NEW YORK – Were he not the man who cuts the paychecks Joe Girardi receives as manager of the Florida Marlins, Jeffrey Loria would be nothing more than another yahoo yelling at umpires from an expensive box seat.
As it stands, Loria is the principal owner of the Marlins, does furnish Girardi's wages and wields an opinion that matters, particularly since five weeks ago Loria allegedly fired Girardi, mid-game, when Girardi took umbrage to Loria's fervent complaining about balls and strikes. And as the season winds down and the Marlins finally have faded, so begins the discussion of next season, and that means talking about Girardi's future with Florida.
Loria, approached at Shea Stadium on Monday, was not keen on that topic.
"There's no news," Loria said. "So I have nothing to talk about."
Not even about your manager?
"Whatever you want to write," Loria said. "Go ahead."
If Loria eventually does fire Girardi, which seems imminent, he will add the title of dunce to an ever-growing list that already labels him a franchise wrecker, a smug huckster and a handout-seeking greedmonger.
Alienating employees seems counterintuitive with the prospect of building a strong franchise, yet Loria had no issue charging Girardi like a baby goat that just got his horns. And much like a kid, once the posturing was finished, he retreated from the conflict and acted as if it never happened.
Now Loria finds himself in an even bigger public-relations quandary than he did five weeks ago. Sympathy is on Girardi's side, particularly after Loria lauded general manager Larry Beinfest and his scouts – deserved praise, mind you – while letting Girardi's superlative work this season go unmentioned. Loria must settle this issue now, with a dismissal or contract extension, because Girardi deserves that much, his players deserve that much and the remaining Marlins loyalists who watched Loria disembowel the team this offseason and cut the team's payroll to $15 million – a dozen individuals in baseball will make more than that this year – deserve that much.
If – and why – Girardi wants to stay only he knows, and he's not saying. Just like he didn't say anything when the Marlins traded Paul Lo Duca, Carlos Delgado, Luis Castillo, Mike Lowell, Juan Pierre, Josh Beckett and Guillermo Mota, and just like he hasn't said much since. The only time Girardi seems compelled to open his mouth is when he wants someone else's to close: He allegedly told Loria to shut up during their tiff.
"I don't worry about where I am next year," Girardi said. "Because I can't control that. This is a team that has grown up a lot. There's talent and they're figuring it out.
"You make these relationships, and you'd like to see them through."
What Girardi has done with Florida this season should win him National League Manager of the Year in his first season on the job. The Marlins regularly field rookies at first base, second base, shortstop and all three outfield positions. Three of their starters are in their first seasons, as are four of their regular relievers. Girardi sees the kids, the way they progressed, how they learned to win after an 11-31 start, and the tug of a potential championship might supersede the ego beat down that stems from working under Loria.
"I want them to enjoy what I got to," said Girardi, who won three World Series with the New York Yankees. "People ask me to explain it, and I can't answer it. When you walk out on that field, and the emblem is there, and the jets fly over, it's different. You have to experience it. And the gratification when you win is impossible to imagine."
This season has been gratifying enough. The Marlins made a spirited run at a playoff spot, which seemed less likely than a run at the New York Mets' single-season loss record. In the midst of it, the Marlins drew four-figure crowds to Dolphin Stadium, prompting backup catcher Matt Treanor to tell the Palm Beach Post that "people in South Florida should be ashamed of themselves."
Perhaps so, but even the best-looking man doesn't get a second look when he cheats on his wife, and Loria tends to foster a sense of betrayal wherever he slides his paws. When he bought the Montreal Expos and could not get a new stadium built, he paved the way for their move to Washington. He has shopped the Marlins to other cities, too, because Miami voters have not approved funding for a new stadium.
While Loria did lose nearly $12 million last year on the Marlins, who were one of five teams in baseball in the red, according to Forbes, and Florida's local revenues, which many teams mill from new stadiums, ranked among the worst in baseball, the Marlins' franchise value has increased around $70 million, to $226 million, since Loria bought them.
Girardi never saw finances get in the way of winning with the Yankees. He's learning something new in Florida, and Girardi often talks about the best part of managing coming from the knowledge it gives. Girardi used to sit next to Don Zimmer on the Yankees' bench and watch as the old man shook his head, seeing something he'd never seen before, despite more than 50 years in baseball.
No matter where he ends up – if Girardi does leave Florida, he will get a job, perhaps with the Chicago Cubs, with whom he played twice, or as the heir to Joe Torre as Yankees manager – Girardi will take with him a lesson reinforced more this year than any of his previous 41.
"This game, baseball, is hard," Girardi said.
And sometimes the game itself is the easiest part.