Commentary

Yankees buying into new way of doing things under Girardi

Originally Published: March 4, 2008
By Bob Klapisch | Special to ESPN.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- From the day he walked into his new office at Legends Field, Joe Girardi has strived to put his own imprint on the Yankees -- distancing himself from Joe Torre, without diminishing the legacy of the most successful Yankees manager of the past 50 years. Talk about the need for political finesse: Girardi knew the clubhouse was full of Torre loyalists, all the way down to the equipment staff.

Yet in the first month of camp, the Bombers are buying what Girardi's been selling, including the blistering conditioning program, the emphasis on fundamentals and increased face time with the players. It's a stark change from the Torre reign, which operated loosely and on the honor system. The old Joe trusted his players; in turn they treated him with reverence. But that doesn't mean the Yankees weren't ready for change, especially in the midst of a seven-year championship drought.

[+] EnlargeJoe Girardi
Noah K. Murray/US PresswireJoe Girardi, center, takes over a Yankees team that has advanced to the postseason in each of the last 12 years.
Mike Mussina seemed to be speaking for the entire team when he said, "We loved Joe, but we all knew things had to be different. Especially the guys who've been here a while and haven't won, we were very disappointed at the way things had been going."

No one says so in quite so many words, but the Yankees had become comfortable with Torre, perhaps too much so. It didn't help that the Yankees hardly ran at all last spring -- "We learned you have to do more than take grounders and BP and then hit the showers," Mussina said -- which left the team unprepared by Opening Day.

By May 2, seven players were either injured or on the disabled list, leading to the firing of conditioning coach Marty Miller. That set the tone for the rest of the summer, and even though the Yankees nearly caught the Red Sox, their first-round loss to the Indians didn't seem to sting as much as in previous years.

Torre himself seemed unusually passive, staying in the dugout when Joba Chamberlain was being swarmed by midges in the decisive Game 2 of the Division Series at Jacobs Field. Torre repeated this week in Vero Beach, Fla., what he'd said in October, that he should've asked the umpires to stop play. Instead, Torre said, "I didn't act on it, and I regret that."

Maybe it was no surprise, then, that Torre and the Yankees parted ways after a 12-year run. Looking back now, Torre says, "I think change was probably best for both parties." But how was Girardi going to win over Torre's captain, Derek Jeter, rebels Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi, and a clubhouse intellectual like Mussina?

Girardi has done it by mingling with players, which Torre did less and less in his later years, choosing to leave the policing to Jeter. Damon says, "Joe [Girardi] walks in here and he asks for your opinion, he asks how you're feeling, he gives you the feeling that what you think matters."

Clearly, Girardi is using new tactics. Two years ago with the Marlins, he was an authoritarian figure, in charge of a young, more impressionable team. Today, Girardi still looks like a state trooper with his crew cut, but aside from the intense running drills he imposed on the Yankees, he's been wise enough to treat Jeter and the rest of the veterans like peers. Indeed, at 43, Girardi isn't much older than some of his core players. Mussina calls him "a player in charge more than an actual manager."

It's worked. Not one Yankee has pined for the good old days under Torre -- except for Jeter's joking reference that he missed Joe "when we were running." Does this sound like a passively run camp? Soon after reporting, the Yankees were pushing out foul-pole-to-foul-pole sprints. The next day they were running 300-yard shuttles -- a series of six 50-yard sprints -- that had to be completed in less than a minute. After a 90-second rest, everyone did it again. The following day, there were multiple 100-yard dashes.

If anyone would've taken issue with the aerobic overload, it would be Giambi, who said he was "totally gassed … I'm 240 pounds, there's only so much I can handle." But like everyone else in the room, the slugger stood by Girardi's rules.

Joe [Girardi] walks in here and he asks for your opinion, he asks how you're feeling, he gives you the feeling that what you think
matters.

-- Yankees outfielder
Johnny Damon

"Joe's a good guy, we all respect him because he was a player, he was one of us," Giambi said. "And he's honest. He told us this was going to be a tougher camp than in the past, so it's not like we didn't have any warning."

Torre himself predicted Girardi would succeed in a clubhouse that was once loyal to him.

"The players are paid to wear the uniform and wear it proudly," he said. In other words, don't expect much nostalgic pining for the good old days. The Yankees are, for now, Girardi's team, although the real test won't come until April and beyond, when the new manager will have to find a way for Chamberlain to transition to the starting rotation without the eighth inning turning into an open wound. He'll have to deal with an ever-present Hank Steinbrenner, whose appetite for headlines is already dwarfing his father's. He'll have to show patience the first time the Yankees lose more than three in a row.

That's when Torre was at his best. He created an atmosphere that allowed his players to flourish, especially the veterans. And that's how the Yankees will ultimately judge Girardi, with the answer to this question: Is he a leader or not? GM Brian Cashman already has a response.

"One of the reasons we hired Joe Girardi is because he has so many traits that were similar to Joe Torre," Cashman said. "We know we picked the right guy."

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.