmer told me, 'Be yourself. People will appreciate what you do.' And it worked."
Girardi hit that triple off Greg Maddux in Game 6 of the World Series, and nobody who was in the old building that night forgot how the old place shook as the catcher raced around the bases. Fans still approach Girardi to talk about the triple, his blast from the past in a playing career that saw him win three rings.
"They bring that up a lot more than they bring up 2009," Girardi said. "So I don't necessarily think about how many championships I have to win as a manager to be remembered; people remember me as the guy who hit the triple."
But Girardi agreed that he can't be a one-and-done winner and go down among the Torres, McCarthys, and Stengels in Yankee lore. He'll need that new contract for any shot at someday matching Torre's four, a contract he said he refuses to worry about.
"No matter what happens," Girardi said, "my faith tells me God's going to put me where he wants me, not where someone else wants me or even where I want to be. If I were to draw up my career as a kid, when you grow up a Cubs fan drafted by the Cubs, you probably think you're always going to be a Cub. So things have happened in my life that told me I'm not really in charge.
"But I love working here ... I wouldn't expect them to talk to me [about a contract] and I wouldn't ask them to. I respect their policy, they've been great to me, and I've got a job to do."
His job is to find a way to win the crapshoot that is the American League East, or to at least claim one of the two wild-card consolation prizes. It isn't an easy job even when the players are healthy. Look at the Blue Jays, Angels, Nationals and Mattingly's Dodgers. Outsized lineups and payrolls guarantee nothing in this sport.
So Cashman will stick with his manager, Girardi, assuming the Yankees don't completely unravel over the summer.
"We'd like to have Joe back if he wants to stay," Cashman said. "He's a lot like a football coach who looks at a lot of videotape, verifying everything by watching it. He's been terrific ever since he's been here."
Terrific? Joe Torre was terrific. Joe Girardi, the right guy to succeed him, still isn't in the same ballpark.
But the GM is willing to wait, willing to suffer through these losses to the Red Sox and Mets. Brian Cashman will give the guy who hit the triple a chance to make it all the way home.