Matt Klentak sat at a dais in Citizens Bank Park on Nov. 2, 2017 and extolled his just-hired, hand-picked manager’s "unique ability to connect with people.” It was a skill, the young Phillies general manager explained, that would enable Gabe Kapler to bring out the best in a group of millennial players.
A few days earlier, in a less formal and far less celebratory setting in New York, the Yankees fired Joe Girardi in part because they thought he had lost that very same touch.
Consider it just one of the ways that Girardi — hired Thursday as the 55th manager in Phillies history, the team announced — is the polar opposite of the man he’s replacing. He’s the anti-Kapler, in fact, with his new players, and even some of his new colleagues in the front office likely to soon find that he has hard edges and even a few prickly thorns in all the places where Kapler was relentlessly positive in his attempt to be empowering.
Here’s the thing, though: too bad.
After back-to-back non-winning seasons that included September free falls, the Phillies need some tough love. Managing partner John Middleton thinks so, at least.
Middleton wants an injection of structure in a clubhouse that seems at times to be too relaxed. He wants a leader who is literate in analytics but unafraid to push back against the deluge of data. He wants more experience in the manager’s office for when times inevitably get tough and the team needs to get going.
Girardi checks all of those boxes, even if he lacks the warm, fuzzy touch that served Kapler only well enough to deliver a two-year record of 161-163 with a team that, regardless of its manager, remains far too short on starting pitching, needs a bullpen overhaul, and could use another bat or two, too.
"Joe is one of the toughest guys in baseball you'll ever meet," former Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira, who played for Girardi for eight seasons, said earlier this week. "When you think about the New York market, when you think about the Philadelphia market, he's not going to back down to any situation. I think that's a great attribute to have as a manager."
Girardi, 55, is a grinder from Peoria, Ill., with small-town, blue-collar sensibilities.
Drafted by his hometown Cubs, with whom he made his big-league debut in 1989, he spent 15 years in the majors as a catcher, winning World Series with the dynastic Yankees in 1996, 1998, and 1999, and playing in the All-Star Game with the Cubs in 2000 at age 35.
In doing their homework on Girardi as a manager, the Phillies likely heard mostly about three things: his thorough preparation, which manifested itself in his trusty three-ring binder that became a subject of mockery early in his Yankees managerial tenure; his intelligence, including a fluency in analytics; and his unwavering intensity.
Girardi got fired from his first managerial job after the 2006 season for feuding with then-Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria. He led the Yankees to a 910-710 record in 10 seasons and a World Series triumph over the Phillies in 2009. But he ultimately was let go in 2017, despite steering the Yankees to within one win of another World Series appearance, because his intensity had begun to wear on players.
Kapler famously said he’s “not [expletive] Dallas Green” in terms of throwing chairs or overturning tables when he isn’t happy with his players. Girardi isn’t exactly Green, either, but he’s much closer to Larry Bowa.
“Every team that [Girardi] is on, he expects them to win a World Series,” Teixeira said. “I remember even in our toughest years with the Yankees, where we had half our roster injured or whatever, Joe Girardi was still fighting. Particularly for the Philly job, I think he’d be a good fit in that regard. It’s the city of Rocky Balboa, right? You want somebody who’s out there fighting for you.”
Indeed, Girardi was the preferred candidate of most Phillies diehards, notably Middleton, who runs the team with a fan’s sensibilities and decided over Klentak’s objection to fire Kapler. Girardi emerged as the leading candidate from a field that included only two others: Buck Showalter and Dusty Baker, both of whom have two decades of managerial experience.
Part of it was Girardi’s openness to analytics. He studied engineering at Northwestern and professes an affinity for mathematics and statistics, and the Yankees became one of the most progressive teams during his tenure.
But Girardi also played the game and understands the need to blend cold, hard numbers with human emotion, a philosophy that Kapler often seemed to forget even though he had a 12-year big-league playing career. As much as Middleton wants to emulate the Yankees in their use of analytics, it will serve the Phillies well to have a manager who doesn’t allow it to become too overbearing.
When the Yankees replaced Girardi with first-time manager Aaron Boone, general manager Brian Cashman said many of the same things as Klentak about Kapler’s ability to connect with young players and analytically inclined front offices. The implication, at least, was that Girardi struggled in that area.
Maybe that’s true, maybe it isn’t. Regardless, it will help Girardi to have bench coach Rob Thomson, with whom he worked closely for years in New York. Thomson has relationships with the players and can serve as a conduit to Girardi. And if Girardi comes off to some players as being as cuddly as a porcupine, it’s fine. He is, after all, their boss.
If it all seems like an abrupt about-face for the Phillies, it’s actually more like a kick in the butt of an organization that hasn’t reached the postseason for eight years.