Upon being fired as manager of the New York Yankees following a seven-game World Series loss in October 1960, the eminently quotable Casey Stengel quipped, “I’ll never make the mistake of being 70 again.”
Having presided over a baseball dynasty that claimed 10 pennants and seven championships in 12 years, he was told his services were no longer required. Although still successful, it was believed that chronologically, his time had passed, and youth would be served.
This concept of age was only reinforced in my 12-year-old mind a month later, as a youthful John Kennedy was elected to succeed President Eisenhower, age 70. Kennedy punctuated the transition by announcing that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.”
The prevailing culture accepted this as the natural order of things. If you were a septuagenarian, or reasonably close to it, you were likely to have run your race to the finish line before passing the torch.
But how things have changed.
This came to mind as I thought about a chance meeting I had on a sleepy Tuesday afternoon in late January in a mall in South Florida. I noticed a graying, middle-aged man, nondescript in shorts and T-shirt, standing alone in front of a sporting goods store, fully engaged with the screen on his smartphone. At first blush, he could have been anybody at any mall in America. Just an average Joe.
Only he wasn’t. He was, in fact, Joe Girardi, dismissed last October as manager of the Yankees. Like Stengel’s, Girardi’s forced departure followed a long and largely successful tenure. It culminated in a 2017 season that greatly exceeded expectations, a young squad in “rebuilding” mode falling just one victory short of reaching the World Series.
Suddenly, at the top of his game at 53, Girardi was a man without a team. He had been thrown a sharp-breaking curve that must have seemed more like one of those nasty, unhittable, split-finger fastballs. He was told his time had passed, and youth would be served.
For so many in today’s world, 53 is the new 70. They are told their services are no longer required. Although Girardi disagrees with the stated reason for his removal — a failure to communicate effectively with young players — he has been unfailingly gracious in his public comments.
But still, it has to hurt. He held arguably the most prestigious managerial position in professional sports. And now he doesn’t. Each February, he’s accustomed to being with pitchers and catchers for the start of spring training. For decades, as a player and then manager, this was his life. And now it isn’t.
By any objective standard, he’s a man in his prime. But his former employer apparently thought he wasn’t.
I approached him tentatively. I told him I thought he had done a great job, and that I was sorry about what happened. His eyes started to moisten, he looked me in the eye, and simply said, “That’s life.” A terse, stoic response, and completely in character. I wished him well, and he retreated into the sporting goods store. It was a brief, but poignant, encounter.
In reflecting on this, I’m also reminded of a day at Yankee Stadium in July 1999. It was Yogi Berra Day, to honor the career of this iconic Yankee. Berra, like Girardi, had been a catcher as a player, and later the team’s manager. On that day, Berra caught the ceremonial first pitch from Don Larsen, to commemorate the perfect game Larsen pitched and Berra caught in the 1956 World Series.
In a remarkable turn of events, Yankee pitcher David Cone then took the mound and hurled a perfect game of his own, with Berra and Larsen as eyewitnesses. And the catcher for Cone’s masterpiece was none other than Joe Girardi.
When the final out was recorded, Cone dropped to his knees, and Girardi was the first to reach him. “I just put a bear hug on him, and took him down,” Cone said. “I didn’t want to let go. Somebody dragged me off him. I wasn’t going to let go. That’s how good I felt about Joe Girardi, and what he means to me — not only professionally, but personally.”
Subsequent to our meeting at the mall, Girardi has been hired as a baseball analyst for the MLB Network. But a television studio isn’t his natural habitat. Just as at the mall, he’s out of context when he’s out of uniform. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before he’s back in his element.
Just consider this: Along with Stengel, Berra shares the dubious distinction of having been fired after managing the Yankees to the brink of a championship, being unceremoniously dismissed following a seven-game World Series loss in 1964. But he lived to add many more chapters to his baseball legacy.
As Yogi often said, it’s not over ‘til it’s over.
And he would certainly say — today’s emphasis on youth notwithstanding — Joe Girardi’s time has not passed.