Monday, June 15, 2009

In which Brad Penny recognizes the pot calling the kettle black

Next up: Brad Penny telling Joe Girardi that the jerk store called and they're all out of him! Photo from this site.

Today is June 15 (hi, I’m Captain Obvious, Derek Jeter’s cousin thrice-removed), which means that the Red Sox can now create a rotation spot for John Smoltz by trading Brad Penny. Of course, the best solution is probably giving Daisuke Matsuzaka the Fausto Carmona treatment, and maybe that’s what the Sox will do, $100 million investment be damned.

But if Penny has thrown his last pitch for the Sox, he’s leaving on a high note that even George Costanza would admire.

Penny had his most impressive start of the season Thursday when he was regularly clocked in the high 90s throughout a 117-pitch effort. One of those fastballs hit Alex Rodriguez in the back in the second inning and angered Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who on Friday complained about the plunking and griped about Penny’s intent.

Of course, Girardi complaining about the Yankees getting hit is the type of hypocrisy so blatant, it’s almost not worth dignifying with words. Fortunately, Penny thought otherwise and unloaded on Girardi Saturday, telling reporters that he doesn’t “…give two [hoots] what Joe Girardi says” and suggesting Girardi spend more time managing and less time playing commissioner.

Penny didn’t bother mentioning how regularly Yankees pitchers have used Sox hitters for target practice this year, nor how it’s ticked off the mild-mannered John Farrell. The Yankees have hit nine Sox batters this year, as opposed to just three plunkings of the Yankees by Sox pitchers. When Jason Bay was hit by Jose Veras Wednesday it marked the sixth straight game in which a Yankees pitcher hit a Sox batter. Nor did Penny mention that the Yankees, for all of Girardi’s caterwauling, lead the league in hit batsman (38 through Saturday, one more than the Sox).

Nor did he mention one of Girardi’s pitchers is Joba Chamberlain, who apparently thinks pitching is a carnival game and the baseball in his hand is a softball and Kevin Youkilis’ head is a bunch of milk jugs. Chamberlain also hit Bay May 5 after Bay homered in consecutive games.

Of course, the Yankees instigating beanball battles and then painting themselves as the victims is nothing new. In 2000, Joe Torre managed to blame ESPN for Roger Clemens trying to kill Mike Piazza during a July interleague game. When Clemens—hopped up on Ben Gay around the groin and nothing else, wink wink—chucked a broken bat at Piazza in the Subway Series, Torre wailed about how unfair it was to think Clemens was intentionally trying to hurt Piazza.

But when Clemens was on the Blue Jays and regularly hitting the Yankees, Torre was singing a different tune.

Girardi himself is no stranger to wondering why everybody’s picking on him. As the Yankees’ catcher in 1999, he was mystified when he was ejected from a Yankees-Mariners game that devolved into a brawl when the Yankees’ Jason Grimsley plunked Edgar Martinez following a home run by—there he is again!!!—Alex Rodriguez. It was so long ago that Rodriguez and Jeter actually were BFFs who spent the brawl laughing with one another.

But unlike Girardi’s complaining, there was something almost begrudgingly admirable in Torre’s hypocrisy. It was the passive-aggressive arrogance of it all, the equivalent of the star quarterback holding his hands in the air and proclaiming his innocence in a hallway brawl, all while he deftly sticks his foot behind him and trips another kid.

Torre’s a pretty good manager, but he would have been a great politician. Torre is so slick, he could walk into an igloo, declare it wasn’t that cold and have teeth-chattering Eskimos hand over their layers of clothing and believe it was the right thing to do.

He works a room like few managers or coaches in any sport, mastering the concept that a smooth delivery is the best form of spin control. He speaks earnestly, looks his questioner in the eye, drops a few “no doubts” to make said questioner feel as if he was revealing some great and deep truth and references new-age pap like “one heartbeat” that nonetheless sounds more organic and sincere than anything generated by Pat Riley or Phil Jackson. And maybe, for good measure, he’ll tell a story about how he caught Bob Gibson back when men were men and nobody got suspended for good country hardball.

And of course whenever there are multiple beanings in a game, Torre always mentions that he hopes there’s no lingering effect, thereby subtly painting the other team as the bad guys if they retaliate the next day.

Nobody ever wonders about his role when his pitchers start throwing at the head, not even in June 2007, when, after the overworked Scott Proctor entered in the ninth inning of a 9-3 game that had already featured four beanings and was the first Yankees pitcher to try to take off Youkilis’ head, Torre declared he was happy the Yankees “…showed some fight.” Nor did anyone seem to doubt Torre nearly three months later, when he told Youkilis that Chamberlain wasn’t picking up where Proctor left off.

Girardi is plenty slick in his own right: He spent all of one year as a bench coach with the Yankees before he was hired by the Marlins in 2006, when he won Manager of the Year honors and got fired anyway because of a personality clash with owner Jeffrey Loria. Girardi then worked for the YES Network and Fox Sports in 2007 and parlayed that season in the public eye into a gig as Torre’s successor.

But Girardi lacks that extra special layer that allowed Torre to escape scrutiny despite his multiple head-hunters. His people skills—inside and outside his clubhouse—were so lacking last year that the Yankees ordered him to undergo a Tom Coughlin-like metamorphosis. Girardi is better this year, but the Marine persona means he’ll never spin nor ever win over a crowd like Torre.

It doesn’t help Girardi that the Yankees are not the pillar of excellence they were under Torre, when they were the best, most consistent team in baseball. And if they wanted to plunk other teams and point fingers about it, well, there wasn’t a damn thing anyone could do about it.

Indeed, if the Torre-led Yankees were the heartthrob star quarterback, the Girardi-led Yankees are said quarterback five years later, after he’s quit the State U. football team, flunked out of school and gained 80 pounds. The layer of invincibility is gone, so now when he acts like a jerk, people recognize he’s acting like a jerk. Just ask Brad Penny.

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