Commentary

When Cubs talk, Girardi should listen

The Yankees manager, an ex-Cub, has roots in Chicago -- and he'll have leverage

Updated: August 27, 2010, 8:10 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

Joe GirardiAP Photo/Beth A. KeiserJoe Girardi, an Illinois native who graduated from Northwestern, played for the Cubs from 2000-02.

Sometime between the end of the World Series and the beginning of 2011 spring training, the Chicago Cubs are going to come knocking at Joe Girardi's door.

He would have to be either stupid or crazy to not at least open that door and listen to what they have to say.

Having worked with and around Girardi on a practically daily basis for the past six months, I know he is not stupid. And I don't think he is crazy.

And I do believe that when all the smoke clears, Girardi will remain the manager of the New York Yankees for next year, and at least a couple of years after that.

But by no means is it a slam dunk, like Derek Jeter or Mariano Rivera negotiations are likely to be -- unless, of course, Girardi makes it so.

And as I said, he would have to be either stupid or crazy to do that.

In fact, Girardi could be one of the few Yankees managers to have the one thing that ownership in the Steinbrenner Era both understands and respects.

Leverage.

The Yankees have a long-standing policy of not negotiating anyone's contract, be it player, manager or GM, during a season or while the contract is still in force. I only know of the rule having been broken once, during the 2007 season, when Brian Cashman said he would be willing to negotiate a new deal with Alex Rodriguez, but only if A-Rod did not invoke his opt-out clause. If that happened, Cashman said, the Yankees would not re-bid on A-Rod.

Of course, A-Rod and Scott Boras did invoke the clause. And, of course, Yankees ownership caved, overruling and undermining its GM by handing Rodriguez a new contract, at a fat raise, without any competition.

This year, the Yankees are holding to the policy with Jeter and Rivera and Girardi, who certainly has as much leverage as Jeter. After all, there is not another team in baseball who would pay a 36-year-old shortstop of declining skills the $25 million or so per year the Yankees will wind up giving Jeter, because only he has that kind of value, sentimental and otherwise, to this particular franchise.

[+] EnlargeJoe Girardi
Noah K. Murray/THE STAR-LEDGER/US PresswireGM Brian Cashman knows Joe Girardi will be a hot commodity when his deal expires after the season.

Not so with Girardi, who might command the kind of interest from the Cubs that even the Yankees would have to respect.

"All I can say is, I think any team would be interested in a manager like Joe Girardi," Cashman said Wednesday.

Pressed on whether he expected to get into a bidding war over the manager's services, Cashman said, "It's possible, but we have a policy in place and I respect the process."

The process will begin Friday when, before the first game of a weekend series against the White Sox, Girardi will face the Chicago media, which will want to know if he is going to succeed Lou Piniella as the latest manager to try and deliver something the North Side hasn't seen since 1908: a World Series championship.

Girardi will deal with it just this once, he says, and in the fashion with which he has been dealing with it in New York. He will say all the right things. He will acknowledge his Illinois roots; his deep commitment to his family, which is ensconced in Chicago; and his respect for the history of the Cubs franchise. And he will repeat that his responsibility is to the New York Yankees.

"I'm happy here," he said to Yankees beat writers the other day in Toronto, and I believe him.

I also believe he could be just as happy, if not more so, in Chicago.

And if he is smart, and I know he is, he will let the Yankees know that, in subtle ways now and more overt ones when the negotiating period begins in earnest after the World Series.

Because it's not very often that a Yankees manager, even one as successful as Joe Torre, has a suitor that has the means and the willingness to match the kind of money the Yankees would pay.

Girardi won the World Series last year and is getting paid $2.5 million this year. Until he walked away last week, Piniella was being paid $5 million to manage a team that hasn't won anything in more than a century.

The Cubs can meet or exceed the Yankees' price on Girardi, assuming they are inclined to make an overture. And Girardi can play one against the other and make a real killing here this winter.

Because when a guy has strong cards, he better play them. And right now, Girardi's cards are about as strong as they will ever get.

If Torre's experience taught us anything, it is that a Yankees manager can never get credit for the team's success, but plenty of blame when it fails.

When the Yankees win, there's around a dozen reasons before we get to the manager, and the first five are the money. The next are Jeter, Rivera, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and whoever the new flavor of the week happens to be.

When they lose, it is the manager who faces the humiliation of being fired or worse, forced to work under a very public "or else" clause, as Torre would have been had he accepted the Yankees' final contract offer to him after the 2007 season.

[+] EnlargeJoe Girardi and family
AP Photo/Julie JacobsonFamily man Joe Girardi has roots in Illinois.

Girardi, a proud man with a strong ego, has got to be rankled on some level that just about every Yankees manager, including Torre, is regarded as little more than a guy who writes the names of nine superstars on a lineup card every night and then sits back to chew on sunflower seeds.

Last year, his team won 102 games and Girardi finished a distant third in the Manager of the Year voting to Mike Scioscia and Ron Gardenhire. Then he went 11-4 in the postseason and won the World Series, with just three starting pitchers. He made some gutsy moves with his pitching staff in that run, and when it was over, everybody shrugged and said, "Of course, the Yankees won. $200 million payroll."

This year, he might be doing an even better managing job, with Jeter and Rodriguez having off years, with Posada always hurt, with Pettitte on the DL for much of the second half and his No. 2 starter, A.J. Burnett, a certifiable head case. Still, playing in the toughest division in baseball, the Yankees have the best record in baseball. But you know Girardi's not winning the Manager of the Year award this year, either. It's already been engraved for Tampa Bay's Joe Maddon.

So although it may seem to those of us who were born and raised in NYC that the best and most prestigious job in professional sports is managing the Yankees, the Chicago job might well have strong enticements for a guy like Girardi that we can't fully understand.

Born in Peoria, Ill., educated at Northwestern, Girardi is a Midwestern guy to his core. He played for Chicago, and he and his wife still have family there. Girardi's ailing father, Jerry, is there, as is his favorite aunt, Marge, the one who calls him after every game and rewards herself with a Grey Goose every time the Yankees win. Aunt Marge might not enjoy as much vodka if Girardi takes the Cubs job, but she'll certainly save on her phone bill. These things will be important, because this isn't Tiger Woods we're talking about here, but a truly committed family man who plays Wiffle Ball with his kids in the Yankee Stadium outfield after every game.

I'm sure that game would be just as much fun near the ivy-covered walls of Wrigley Field.

But there is more than just the lure of a homecoming or the comfort of familial proximity. The Cubs have money and are willing to spend it. They have the third-highest payroll in baseball and, with Piniella, had the second-highest-paid manager. So money should not be an issue.

Plus, the organization and its fans are every bit as starved for success as the Yankees are spoiled by it. The man who leads the Cubs out of the 100 Years' Woods would be a legend in the Windy City that Mike Ditka would envy. And unlike the Yankees manager, the manager of the Chicago Cubs wouldn't have to share credit with the guy who writes the checks.

I'm sure Girardi is sincere when he says he has a good working relationship with everyone in the Yankees organization, and I guarantee he means it when he says his first responsibility is to the team he is working for now.

But when this season is over and his Yankees contract runs out, Joe Girardi's responsibilities shift to himself and his family.

At that point, the Chicago Cubs would be wise to come knocking, and Girardi would be foolish to ignore them.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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