by Paul West
Narratives and moments: two things that often seem to make the sports world, and the world in general, go ’round. They can make or break a player, season, or series.
Bill Buckner had a long, successful, storied MLB career in which he won a batting title, and was once known for both quickness and defense; but a defensive miscue in the 1986 World Series became a cruelly career-defining moment for him. The surrounding narrative–that a Boston Red Sox World Series title went through Buckner’s legs–is belied by the fact that the game-tying run had previously scored on a wild pitch; but somehow, Buckner became the lone scapegoat.
David Tyree was, over the better part of a decade, a solid NFL player who once made the Pro Bowl once. But one moment in Super Bowl XLII became a career-defining one for him, in the form of his game-saving “helmet catch” which will be forever be part of both NFL and New York Giants lore.
Stephane Matteau was a solid NHL player for just over a decade; but like Tyree, would likely not have been widely remembered by those outside his team’s fan base. But in the second overtime of Game Seven of the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals, Matteau sent the New York Rangers to the Stanley Cup Finals and eventually their first title since 1940. His wraparound goal–and the announcer’s ensuing call–is something countless NHL fans will never forget.
Joe Girardi was the 2006 Manager of the Year for the Florida Marlins. In his tenure as the New York Yankees‘ manager, he’s led them to one World Series title and a number of seasons in which they’ve exceeded expectations. The 2017 Yankees’ season was expected to be transitional; but the Yankees are on their way to the ALCS, largely due to Girardi’s management.
It was almost derailed–and Girardi’s career narrative was almost changed–by one moment.
In Game Two of the ALDS, Girardi opted not to challenge a hit-by-pitch which put Cleveland’s Lonnie Chisenhall on first base. This continued a game-changing rally, and the Yankees eventually lost, 9-8, in extra innings. With replay indicating that Chisenhall in fact was not hit by the pitch, the narrative turned against Girardi. Girardi, in his own defense, alluded to not having seen the video which made it clear that the pitch had actually hit Chisenhall’s bat; but he also willingly took the blame for his mistake. Departing from his signature, even-keeled stoicism, Girardi visibly held back emotion as he declared to a room full of reporters, “I screwed up…it’s a hard day for me.” Incredibly, people began to opine that this single moment would mean the end of his tenure as the Yankees manager; even more incredibly, Girardi was subsequently booed in his home ballpark before Game Three.
Fortunately for Girardi’s career narrative–and reflective of how unfair said narrative would have been–his team rallied around him. Not in some macho, regressive way, either; but instead, in a show of support for a man who had led them through so much injury, criticism and uncertainty. They wrung out at bats against a dominant pitching staff, and beat an arguably better team in a winner-take-all thriller. At the moment of victory, Girardi celebrated with more visible enthusiasm than most remember seeing him express for most of his current tenure; and when Todd Frazier declared, “this one’s for Joe,” we understood why.
“Pick me up” is one of the more beautiful expressions in team sports, and its use is perhaps most poignant when spoken by a manager, goalie, quarterback, or someone tasked with leadership. It represents the sentiment of being one’s brother’s or sister’s keeper, an it’s often uttered after a team’s leader or tone-setter has made an error or miscalculation they fear will cost the team. After their Game Five win, the Yankees players spoke openly of how much they’d wanted to pick up their fearless, stoic manager, who was faced with having a single momentary lapse become a career-changing narrative. They’ll now take on the Houston Astros, once again as the underdogs; but last night was a moment in Yankees history which few involved will ever forget.