Sports

Can Phillies Fans Learn to Love a Bunch of New Yorkers?

Joe Girardi, the team’s new manager, is leading a New York invasion of South Philly — and we should be okay with that.

joe girardi

New Phillies manager Joe Girardi is leading a New York invasion of South Philly. Illustration by Britt Spencer

If I’m paying attention when I walk around my South Philly neighborhood, I see these stickers. They’re black, white and red — making prominent use of warning exclamations and prohibition circles — and they turn up in all the places you tend to see renegade art of this ilk: street signs, bike poles, men’s rooms. The message, a passive-aggressive communique from our civic subconscious, is unambiguous: KEEP NEW YORK OUT OF PHILLY!

The sentiment is hardly new. Philadelphia has had an ax to grind with our neighbors to the north going back to the 1780s, when the Big Apple overtook the City of Brotherly Love as our young nation’s most populous city. For much of the two-plus centuries since, New Yorkers have been all too happy to oblige, looking down their noses at Philly as a provincial backwater — or at least, that’s what we’ve all always imagined. But these keep-out stickers have a different resonance right now. As new development reshapes our neighborhoods, as new investment reshapes our downtown, the city is changing. And with that change comes a deep concern about what it’s changing into: boxy, prefab, basic. Keep New York out of Philly, indeed.

Which is why winter developments with the local baseball team have been so curious. In this off-season, Citizens Bank Park is starting to feel like Sixth Borough Municipal Stadium. Following two deeply frustrating seasons under the on-field leadership of kooky first-time manager Gabe Kapler, the Phillies pulled the plug on their lightning-rod skipper in October. They replaced him with Joe Girardi, a man best known for leading the damned Yankees for 10 years. Joining Girardi on the southbound Acela Express are his trusted Yankees shortstop, Didi Gregorius, and longtime Mets hurler Zack Wheeler, the Phillies’ big off-season free-agent prize. A handful of other former Girardi cronies have joined the organization in the ensuing months. It’s a real New York invasion — so much so that a photo of Girardi with Gregorius and Wheeler as they donned their new red pinstripes at the players’ welcome-to-Philly press conference prompted the New York Daily News to splash PICTURE FROM HELL across its back cover.

Seeing a New York paper get its knickers in a twist over this felt weird. The Yankees fired Girardi. Gregorius had a down year coming off an injury, and Wheeler was, by any objective measure, only the Mets’ third- best starting pitcher. We didn’t exactly steal anybody. And still, New Yorkers, or at least New Yorkers who read tabloids from the back, were apparently tweaked out.

But here in Philly, where a knee-jerk revulsion to New York transplants is our birthright, many fans are welcoming the newbies with open arms. Are we becoming more New York than we care to admit?

I was at a block party last summer, chatting with a Phillies-fan friend of mine, around the time that Joe Girardi was first floated as a possible replacement for Gabe Kapler.

The team was in the midst of another tailspin, plummeting out of contention in a season that began with the grand promise of the Bryce Harper signing. Something about the way Kapler addressed the press following one spirit-crushing loss after another — as if he was an anthropomorphic motivational poster, or the human embodiment of the “This Is Fine” dog — had taken me to a dark place. “Why isn’t this guy furious?” I found myself yelling at my TV.

Here’s how dark it got. There’s a common theme in baseball managerial change that goes like this: If your team’s got a popular, player-friendly manager and is underperforming, that manager should be replaced with an old-school hothead who’ll scream incessantly at the players, thus motivating them via white-hot hatred. It went down that way here in 1979, when Dallas Green succeeded folksy Danny Ozark after the latter couldn’t get his talented team over the hump. Installed in the manager’s office, Green cursed, belittled, and flipped over post-game buffet tables. He did this all the way to the franchise’s first World Series win the next season. It worked less well when mild-mannered Terry Francona was swapped out for Larry Bowa — the shortstop for Green’s 1980 squad — who cursed, screamed and belittled third baseman Scott Rolen, the team’s intended cornerstone, into demanding a trade. I’ve never felt the Dallas Green method was a sustainable way to manage; if a dog won’t stop barking at you, eventually you tune it out. And yet I’d started to see the 2019 Phillies as a team that needed to have its post-game buffet upended.

