Commentary

Girardi: 'I feel good about this team'

Yanks manager admits questions toward end of 2010 took toll but is optimistic for '11

Updated: January 10, 2013, 3:53 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- Joe Girardi looks healthy, seems happy and sounds optimistic about his team.

Don't get too accustomed to it, because two of those three are guaranteed to change.

The Yankees broke camp Tuesday afternoon in reasonably good shape. Their pitching rotation, a source of worry throughout the winter and steady, if not always interesting, debate throughout the spring is settled for now.

The starting lineup seems to have fallen into place, although typically, Girardi still will not commit to either Brett Gardner or Derek Jeter as his leadoff hitter for Thursday's regular-season opener against the Tigers.

Aside from the oblique strain that might keep starting center fielder Curtis Granderson out of the Opening Day lineup and the sore arm that has shut down reliever Pedro Feliciano for the next 10 days, everyone seems to be heading to New York in one piece.

And even the Yankees' spring training record, 13-15-3, after Tuesday's 2-1 victory over the same Tigers, is better than it looks because Girardi rarely played his regulars for more than half a game, wanting to give the kids in his camp a good, long look.

All in all, it has been a pleasant, productive spring for Girardi's troops. "I was pleased with our spring," Girardi said. "I feel good about this team, I do. I feel good."

This, too, will change. All you have to do is flash back to September, when the Yankees, locked in a battle with the Tampa Bay Rays for the American League East, were struggling again to cobble together enough pitching, and every day the same argument seemed to rage.

Should they even try to win the division? Or would it be wiser to let the Rays have it and inherit the privilege of facing the Texas Rangers and their ace, Cliff Lee, in the division series?

Through it all, through those last agonizing weeks, Girardi's mood grew more and more sour, his face more and more grim, his skin ashen and his cheeks hollow.

He certainly didn't look as if he was enjoying himself. But it went beyond that, too. I had people calling me -- responsible, concerned people -- who were seriously wondering whether the Yankees' manager was ill. That's how bad Joe Girardi looked.

Five months later, with the bitter taste of defeat in the AL Championship Series -- to Lee and the Rangers after the Yankees finished second, one behind the Rays -- diluted somewhat and the promise of a fresh start just 48 hours away, Girardi says that wasn't the case at all. That what your eyes saw and your ears heard was an illusion, that everything was fine, just tainted by the cloud of defeat that ultimately darkened the Yankees' 2010 season.

[+] EnlargeGirardi
Matt Stamey/US PresswireNew York Yankees manager Joe Girardi is happy, healthy and optimistic ... for now.

"Last season didn't take a toll on me," he says now. "You guys thought it did, but it didn't."

"You guys," of course, is athlete-speak for the media -- the cause of all their problems and the reason for all their pain. The daily discourse a baseball manager must go through, especially in a market as voracious as New York City, is an ordeal for all of them. Twice a day, every day, for six months.

Before every game, it is "What will you do?" After every game, it is "Why did you do it?" It is relentless, intrusive, annoying and, with the endless news cycle created by the rise of digital media, absolutely necessary.

In an earlier, more innocent era -- like, five years ago -- Joe Torre handled the media the way Jimi Hendrix handled a Strat. But now, it's doubtful even Torre could put up with the insatiable monster the sports media has become.

And Joe Girardi? Forget about it.

The Yankees' manager is a lot of things: intelligent, intuitive, meticulous and meticulously prepared. He makes full use of the wealth of information available to him. Sometimes, he can seem overprepared, and too dependent on numbers and percentages and matchups. There is very little gut managing with Girardi. He is wound even more tightly than the looseleafs he keeps on his desk.

You can argue some of his in-game decisions, but about this there can be no argument: Joe Girardi knows how to manage. He has had success at both of his stops now -- in Florida with the woeful Marlins and in the Bronx. He won the manager of the year award as a rookie and the World Series two years later.

Can you imagine what the churning in his insides would be like if he hadn't?

Because for all Girardi's attributes, gregarious he is not. He generally comes to his media sessions with the enthusiasm of a man going for a root canal or to the gallows. He tends to be dismissive of amateur analysts, and yet at the same time, he is painfully sensitive to their criticism. He takes every minute of every game and every interview to heart.

