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October 3, 2012

Sobsequy

The Unbearable Blandness of Joe Girardi

by Adam Sobsey

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There’s a clue to what’s wrong with Gay Talese’s recent New Yorker profile of Yankee manager Joe Girardi in these two very similar anecdotes. According to a 1973 profile of the writer, in the spring of 1950 the 18-year-old Talese went to St. Petersburg, Fla. to watch the Yankees in spring training. A young woman mistook him for the Yankees’ Jerry Coleman. Talese went along with it and, in this pinch-hitting imposture, took her deep that night. (Coleman was told about this later and was apparently livid.)

In his new piece on Girardi, Talese recounts another such story, about a time when he “embarked on a love affair in college with a young woman I had met in French class.” A few years before, Talese had gotten his first autograph from another Yankee, Johnny Lindell, who substituted for Joe DiMaggio while the Yankee Clipper was serving in the Army Air Forces. (“Lindell always posed graciously for snapshots and talked with fans before and after the games,” Talese recalls.)

Ready to round the bases with his college chérie, Talese “booked a room at a motel and, seized with panic, scribbled on the registration form the name of the man I viewed as my protector—Johnny Lindell.”

That’s slightly perverse, but so is Talese. Read that whole 1973 profile in the link above, or check out the twin profiles he himself wrote in 1966 that made him perhaps “the most important nonfiction writer of his generation,” according to David Halberstam.

Halberstam issued his praise of Talese in the introduction to The Best American Sportswriting of the Century, which leads off—quite deliberately—with one of those two famous profiles of 1966: “The Silent Season of a Hero,” Talese’s ambivalent, often unflattering portrait of a 51-year-old DiMaggio. (Here’s a lightly annotated reprint from Grantland.)

Halberstam calls “Silent Season” “the best magazine piece I have ever read” (and this was after a 13-year professional feud between Halberstam and Talese). The Esquire profile was apparently the first depiction of DiMaggio as anything other than saintly, flawless, and charming. Published just two months after Talese’s very similar treatment of Frank Sinatra, another Italian-American icon (Talese shares their heritage; his first name is short for Gaetano) born a year after DiMaggio, “Silent Season” not only established Talese’s preeminence, it also served as a founding document of the school of nonfiction that came to be known as New Journalism.

Above all, “Silent Season” established the theme of hero worship in Talese’s writing. “The Crisis Manager” continues the worship, and the problem is this: what gave the DiMaggio piece life is precisely what the Girardi piece doesn’t have—or perhaps it’s better to say it’s what it has that the DiMaggio piece did not: access.

“Silent Season” opens with a (probably imagined) scene of DiMaggio chain-smoking in his San Francisco restaurant in the late morning. Outside is a man who wants to interview DiMaggio, and that man is Talese—never identified as such in what follows. “The man” goes into the restaurant, DiMaggio sees him and disappears toward the kitchen; the man leaves, bewildered; then, in a bizarre continuation, is asked back in, where DiMaggio calls him on the phone and berates him for “invading my rights!” Suddenly DiMaggio reenters and accosts him in person—all of this happens inside the restaurant itself—and finally softens somewhat before accusing the man of making him late for an appointment. Finally, out on the street, DiMaggio’s blue Impala pulls up beside the spurned writer, who is on foot, and the Yankee Clipper offers him a ride.

That conciliatory gesture, Talese later said, gave him hope of getting enough time with DiMaggio to be able to write his story. (Sinatra never granted Talese any time at all; Talese gleaned his material by virtually stalking Ol’ Blue Eyes, from casinos to bars to recording sessions, and by talking to people who knew him.) Throughout the weeks Talese spent with Joltin’ Joe, he was in and out of DiMaggio’s favor—more often than Talese reports in the piece itself.

It’s that tension between hero and worshiper that gives “Silent Season” its energy. The last pages of the profile are actually quite sympathetic. The 51-year-old DiMaggio suffers the indignity of introducing Mickey Mantle, his successor, at Yankee Stadium on “Mickey Mantle Day” to a Mick-adoring crowd (and he has to manage a brief encounter with Robert Kennedy, whom he loathed); shortly afterward, he’s shanking and hooking shots on the golf course until he heaves his nine-iron into a tree; finally, he gives himself a stinger while taking a few batting practice swings on the Yankees’ spring training field. But the fragile, aging, pitiable DiMaggio is the same moody, suspicious narcissist who is always just an unpredictable moment away from turning on Talese—and, by extension, the reader.

Girardi, on the other hand, comes off as approachable and accommodating. Talese visits Girardi’s home in Purchase, New York; accompanies him to Peoria, Illinois to visit Girardi’s father, who has Alzheimer’s and lives in a nursing home; and generally seems to have all the access he wanted. Such are the perks once you’ve reached luminary status, as Talese has.

