In what is likely a sign of the times, Joe Girardi has become a lightning rod for debate in these parts. Even in the midst of a 100-plus win season and a guarantee of the best regular season record in baseball, Girardi still has his share of critics. They say he bunts too much, brings too much tension to the dugout, doesn’t tell the truth about injuries, mishandles the bullpen, etc, etc, etc.
Such is life in the age of the Internet and talk radio. Every manager, no matter how successful, is severely criticized by a percentage of his team’s fan base. Every manager fails at handling the bullpen, an inevitable gripe when a manager has six or seven fulltime relievers. If you listen to the criticism long enough, you’ll soon believe that every manager is the reincarnation of the village idiot.
So what is the reality? In the case of Girardi, his biggest weakness is probably an over reliance on the sacrifice bunt. If that’s his Achilles heel as a manager, then he grades out pretty well. Girardi has done a very good job in 2009, as indicated by the team’s total of 102 wins, with the potential of three more wins this weekend. When I looked at this Yankee team in the spring, I tried to assess the club objectively. Weighing the strengths of a tough schedule and a difficult division, along with the absence of the team’s best player for six weeks, I considered the Yankees a 95-win team. So at this point, Girardi has guided the Yankees to at least seven more wins than I originally projected. In my mind, that is significant overachievement, which is worthy of praise, not derision.
Girardi has succeeded in relaxing the atmosphere in 2009, compared to the general tension he created last year. He doesn’t make major mistakes with his lineup, uses his improved bench sufficiently, and distributes the workload in the bullpen evenly. In terms of preparation and reviewing scouting reports, I don’t know of a manager who puts in more hours or works any harder. Girardi’s high level work ethic is unquestionable.
If you don’t believe me, consider some of the other precincts registering votes. After the Yankees clinched the AL East on Sunday, reporters asked Alex Rodriguez who should be considered the team’s MVP. Rodriguez listed the accomplishments of several teammates, but then ultimately answered “Girardi.” And when the results of the AL Manager of the Year award are announced, do not be surprised if Girardi receives a few votes and finishes third, behind only Ron Washington and Mike Scioscia. Joe Girardi, with his smarts, toughness, and willingness to work, is a keeper.
Everyone has an opinion on which 25 players the Yankees should carry for the Division Series, so let me offer a few suggestions of my own. First off, the Yankees seem to have come to their senses on the size of the pitching staff. No longer obsessed with a 12-man staff—a ludicrous proposition for a series that could go a maximum of five games—the Yankees are currently debating whether to carry 10 or 11 pitchers. The givens are Sabathia, Burnett, Pettitte, Chamberlain (in some role), Marte, Coke, Aceves, Robertson, Hughes, and Rivera. Do they go beyond that and carry either Brian Bruney or Chad Gaudin? It’s a tough call, but I’ll vote for a three-man starting rotation (which rules out Gaudin) and go with Bruney, who has pitched well in recent outings and has postseason experience. When Bruney is hot, he can be close to unhittable, and could be valuable in the sixth or seventh innings of a close game. He would also offer protection against Robertson’s arm coming up sore again.
With 11 pitchers, that leaves the Yankees with 14 position players. The givens are Posada and Molina at catcher, Teixeira, Cano, Jeter, A-Rod and Hairston on the infield, and Damon, Cabrera, Gardner, Swisher, Hinske, and Matsui in the outfield-DH category. That leaves one opening, which should go to pinch-running specialist Freddy Guzman. Here’s why. The Yankees are likely to face the Tigers, who are loaded with right-handed pitching. That makes Brett “The Jet” Gardner more likely to start one or two games. If that happens, the Yankees will still have another dangerous pinch-running option in Guzman, who could take Matsui or Posada’s place on the basepaths in the late innings. Having that speed off the bench will be more valuable than a third catcher or a second utility infielder, two positions that are made moot in a short postseason series.
Lou Gehrig’s name became fashionable this summer as Derek Jeter pursued and eventually surpassed his franchise record for most career hits. In doing some research about Gehrig, I was amazed by the number of nicknames that various people tried to attach to the Yankee legend during his short life. The nicknames never came from himself (he was no Deion Sanders) but almost always from teammates and the media. Maybe they felt a need to bestow nicknames on him because of Lou’s general separation from controversy.
In a sense, the nicknames gave them a way to add some color to Gehrig’s inoffensive persona. Let’s begin with an early nickname, one that came shortly after he joined the Yankees. He became “Columbia Lou,” a reference to his matriculation at Columbia University, which he attended on a football scholarship. Then came one of my favorite nicknames, which also became a favorite among his teammates. Other Yankees called Gehrig “Biscuit Paints” because of his unusually thick legs and low-to-the-ground running style, which may have been a remnant of his days as a running back in college. Gehrig churned those thick legs into a few extra bases; a surprisingly fast runner, Lou still holds the Yankee record for most career triples.
Perhaps the oddest nickname for Gehrig was used exclusively by the media in the twenties and thirties. Writers often called him “Larrupin’ Lou,” a label that sometimes made its way into newspaper and periodical headlines. And what in the world does “larrupin’” mean? Well, it’s a shortening of the word “larruping,” an adjective used in describing the delivery of a blow, especially one executed with great force. Though hardly a common word in the lexicon, it certainly fit Gehrig’s hitting style.
Even so, there were other nicknames. Gehrig’s beloved wife Eleanor called him “Luke.” Others referred to him as “Buster.” A few people even called him “Little Joe,” a rather obscure reference to his uniform number 4 and the old parlor game of Parcheesi. If you rolled a ‘4’ in Parcheesi, it was called a Little Joe.
As amusing as many of these nicknames were, none of them provided as much insight into Gehrig as his most famous nickname. As Gehrig played day after day at first base, on his way to setting an imposing record for longevity, he became known to media members and fans as the “Iron Horse.” The phrase was originally the nickname that Native Americans gave to the steam locomotives of the 1880s. The power and durability of the locomotive trains greatly impressed Native Americans; the media transferred the same nickname to Gehrig, whose own levels of strength and endurance made him among the game’s elite.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.