In late October of 2007, Hank Steinbrenner was the Baby Boss. Outside the Yankees' spring training complex in Tampa, Fla., a handful of New York reporters huddled in full stakeout mode, waiting each day for a few words from Hank on who would be the next manager.
Don Mattingly was thought to be the favorite to replace Joe Torre.
Earlier in the month, Torre and the Yankees finalized their divorce, opening up one of the biggest jobs in sports. Mattingly famously said it would be like replacing John Wooden.
Reporters in Tampa sat on cement benches outside Steinbrenner Field as executives and baseball operation officials interviewed three candidates -- Mattingly, former Yankees catcher Joe Girardi and future Yankees bench coach Tony Pena.
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said he limited the pool to those three because he wanted a manager who knew Yankees politics.
"The manager of the New York Yankees involves a lot more than just managing game strategy," Cashman said. "It is trying to manage the press, trying to manage the expectations that come with being a Yankee, the pressures of winning, the top politics of the front office. You have to manage up -- whether it is managing up through the general manager's office or through the general manager's office to levels above, through ownership."
As evenings approached, and as other executives secretly scattered away, Steinbrenner made sure to meet the stakeout, always willing to give a memorable soundbite, just like his old man.
"What we're looking for is a guy that's maybe going to be one of the greatest managers, maybe, of all time, over a period of 10, 20 years, who knows -- and it could be any of the three," Steinbrenner said.
Ultimately, on Cashman's recommendation, Hank and his brother Hal, along with the rest of their executives, thought Girardi, not Mattingly, was the right man.
Pragmatism beat popularity.
Girardi had won the Manager of the Year Award with the Marlins, while Mattingly had never managed a major league game.
"The thing for Donnie that was difficult was that at the time, he had never managed before," Cashman said. "That is a hard hurdle to get over when you are trying to put forward a team that is ready to try and win now."
Ultimately, it is hard to judge managers. Torre is probably headed to the Hall of Fame because of his four rings with the Yankees. But did he really become smarter after three previous mediocre runs as a manager or were the players he received in the Bronx just better?
Beginning Tuesday with the Dodgers in the Bronx, Girardi and Mattingly could give us as close to a bake-off on that 2007 decision as you can have in a baseball season.
Because, despite having the highest payrolls in the game -- far exceeding $200 million -- they both are in positions to look like geniuses, if they can just reach the playoffs.
If Girardi were to make it to October -- extra wild card or not -- with this Yankees club, he would put himself in a new class. Though he still wouldn't have as many rings as Torre, he would have taken a team to the tournament that probably doesn't belong.
For this Yankees team to make the playoffs, they must play better than they appear. Even if names such as Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez might be coming back, neither figures to be a true difference-maker at this point in his career.
Meanwhile, Mattingly has been on the hot seat. While the NL West is bunched up, the Dodgers sit at the very bottom, 7˝ games back, 10 games under .500.
Theirs is not an insurmountable deficit, especially with the rookie sensation Yasiel Puig's play. Mattingly has maintained an even-keel, Torre-like approach that works well over 162 games.
"He has the right personality and demeanor," Cashman said.
If he can turn this Dodger season around and make the playoffs, he will cement himself in the Los Angeles dugout. However the season turns out, Mattingly has added the one line to his résumé that gave Girardi the clear edge in Cashman's mind.
With that notch now on his belt, Mattingly might very well manage in the home dugout in the Bronx someday. That is, if Girardi ever relinquishes his spot.