But this access has made the piece fireless, and thus exposes the mechanism of the DiMaggio piece: without DiMaggio’s (and, before him, Sinatra’s) distrust and dismissal of Talese, these articles probably wouldn’t work at all. Talese needs his subject to push him away—needs the hero he worships to deny him—in order for his writing about them to have any life or drama.

Early in “The Crisis Manager,” Talese goes straight for almost literal hagiography, after noting Girardi’s “reflective, cautious” voice and “stalwart mildness of manner”:

… [W]ith camera lights deepening the shadows across his dour and ascetic countenance… I imagined him as a soulful figure in a Renaissance painting, a man resigned to the shortcomings of his calling. Like religion, the game of baseball is founded on aspirations rarely met. It generates far more failure than fulfillment… Girardi gave me the impression of a monk in pinstripes.

This does not bode well. Laying aside some minor complaints—“dourness” contradicts “mildness”; the line about failure is an old baseball cliché dressed up in high-toned language—the big problem here is that the rest of the story essentially goes about confirming the assessment.

Girardi is happy to comply, not so much because he himself thinks he’s a monk, although he is very religious and married to an evangelical Christian: “She made me realize that I was playing [baseball] because God gave me a gift, and I would be able to share God’s good news through my gift and talent,” Girardi tells Talese. (Sure, but also, oh, come on: Is it not also, and more forcefully, because he was one of the 750 or so best baseball players in the world? What else could he have reasonably been expected to do?)

Girardi accommodates Talese’s narrative because Girardi has what the savvy modern baseball manager needs: reflective, and often deflective, tact, especially when it comes to the media. The entire piece has Talese falling for the very thing he describes even before Girardi’s monkish soulfulness:

… [M]any sportswriters have found Girardi stubbornly removed. Girardi’s responses to questions after games are rarely quotable. In this sense, he remains the man behind the catcher’s mask, communicating slyly from a crouched position with his fingers extended, or, when speaking to a battery-mate on the mound, whispering along the edges of his upturned mitt.

Yet Talese quotes Girardi liberally throughout the story, usually without critical comment. “My Dad was always there for me,” Girardi tells him of the man who, as we have learned earlier in the piece, broke up a fight between the young Girardi and his brother by “shov[ing] the boys out into the snow in their underwear.” There for you? In a way, perhaps.

Girardi appears to give Talese a longer, gentler, but not much different treatment than what he gives all reporters: he politely complies with Talese’s notion of saintliness via “rarely quotable” lines that have to be quoted anyway because, well, that’s what reporters do. All of this is in the service of a carefully cultivated blandness that Girardi uses as camouflage for himself and his team. He isn’t “communicating slyly,” as Talese suggests—he’s not communicating at all. Meanwhile, answering questions posed by reporters with voice recorders, sitting under “camera lights deepening the shadows across his dour and ascetic countenance” until he looks like a monk to Talese, letting Talese sit with him at his father’s nursing home—he gives the impression of communicating very clearly and formally.

Well, that kind of dissembling is precisely what a manager does. One of his main functions is to work very hard, very assiduously, to keep scrutiny away from what’s really going on by “exhibit[ing] his flair for deflating headlines with clichés,” as Talese later notes of Girardi. (How can “deflating” and “clichés” have any “flair”?) Yet Talese doesn’t see “my dad was always there for me” for precisely the cliché that it is. In fact, this line is one of Talese’s constant mentions of Girardi’s love of his father—hero worship at its most elemental—that helps set up a long narrative coda leading to Girardi twice saying, “I love you, Dad.” That is the last line of the article.

The mawkishness of this, even though it is obviously earnest sentiment, is embarrassing, not so much per se as for Talese’s capitulation to a worn-out, nostalgia-thickened baseball storyline that should have been retired with Field of Dreams if not before.

There were other leads to follow. For example, Talese observes that “Girardi approaches his job like the engineer he studied to be” and notes the three-ring binder that has since transformed into an iPad and helped earn Girardi (from former BP honcho Steven Goldman) the nickname “Coffee Joe” for his apparently obsessive, over-caffeinated tinkering with parts. (Yet Talese also writes that “Girardi takes a somewhat minimalist approach to managing,” backing up this virtually insupportable argument with a quote from Rick Sutcliffe, who hasn’t worked with Girardi since they were battery-mates in Chicago 20 years ago. Also: “somewhat minimalist?” Is that like “very unique”?)

