A big-league clubhouse is an interesting place. It's filled, wall to wall, with elite athletes. They were all the best players on every team they played on as kids and they have the back pats to prove it. They are all well paid. Some, ridiculously well. Many make more than their bosses. Much more. All of this can create some huge egos and huge egos can sometimes present a challenge for a leader.
On this, the morning of his first opening day as Phillies manager, it's impossible to say what Joe Girardi's ultimate stamp on the ballclub will be. A winning season and a postseason berth for the first time since 2011? The lineup is good enough to make that happen. There are reasons to like the starting pitching. The bullpen is a big worry and if it is the undoing of this club, that will be more on the architect than the foreman. Girardi has a degree in industrial engineering from Northwestern. In other words, he's a problem solver. But even he might not be able to solve the problem that could be the Phillies' bullpen.
There are other problems Girardi can solve.
Other issues he has already conquered.
In that way, he's already put a stamp on the team, and it very well could lead to better performance from the players and more victories. Wins and losses always come down to the players, but a manager can influence the players, positively or negatively, and therefore impact the number of wins and losses.
A manager's No. 1 currency in a big-league clubhouse is trust.
Yes, Charlie Manuel had great players, some of the best in Phillies history. He'll be the first one to tell you that he became the most successful manager in club history and won a World Series because he had great players.
"My players made me," Charlie has often said.
But those players might not have come together and formed a great team if it wasn't for Manuel's galvanizing effect. He brought that team together because he had a very large bank account of the stuff that matters most for a big-league skipper.
The players trusted that he knew what the hell he was doing.
They trusted that he was the genuine article, comfortable in his own skin, authentic, true to himself to the bone.
They trusted that he had their backs.
They trusted that it was all about them, not him.
That will be the stamp Joe Girardi puts on this club.
It already is the stamp he has put on this club. From offseason phone conversations with players, to a month in Clearwater, to three weeks of summer camp in this crazy COVID season of 2020, he has built a fat wallet.
"One advantage [Girardi] has over the managers I've had in the past — not to speak down on anybody — was what he was able to do in his playing career and also as a manager," said J.T. Realmuto, already revered by teammates in just his second season with the Phillies. "He's already won a World Series. So many successful playoff seasons. That is something you can't replicate or make up and say, 'I'm a good manager.' He's actually done it.
"That experience gives guys that much more comfort. Being able to talk to him about different situations and scenarios, just knowing he's already accomplished things most of us haven't. That gives him a leg up on the others."
Realmuto went on to say that he believed managers had become undervalued in baseball.
Modern front offices now generate data and from that data form a paint-by-numbers script that a skipper is told to follow at 7 p.m. If you don't want to follow it, you don't get the job. Unless the owner steps in.
"Just putting your players in position to succeed is not as easy as it seems," Realmuto said. "You can look at the numbers all you want and some managers will go 100 percent off of what the computer tells them to do. Some managers will go all off of feel. Joe has a good understanding of both, not just doing it because the piece of paper tells him but having a feel of what's going on in this hitter's head. How has he done over the last week, is he going to be confident in this situation?
"Stuff like that will separate him from a lot of others. I definitely think the manager can help win ballgames and is going to make a difference during the season."
Tangibly, Girardi's biggest impact might come in the bullpen. He squatted for 15 years behind the plate in the majors and has managed for another 11. When it comes to pitching, he knows what he's looking at. He knows how to run a bullpen. He spent the winter and spring training making it clear to relievers that they will not be run into the ground, and more than one of them has privately said they love him for that. He will protect their arms. He won't use them more than three days in a row.
"I think Joe's biggest impact will be the bullpen," Bryce Harper said. "He was a catcher. He knows how to work a bullpen. I think you guys saw that when he was in New York. He's going to take care of our arms."
Back to that opening thought about baseball clubhouses being interesting places filled with highly paid men with sizable egos. Sometimes those egos can get bruised. And over the last decade or so in baseball, there's been a huge emphasis placed on not bruising those egos, on keeping things positive and happy and upbeat. Hey, we believe in this stuff because a positive work environment definitely produces better work, and in sports, better work can equal more wins.
By the same token, a clubhouse doesn't have to be the Good Ship Lollipop all the time. Losses can't be swept under the rug and taken lightly for the sake of keeping everyone happy. When things aren't good enough, Girardi will say it and the players will know it. Don't misunderstand, there will be perspective. All of that don't-get-too-high-or-low stuff will have its place because overreacting to losses doesn't work in baseball. But that doesn't mean they should be accepted easily, either.
Phillies fans have not seen this yet, but they will. And it's great:
Joe Girardi hates losing. He'll wear the emotion on his sleeve after a loss. You'll see it. The players will see it. It's an old-school form of accountability — don't piss off the boss — but it's real, it's authentic, it's part of who Joe is and part of the reason he has a bank account filled with trust.
"Look, it's not like I pout after a loss," Girardi said a few months ago. "But I care. I don't like to lose. That's the bottom line.
"I'm not going to walk into a press conference five minutes after we lose and say, 'Hey, things are great.' That's not who I am. Because I think you're also talking to the fans and to your players, like losing is part of life but it's what you do with the losses that becomes really important. If I don't like the way we played, I'll say it and my mind is already on what we need to do as an organization and a staff to make it where it doesn't happen again. My mind is always thinking about what's next."
Happy Opening Day.
It's too early to tell where this team is going. Maybe the bats and starting rotation will be good enough to cover up the sins of the bullpen and get this team into the postseason. Sixteen teams will make the playoffs and if the Phillies can't crack that code, well, something is seriously wrong.
But nothing is wrong in the manager's office.
Joe Girardi has been around. He knows what he's doing. He will put players in good places and hold them accountable. Someday, he won't be the right guy for this job because all big-league skippers come with an expiration date. But for now, he is.
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