NEW YORK -- Joe Torre's eyes started tearing up as he stood on the steps of the dugout Sunday, waiting to be introduced for his first Old-Timers' Day game at Yankee Stadium and first day back in uniform since he left the team unhappily in 2007. But it says a lot about the job that Joe Girardi has done as New York Yankees manager that Torre's return had something both sentimentalists and hard-eyed realists could hold onto: Torre may be justifiably missed, but nobody's saying he's needed by the Yankees anymore.
Girardi has taken care of that.
That's not meant as a knock on Torre. His ability to win four titles in his first six Yankees seasons and take the Yanks to two other World Series before he left gave him some records that Girardi might find impossible to match.
But with Torre in the house Sunday and the Yankees also waking up in first place again, it's a good time to do an updated reckoning on where Girardi stands. Especially since the Yankees' 6-4 comeback win over Colorado added to what's been one of the best, most resourceful stretches of Girardi's managerial career.
Remember, Girardi was hardly seen as a lock to succeed here. His baseball intelligence was unquestioned, but he had to answer questions about his managerial temperament when he took over for Torre, the ultimate storyteller and ego massager. Stories about the front-office quarrels and occasional uptightness Girardi had in his one-and-done year as Florida Marlins manager followed him here. How many guys move on after they win Manager of the Year?
Girardi got Torre's job amid speculation that he might have trouble commanding the same respect from the Yankees players that Don Mattingly, the other finalist, could have because Mattingly had the more stellar Yankees playing career.
There were also some strong feelings after Torre left -- and Torre helped fan them -- that he got the shaft when the Yankees were only willing to offer him a one-year deal, with a pay cut. Then came Torre's book about his Yankees years.
It got ugly for a while, and though Torre insisted Sunday that he knew that feelings would mend and a return day like this would come -- Torre, during an on-field interview before the game, thanked the crowd of nearly 48,000 for the long, loud standing ovation it gave him, and then joked, "As Yogi would put it, I'm glad this day was necessary."
But Girardi couldn't have been so sure Torre's homecomings would ever be a non-story for him.
The idea of the Yankees waking up back in first place again on Sunday might seem like no big deal if they weren't still missing Derek Jeter, Phil Hughes, Bartolo Colon, Rafael Soriano, Joba Chamberlain, Eric Chavez and Pedro Feliciano and hadn't played without starting catcher Russell Martin for significant stretches of time, too.
And if the Red Sox hadn't swept them for the second time in two series at the Stadium 17 days ago.
Colon went down with a hamstring injury three days later.
Jeter was lost to a strained calf muscle two days after him.
All the Yankees have done is win 11 of 15 since Boston left town trailed by A-Rod's admission that the Red Sox had just "punched us in the mouth."
Boston hasn't exactly spit the bit since then. At one point they went 9-2 themselves.
No matter. Even shorthanded, the Yankees have soared. Right now it seems like everyone -- Swisher, Gardner, A-Rod, Mark Teixeira, Posada, Dave Robertson, CC Sabathia -- has gotten hot and stayed hot at once. Young Eduardo Nunez, Jeter's fill-in, had yet another fielding error Sunday but he also smacked what would be the game-winning RBI single in the seventh.
So while the Mets are justifiably murmuring about the terrific job manager Terry Collins is doing, give Girardi some props.
He's now coaxed a Yankees team that's missing its Hall of Fame shortstop, two-fifths of its starting rotation and three of its top four relievers to 12 wins in its past 16 games.
Sunday, Girardi tried to say, "It all starts with the guys in that [lockerroom]." But Gardner tossed the credit right back at Girardi, saying, "It all starts with him. We're missing a lot of guys, and this just shows we have a lot of guys who can step in and do the job. But Joe is the one that gets us all ready to play."'
But how? Girardi says when replacements have had to fill in or give more to the Yankees, "The first thing I'm going to tell them is, 'You know what? You're going to be a big part of this. And I'm going to try to tell you how I'm going to use you.' I talk to all the relievers about how I use relievers here. And [I tell them] I'm not going to abuse you.' "
Torre was often guilty of using his bullpen favorites until they dropped. Torre liked to talk about trusting his gut while Girardi -- still the third-youngest manager in the league behind Manny Acta and Eric Wedge -- gets tweaked a lot for his love of his statistical binders and playing percentages.
Girardi will never be the raconteur or master of ceremonies Torre is when he turns on the charm and the anecdotes start flowing about Bob Gibson and Jeter and the rest.
But Girardi has shown a far better feel for handling the emotional tides of the clubhouse and the roller-coaster ride of the season better than he was given credit for before he arrived.
His recent preemptive announcement that Jeter would remain the Yankees' leadoff hitter even though Gardner has been terrific since replacing him at the top of the order was stolen straight from Torre's How to Handle the New York Media playbook. It's right there on the page about nipping a melodrama in the bud and making whatever you're doing sound reasonable by delivering it with a straight face.
Now? Three and a half seasons into his Yankees managing career, the only thing that should matter to the traditionalists and realists alike is the bottom-line. Torre is missed but not needed. As of Sunday, Joe Girardi again had the Yankees back in first place. Feels like old times, all right.