It was through this lens that I began to view Girardi as a panacea. Despite his flat-top and don’t-cross-me stare, Girardi is, by all accounts, no table flipper. He graduated from Northwestern with a degree in industrial engineering. He plays chess. He’s a family man of deep faith. But you also get the sense he won’t tolerate Fortnite sessions between innings or a more general failure to hustle. Girardi, to borrow a Kaplerism, presents as the opposite of the no-rules-having, you-dudes-police-your-own-selves man he’s succeeding.

As I drank a beer at that block party over the summer, I disclosed to my friend, Aaron Bauman, a software engineer and safer streets advocate, that despite my initial optimism, I’d grown tired of Kapler, and the thought of Girardi filled me with something I remembered as hope.

“What about 2009?” Aaron countered as if I’d just committed blasphemy.

I’d forgotten! Girardi was the manager of the $200 million-plus Yankees team that bested the Phillies in the 2009 World Series. The one with Alex F. Rodriguez’s camera-aided home run. The one that denied our city its first back-to-back championships since the Flyers won their second straight Stanley Cup in 1975. That loss hurt. But should I hold it against Girardi?

Still unable to unpack my feelings about all of this, I asked some longtime Phillies fans I know to unpack theirs.

Leigh Goldenberg, Aaron’s wife, was just named managing director of the Wilma Theater and is a Democratic committeeperson in my South Philly neighborhood. Her daughter goes to school with mine. She grew up in Cheltenham, and her first Phillies memory is the team’s 1993 World Series run. (“I was at the 15-14 game against the Blue Jays,” she says with a mix of pride and dread.) For her, the Girardi issue was one of simple muscle memory. “It was like, ‘But I was so used to hating you,’” she recalls of the hire. “When I’m picturing him, it’s still in a Yankees away uniform.”

Leigh sums it up like this: “When our daughter was born, we used to say, ‘She can do anything she wants in life … but be a Yankees fan.’ We keep adding to that list, but essentially, she can root for red pinstripes but not blue.”

Yankee hatred does run deep here. But for other die-hard fans, while 2009 still stings, the specifics have gotten hazy. “I’ve sort of blocked that out. Like, Pedro Martinez pitched for us in the World Series? That happened? Get the fuck out of here,” my friend Joe Paone, a writer and editor, confides. “My main impression of Joe Girardi going into 2020 is that 2009 is the only World Series he won in 10 years managing the fucking Yankees. Seems like he underachieved. Like, he’s one step away from Jason Garrett.”

Ah, yes. Only one championship. Win just one championship in Philly and you’re a legend. Win just one championship in the Bronx and, well, Girardi spent the past two seasons as a TV analyst for a reason. In New York, all that matters is winning the very last game of the season. And it’s been 10 seasons since the Yankees did that. Which makes the Phillies’ decision to hire Girardi to lead a team that’s in win-it-all-or-else mode at least a little worrisome.

We’re at a weird moment in baseball — one where previous experience as a baseball manager has never been more of an impediment to getting hired as a baseball manager. That’s primarily because long-held beliefs about how much value a manager can deliver are being challenged.

“Managers in baseball have a smaller effect on their teams’ results than in other sports, and the impacts they can have are mostly in ways that are hard to measure,” says Scooter Hotz, an analyst at Baseball Prospectus and a college buddy of mine. “As a fan, the manager that taught me this was Charlie Manuel, who would drive me nuts tactically. But he was also the best manager the Phillies ever had, due entirely to his personnel management — his ability to keep 30 weird, elite-level jock dudes from crazy-different backgrounds happy and playing well all season.”