But rather than delve into the engineering machinery itself—something other New Yorker writers, like Malcolm Gladwell, might do—Talese settles for this: “He creates matchups, figuring out how particular hitters will do against particular pitchers.” (Wow, who ever would have thought of that?) Then he makes an awkward transition, via the word “numbers,” to the unsightly imbroglio last season when Girardi batted Jorge Posada ninth and wound up leaning on more cliché to defuse the Bronx bomb he had inadvertently (or not?) planted.

Talese’s rather breezy treatment of the Posada Incident is one of several places where he declines to look more critically, as he did with DiMaggio and Sinatra, at what might be interpreted as Girardi’s mistakes or flaws. Girardi could be argued to have handled Posada’s demotion just as badly as his predecessor, Joe Torre, may have done when he dropped Alex Rodriguez to eighth in the 2006 playoffs. Nor does Talese linger much, after bringing it up, on Girardi’s contentious relationship with Florida Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria when Girardi was a rookie manager in Miami.

And his unquestioning reverence of Girardi leads to some infelicitous moments. When Cardinals pitcher Daryl Kile died in 2002, it was Girardi who took the microphone at Wrigley Field to announce that the game the day would be cancelled. There is no doubt that Girardi’s words were heartfelt—you can hear his voice breaking in this fragment of the recording—and that it took courage and gravitas to step up to the moment. But Talese subjects the moment to clumsy exploitation:

Girardi’s appearance that day as a spokesman for Major League Baseball demonstrated to a large audience… [that he] possessed a dignified and refined manner that, combined with his knowledge and love of the game, presented him with appealing possibilities once his playing days were over.

The implication that the shocking death of a 33-year-old pitcher provided Girardi with a platform for his future managerial candidacy is blindly offensive. Yet had Talese pursued the idea with more purpose, he might have made more of Girardi’s handling of the boo-birds at Wrigley, after he informed the crowd that they would have to go home: “Please be respectful,” Girardi said. “You will find out eventually what has happened.”

There goes the manager-to-be, willingly taking the microphone and withholding the whole truth. That characterization is unfair, of course—Girardi had probably been asked not to divulge Kile’s death amid a gale of confusion, and even if he had permission to do so, discretion may have been the best choice in a packed ballpark. But Talese leaves the moment open to critical misinterpretation, like a hanging breaking pitch asking to be smashed. The tension in “The Crisis Manager” is mostly between Talese and the reader, in the places where the reader has to step over or around the holes in the groundwork of the writer’s thought.

It’s tempting to say that the problem here is simply that Talese is 80 years old and the game (and perhaps sharper storytelling and prose) has passed him by. Modern baseball management has come a long way from Casey Stengel’s “The secret of successful managing is to keep the five guys who hate you away from the four guys who haven't made up their minds” (although that probably still has a fair amount to do with it).

But that isn’t fair to Talese, nor is it right to pardon him on the grounds that he’s an old-timer—not even when he writes, mystifyingly, as though assessing the Yankees of some other era, that “last year’s team did not get past the first round of the playoffs, winning only two of five games against Detroit.” Is losing a series in the decisive fifth game (by one run) really winning “only” two of five games? This is not the team of Talese’s youth, when the Yankees played in 13 of 17 World Series and won 12 of them, seven in five games or fewer. There were no divisional series then.

It’s the unmitigated hero worship that clouds Talese’s critical eye more than the quality of his actual prose—but he might have made of that weakness an animating strength had he used it to help the story live up to its crisis-driven title. The Yankees had lost a 10-game division lead around the time Talese was finishing his fieldwork for the story, about a month ago. Talese mentions the slump, briefly, late in the article. He could have used the crisis as a hook, even if only to demonstrate Girardi’s heroism at the helm in the face of adversity.

As it is, the only scene Talese shows here is of Girardi exploding in rage at umpire Tony Randazzo after a strike-three call Girardi didn’t like. But then, again, Talese backs reverently away from the hero, allowing him to return to the saintly calm Talese needs to see in him and to retreat behind the polite and deflective words Girardi so often—and so shrewdly—deploys as a shield of bland decency: “In the clubhouse after the game, Girardi told reporters, ‘I’m not going to comment on Randazzo.’”

If only Talese had gotten him to comment. Better: if only he had asked Girardi for comment and been berated and spurned, as he was by DiMaggio. If only Talese had shown Girardi as he did decades ago with DiMaggio: at his worst. The heroes best suited for stories have at least a little villain in them.

Too bad Talese isn’t from Boston, where Bill Belichick and Bobby Valentine await a passionate, ambivalent literary chronicler.

Adam Sobsey is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Adam's other articles. You can contact Adam by clicking here

Related Content:  Managers,  Joe Girardi,  Gay Talese,  New Yorker,  Joe Dimaggio

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