the sports section

Leitch: Why the Heads of Our Team’s Managers No Longer Roll

Jerry Manuel, head firmly attached to neck.

What’s it take for New York sports-team leaders to get fired anymore? In the eighties, the Yankees switched managers thirteen times (although Billy Martin took three different turns). Davey Johnson, three years after winning the World Series with the Mets, didn’t make it through May. This wasn’t limited to baseball, either. The Giants loved cycling through coaches, and Jets fans still feel a visceral thrill when they remember the execution of Pete Carroll after one season.

But look what’s happened to Axe City: It has been the worst season for New York baseball in a generation, but the Mets responded to the tragic end of their season by extending the contracts of manager Jerry Manuel (for two years) and general manager Omar Minaya (for three). The Yankees? The Place Where Only Championships Matter Even Though They Haven’t Won One in Eight Years inked general manager Brian Cashman for three more years. The Giants decided to give Tom Coughlin one more year, and were rewarded. Jets coach Eric Mangini seems safe for next year too, barring a complete implosion. (As for the Knicks, well, the Knicks are an exception to every organization on earth, including Lehman Brothers, Enron and the USFL. They actually fire people years too late.)

Whether or not you think Cashman, Minaya and/or Manuel should be fired — and I don’t — it’s clear that we live in the Bloomberg era of hypercompetency in management. Our teams are being run with more efficiency, smarts, and, most important, patience. The reactionary Steinbrennerism is a relic, one that only the younger Steinbrenner seems to embrace anymore. If you can hold your nose for a moment, look at the example of the Red Sox. They spent five decades desperately hacking and firing their way on their annual undignified gallop toward the elusive World Series, and it wasn’t until they found a little bit of stability — and stopped chasing those pretty new free agents — that they found success. New York has finally gotten smart. Ask Al Davis, the NFL’s version of Steinbrenner, how constant turnover is working out for him and his Oakland Raiders.

Cashman and Minaya aren’t perfect, and they certainly haven’t expelled all doubts; Cashman actually admitted that the main reason he re-signed was to salvage his own reputation. (Imagine that: A GM coming off a disappointing season being the one to make the decision to return to the Yankees, rather than vice versa.) Certainly, there are people who make compelling arguments as to why these guys should be fired; keeping Willie Randolph around for the beginning of this season certainly didn’t help matters. But Cashman and Minaya are both organizational types, and, regardless of recent woes, both franchises are in better shape than they were before either of them got here. Cashman is the steady hand responsible for steering the Yankees away from the Sign an Expensive Free Agent, Any Expensive Free Agent policy that destroyed the farm system they’re now finally close to rebuilding. And Minaya understands the importance of the big move; it was him, not Cashman, who struck for Johan Santana, without whom the season would have ended far earlier than the last day.

More to the point: The last few years have also yielded insight into the mind of the New York fan. The old maxim here was that New Yorkers would never tolerate rebuilding, would refuse to accept anything other than spending whatever money was necessary to consistently win championships. This mindset is exactly what has wrecked the New York Knicks, though one gets the suspicion Isiah Thomas still believes in it.

I suppose it’s possible that the fan bases of both the Yankees and Mets will flee their teams, irreversibly disgusted by the end of this season. But it’s far more likely that they’ll return next year, hope renewed — skeptical perhaps, but as sucked in by the games and baseball legacy as ever. And they’ll be a lot happier that the men in charge of the Yankees and the Mets (and the Giants and the Jets and the … okay, maybe the Knicks) are professional adults who have a plan in place. Maybe the plans will work; maybe they won’t. But New York teams don’t blow with the tabloid winds anymore, desperate for a scapegoat. That makes them like teams in other cities. That makes the gallop for another title more dignified, and more likely to succeed.

Leitch: Why the Heads of Our Team’s Managers No Longer Roll