All but gone, however, are the days of the grizzled old baseball guy managing from his gut, and in is the era of big analytics departments slicing and dicing spin rates, release points, exit velocities, spray charts and launch angles. In this new era, managers are asked to connect with players, to motivate them, but to take tactical direction from the higher-ups.

And increasingly, teams are looking to younger managers who can relate to the kids more naturally. As an added benefit, these first-time managers are cheaper and likely have less ego to bristle at taking marching orders from the quants in the stats room. This is the spirit that Kapler was hired in — the same mold Craig Counsell (Brewers), Dave Roberts (Dodgers), Dave Martinez (Nationals), Aaron Boone (Yankees) and others are filling.

What’s funny is that Girardi was, not so long ago, the prototype for all the kids who followed. He was 41, two seasons removed from hanging up his cleats, when he took his first managing job with the Florida Marlins, and 43 when he replaced Joe Torre in the Yankees dugout in 2008. And he earned a nickname, “Binder Joe,” from the New York media for his dugout consultations of a big three-ringer full of matchups and tendencies. Minus 10 years and 10 seasons of experience, Girardi would be roughly indistinguishable from Kapler.

But those 10 years could matter. As Girardi was being shown the door, Yankees GM Brian Cashman said his manager’s inability to connect with the team’s new young core was part of the reason for his dismissal. (Never mind that Girardi had just led that young team to within a win of the World Series.) And an inability on Girardi’s part to connect with the Phillies’ youngsters could spell disaster.

It’s become fashionable in baseball circles to talk about a departing manager’s next job — what will he divine from the smoldering wreck he just left and apply going forward? People were debating what Kapler would take from his Phillies tenure before it was even over. “I have no doubt that Gabe Kapler is going to win a World Series as a manager someday,” says Joe Paone, noting that he liked the guy when the Phillies hired him and still liked him when they fired him: “I liked his style. I liked the way he appears to treat people.”

Kapler wasn’t out of work long. He got snapped up by the Giants, whose president of baseball operations, Farhan Zaidi, was a colleague during their days in the Dodgers organization. Kapler won’t get a ton of time to process what went wrong here, but San Francisco could be just the scenario he needs to be able to thrive after his bumpy first gig.

Maybe the same is true of Girardi and Philadelphia.

“Most of the time, when you have a new manager, it’s somebody who’s a little different,” says Hotz. “Girardi isn’t going to be the joking, palling-around type that Kapler liked to style himself as. But Girardi is also very analytically minded — I don’t think [Phillies GM] Matt Klentak would have hired him if he wasn’t — so if nothing else, Girardi is a different voice. In his stiffness and formality, he’ll be very different from the SoCal bro who managed the Phillies for the last couple of years.”

If you forced me to pinpoint what irked me about Gabe Kapler as a manager, it wouldn’t be the endless tinkering, or the lineup juggling, or the bullpen high jinks. It would be a lack of gravitas — the sense that when things are going badly, someone’s going to be held accountable. I never got that from Kapler. I get it in abundance from Girardi, and I think he’s walking into a clubhouse — and a city — that needs it.

In other words, to think of Girardi as an invading New Yorker misses the point. In reality, he’s just another guy who spent some time in New York, realized it’s a bit of a shitshow, and has now identified Philadelphia as the place to be the best version of himself. After all, as Girardi detailed in his introductory press conference, the stars had been aligning for him and the city for some time, going back to one of his first dates with his now-wife in Chicago, at a Phillies-Cubs game.

As my friend Leigh puts it, “It’s one more way that Philadelphia is trying to take the best things from New York and turn them into our own.”

Or you could look at it another way. I asked my friend Joe how he felt about all these ex-New Yorkers in the Phillies clubhouse. His response: “Better than Bostonians, I guess? They’re the fucking worst.”

Published as “Empire State of Mind” in the March 2020 issue of Philadelphia magazine.