The one moment from the 2011 New York Yankees season—which will segue into the playoffs late next week for the sixteenth time in seventeen seasons, an unprecedented achievement in baseball—that everyone will remember is Derek Jeter’s 3,000th hit, a home run that, in one swing, erased all the doubt and negativity that had surrounded the Yankees legend up to that point. (By the way, since that 3,000th hit, Jeter has batted .326, one of his better second halves of the past decade. Those of us who make our living noting that Jeter is aging at the same speed as the rest of humanity look a little dumber every year.)
Jeter’s homer on July 9 was instantly iconic and is certain to be commemorated on steins sold outside Yankee Stadium until Jeter’s grandchildren have grandchildren. Even if the Yankees win the World Series, it’ll be the signature moment of the year.
So, here’s a question: What’s the second moment of the season you’ll remember? Take your time. This is a print magazine; it will still be here after you Google “2011 Yankees season” and play around awhile. Holler when you’re back. I suppose Mariano Rivera’s 600th save is a possibility, though Rivera’s brilliance lies in his total lack of stylistic flair, and besides, that game was in Seattle and it’s difficult to remember events you slept through. Maybe Jesus Montero’s first two Major League home runs in the same game, if you like your memorable moments forward-looking. Anything else? Please don’t say A-Rod’s alleged poker “scandal,” which might have popped up just to float the idea that nobody cares about A-Rod stories anyway. (Turns out people don’t, not that it isn’t still fun to point and laugh, regardless.)
I’m not sure there has been one. This year has been monotonous, dull, and seemingly preordained, which is to say it has been the platonic ideal of a Yankees season. The last time the Yankees weren’t in first or second place in the AL East was April 8, when they were a game and a half behind the Blue Jays. The rest of the season, the team has been comfortably ensconced in playoff position, knowing, without much doubt, that they would be playing into October. There were a few bumps along the way, but minor ones, nothing to concern anyone. Some Yankees fans might grouse about the rotation, but all any fan can hope for his team is to secure a spot in the postseason, and the Yankees have had theirs secured for months. Most of the year has felt like one long twiddling of thumbs until the weather started getting cold and the games started mattering again.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because that’s what the Yankees 2010 season was like. And it’s what the Yankees 2009 season was like. For three consecutive years, the Yankees’ regular season has been an amiable slog. Since the 2008 season, the one year the Yankees missed the playoffs entirely (a disappointment the Yankees took in understated stride, spending $423.5 million on three free agents and opening the following April one of the most extravagant, expensive sports stadiums in the world), the Yankees haven’t had to worry about that happening. They haven’t had to worry about anything. It’s all you could want. Three boring, easy, calm, dominant years when drama is at a minimum. Boring, easy, calm, and dominant: This is becoming the signature trait of the Joe Girardi era. I feel comfortable now calling it an era.
Actually, there have been two minor blips this season for the Yankees: Their names are Jorge Posada and A. J. Burnett, and both of those problems were batted down, quickly and efficiently, by Girardi. Posada’s issue popped up in May, when he either did or did not refuse to enter the lineup batting ninth, even though he was hitting .165 at the time. (Girardi and Posada have a history, battling even when they were teammates.) This is the type of story that has overtaken and even sunk Yankees teams in the past: Yankees Legend Dissed by His Old Rival. But Girardi is skilled at public relations and simply waited for Posada’s play to catch up to his reputation: By the time fans came to terms with the almost total erosion of Posada’s skills, they cheered when Girardi started keeping him out of the lineup altogether. And he didn’t cost them any games in the standings in the meantime. Girardi won that battle without anyone dwelling on the fact that it was a battle at all.
Burnett has been a more consistent problem, mostly because he’s essentially required to play every fifth day. Burnett’s ongoing, maddening lunacy has been the one Yankees sore spot—and the No. 1 reason for the increasing epidemic of Yankees fans’ throwing rolled-up socks at their televisions—but it would be far worse if it weren’t for Girardi. The manager has defused Burnett-related controversy at every turn and has been nothing but supportive of the psychologically fragile right-hander, keeping his turn in the rotation even when he’s setting Yankees wild-pitch records. He has done what a manager is supposed to do: put his players in the best mental position to succeed and then stay out of their way.
This was best illustrated in August, when, as Girardi pulled Burnett from another bad game, Burnett yelled, “That’s fucking horseshit” after being pulled. The YES Network broadcasters, sick of Burnett and desperate for something to talk about, painted this as a Burnett-Girardi blowup. “Looks like he had some words right there for Joe Girardi,” said John Flaherty. The fuse was lit: This was the kind of dramatic narrative we have all become accustomed to, the conflict story this city has all but demanded. Girardi was having nothing of it. Asked after the game about the “confrontation,” he was as animated as he has ever been, insisting Burnett’s comment wasn’t directed at him (some thought it was aimed at the umpire), and snapping, “You can write what you want … People are always looking for A.J.” Burnett showed his appreciation afterward: “That guy’s taken my back, every day I’ve been here.” Burnett might not be pitching any better, but the Burnett-having-an-attitude-problem story disappeared immediately. Girardi laid down the law: He had his back, every day.
Girardi has his strategic shortcomings—he’s frustratingly rigid with bull-pen use and definitely has his LaRussian overmanaging tendencies (remember the obsessive binder checks during last year’s playoffs?)—but as the man steering the massive multibillion-dollar ocean liner that is the Yankees, he has proved perhaps a steadier hand than even, yes, Joe Torre. The Yankees legend famously loved to start controversies to “send messages” to his players, most notoriously batting A-Rod eighth in Game Four of the 2006 American League Division Series against the Tigers. That’s a move you’d never see Girardi make. I know there’s a certain seventies nostalgia among some Yankees fans, some Billy Martin ideal, some outdated notion that baseball players will somehow play harder if they have a manager who throws coolers around. This was probably never true, but it’s definitely not true now: Baseball players are millionaire professionals who can take care of themselves, thank you; they are employees who need an office manager to keep up a positive work environment. That’s Girardi’s specialty. Without the off-field headaches, the Yankees have nothing else to do but win games.
Of course, we’re a week away from the games that actually matter, when everyone’s watching, and that’s when Girardi’s overmanaging tendencies tend to be exposed; the Yankees manager seems to do his best work when fewer eyes are on him.
So where do the Yankees stand in the playoffs this year? The rotation issue will be exacerbated in the postseason, with CC Sabathia as the only pitcher the Yanks can count on. But this is more of a problem in a potential World Series against the stacked rotation of the Phillies than in the American League; pitching depth hasn’t been the inherent strength of the Red Sox, Rangers, or Tigers either. (Oh, and if I’m the Yankees, I’d probably rather play the Rangers than the suddenly red-hot Tigers and Justin Verlander in the ALDS.) Besides, Yankees fans will probably just be happy not to see Burnett. (And, God willing, they won’t.)
As Brad Pitt, general manager of the Oakland A’s, famously said, “My shit doesn’t work in the playoffs.” Baseball’s postseason distills 162 games into five- and seven-game random chunks, and all it takes is three off nights to destroy all the good a long season has built up. But there’s not much Girardi or Yankees fans can do about that except hope for good fortune. More accurate: All they can hope for is an easy, smooth ride to the postseason, to have the ticket punched as effortlessly as possible, and then see what happens. The Yankees will be playing in October, just like everyone assumed they would even way back in April. That’s the hard part. Everything else is up to the baseball gods. Man can only control so much, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Joe Girardi and the Yankees this season, it’s that whatever they can possibly control, they will. This is as pain-free as being a baseball fan gets, folks. Appreciate it.