NEW YORK -- If he was willing to offer up a human sacrifice, Joe Girardi could have made it easy on himself. The manager of the New York Yankees could have sent Alex Rodriguez up there to strike out for a third time, fed him to an angry mob of fans needing to vent before heading to their cars and a silent ride home.
Girardi could have put it all on the defenseless Rodriguez, who might as well have been swinging an old maid's broom at the plate. He could have made A-Rod the face of another division series disaster, lost Game 3 to the Baltimore Orioles and let the credentialed wolves have at the one-and-only in the home locker room.
Instead the manager made the gutsiest call any Yankees employee has made since Brian Cashman invited Derek Jeter to dinner after the 2007 season and told the captain, in effect, that he was a lousy defensive player who needed to improve or else.
This call wasn't made in a quiet Manhattan restaurant during the offseason, but in the ninth inning of a postseason game before 50,497 on-site witnesses and millions of viewers from coast to coast. Girardi had started the day with a terrible move, keeping Rodriguez in the third spot in his lineup, and now he was going to try to make it right at the risk of offering up a different Yankee for the human sacrifice:
"I just felt like this is what my heart's telling me to do," Girardi would say, "and I'm going to do it."
He was going to pinch hit for Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez, one of the all-time greats. Girardi was going to bench him in favor of Raul Ibanez, good guy, pro's pro, very accomplished major league player with a recent flair for the dramatic but, hey, nobody's idea of a $305 million Yankee.
A lot of people wanted Johnny Damon on this team instead of Ibanez, and now Girardi wasn't picking Ibanez over Damon. He was picking Ibanez over A-Rod to turn a 2-1 game with one out in the ninth into a 2-2 game with one out in the ninth.
Girardi started considering the most monumental judgment call of his baseball life in the seventh inning, when the possibilities of another one-sided Jim Johnson-Rodriguez collision -- Johnson had won on strikeouts in Games 1 and 2 -- weighed heavily on the manager.
Finally Girardi approached the man with 647 career homers and 1,950 career RBIs to tell him he wasn't good enough to get the job done.
"You're scuffling a little bit right now," Girardi told Rodriguez. "We have got a low-ball hitter and we've got a shorter porch in right field than left field obviously. Raul's been a good pinch hitter for us, and I'm just going to take a shot."
A-Rod was stunned. He hadn't been pinch hit for since high school. "Maybe junior high," he said.
Rodriguez never forgave Joe Torre for batting him eighth against Detroit in the 2006 division series, and six years later, this demotion was worse, far worse. A-Rod wasn't being dropped to eighth. He was being dropped to 10th.
"Joe," A-Rod told his manager, "you've got to do exactly what you've got to do."
"I got up to the top step and started cheering," Rodriguez said.
Of course, this was the beginning of the end of Alex Rodriguez, and the designated hitter-turned-designated sitter took it like a man. Rodriguez was on the dugout rail when Mariano Rivera turned to him and predicted Ibanez would go deep, and when his replacement made Mo a prophet and sent Johnson's 1-0 pitch screaming into a forever corner of Yankees lore, A-Rod celebrated as if he had delivered the epic shot himself.
Sure, Rodriguez might have been secretly hoping for a strikeout to remind Girardi that postseason hitting is even harder than it looks. If A-Rod harbored such thoughts before Ibanez teed off on Johnson's 94 mph fastball, he shouldn't feel any shame, not when 99 percent of his peers would have reacted the same way.
But with the ball in the air, Rodriguez responded like a little leaguer watching a homer for the very first time. He threw open his mouth and threw up his arms, and started celebrating with Rivera before greeting Ibanez at the top step with a double high-five and a hug.
Three innings later, Rodriguez was back in the middle of someone else's fairy tale. Ibanez launched Brian Matusz's first pitch high into the Bronx night, and suddenly it was official: The 40-year-old DH needed two at-bats and three pitches to summon the memories of the 2001 World Series in the old place across the street.
When Rodriguez and most of the Yankees were done jumping all over Ibanez, Girardi grabbed him and patted his bald head. By putting down his beloved binder and going with a gut feeling, by throwing himself in front of the speeding train heading A-Rod's way, Girardi had guaranteed he'd go down in Yankees history if his team survives this series and wins it all.
"You know you're going to be asked a lot of questions if it doesn't work," Girardi said.
But it worked. It worked in a staggering way.
"It worked out perfectly," Girardi's wife, Kim, said as she waited for the winning manager's news conference to begin. "Alex got to play, Raul got to play and everyone contributed.
"Joe has such a big heart, and he cares so much. We don't talk much about [strategy], but I know he really wanted today to end up as a good day."
It ended up as a 12th-inning triumph over a relentless opponent, the kind of postseason victory the Yanks always pulled out when Torre was doing the managing and Girardi the catching.
When it was over, Girardi was reminded of the storm his iconic predecessor created when he batted Rodriguez eighth against the Tigers. Girardi understood the potential consequences here. He understood this was the kind of move -- after insisting on batting A-Rod third to begin with -- that ultimately gets a manager fired.
Girardi refused to blink anyway. "You have to make some decisions sometimes that are tough decisions," he said.
There are tough decisions, and then there was this decision. The boos for Rodriguez were growing louder and louder, and A-Rod's swings against Miguel Gonzalez were getting weaker and weaker. After his final at-bat in the sixth ended on a check-swing whiff, Rodriguez kicked the dirt and headed for the dugout as quickly as he could.
Maybe Girardi saw that little kick and swift exit as signs of surrender. Rodriguez had gone 73 consecutive at-bats without a postseason homer, and he was 7-for-51 with 17 strikeouts and two extra-base hits in his past three playoff series. If nothing else, Rodriguez had stuck around long enough to watch a kid who grew up idolizing him, Manny Machado, send an A-Rodian blast over the left-field wall.
"I love Joe," Rodriguez said of his manager, "and I'm one of the leaders of the team. Maybe 10 years ago, I would've reacted in a much different way, but I'm in a place in my career now where the team is everything."
A-Rod swore he felt better for Ibanez than Ibanez felt for himself and swore that he remains Girardi's "biggest fan."
"Joe's always respected me to the utmost, and I give it right back to him," A-Rod said.
Before he left for the night, Girardi wouldn't reveal his Game 4 lineup and wouldn't say whether Rodriguez and/or Ibanez would have a place in it. But let the legends, icons and home run heroes beware.
This not-so-ordinary Joe has already declared himself. The manager is playing for a championship, and he won't let the back of anyone's bubble-gum card get in the way.