He is different in the spring, but not much. He tries to joke with the media, but underneath his earnest attempts at connecting, you can see the sweat. Small talk doesn't come easily for him, and banter is like a foreign language.

So when I asked him privately Tuesday afternoon about the toll the 2010 season so obviously took on him, he could not let down his guard and be level.

Instead, he began to defend his emaciated appearance as a result not of stress, but of changing his physical regimen.

"There was no pressure," he said. "The season is long; our schedule is tough. We travel a lot. Do I lose a few pounds over the course of the season? Yeah. But only 'cause I don't work out as much as I do during the winter. And when I lose a few pounds, people think I lose like 20. I lost maybe 2 pounds last year the whole season."

No. It was more than that, I tell him.

"I'll tell you what it was," he says, somewhat grudgingly. "Did I get bothered by certain things? Yeah. Because I thought people questioned our integrity about trying to win games. And that bothers me. Because I want to win everything, you know? Everything. If it's a B-game across the street, I want to win that. And that same question kept coming up. And I got tired of answering it. And I got irritated with it. So yeah, things bothered me."

The reality is, there did seem to be a strategic advantage to the Yankees not winning the division and facing the Minnesota Twins, who have become an annual October foil, in the AL Division Series rather than the Rangers.

But what seemed to me at the time to be perfectly valid questions were, to Girardi, an attack on the very basis of his approach to the game. "I'm an intense guy, and there is an intensity to the end of the season," he said. "There's a lot of thought that goes through my mind. I'm not a guy that jokes around a lot during the course of a game. That's not who I am."

This season, he says, he is comfortable with his starting pitching, confident that his veterans, especially Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, will have better seasons than they had in 2010. He is especially happy about his bench, which last year included Nick Johnson, Randy Winn, Ramiro Pena and Marcus Thames. This year, it has Andruw Jones, Eduardo Nunez and, most importantly, Eric Chavez -- once among the best-hitting third basemen in the AL -- who had a terrific spring.

But still, he knows that spring training is just a dress rehearsal and that there is a lot of baseball to be played before we even get to September, let alone October. And he is as aware as anyone of the expectations of the people he works for and the fans for whom his team performs.

That doesn't change. And neither, insists Joe Girardi, will he.

"If there was one thing I would change, I would have told people after the fifth time of asking, 'Are you trying to win games?', I would have said, 'Look, now you're questioning my integrity, and that really bothers me,'" he said. "I woulda let it out instead of keeping it all in."

Anything else?

"The season is long, our schedule is tough, we travel a lot. I guarantee I'll lose a little weigh this year, too," he said. "Maybe I'll get some implants in my cheeks, just so people don't worry that I'm sick or something."

It is Joe Girardi's idea of a little joke, one of the few he will make between now and the end of another long, tough baseball season.

Game notes

Girardi sent out a lineup Tuesday that very well could be the Opening Day lineup, especially if Granderson is unable to go. Once again, Gardner led off and Jeter hit second. Jorge Posada, the DH, batted seventh, and Jones, playing left while Gardner slides to center in place of Granderson, batted eighth. Catcher Russell Martin batted ninth. ... Austin Romine, told Monday that he was headed back to Double-A Trenton, hit an eighth-inning home run, his second in his past two games, to provide the margin of victory. Freddy Garcia, who beat out Bartolo Colon and the departed Sergio Mitre for the fifth spot in the rotation, went 4 2/3 innings and allowed four hits and a run on a homer by Brennan Boesch in the fourth. He was relieved by Luis Ayala, one of the two candidates to replace Feliciano, and then by Steve Garrison, the other candidate. Each was able to work out of a jam. Coming in with two out and a runner on first in the fifth, Ayala gave up a double to Magglio Ordonez, then got Miguel Cabrera to ground out. Garrison allowed a bloop single and an infield hit in the sixth but struck out Jhonny Peralta and got Brandon Inge to ground out to escape damage. Rafael Soriano, who declared himself "done" after an appearance Friday, came in to get the last out of the eighth and came away with the win. Colon pitched a 1-2-3 ninth for the save. ... Granderson and Chris Dickerson (hamstring) both participated in a simulated game at the minor league complex, and Granderson declared himself optimistic for the opener after taking seven pain-free at-bats. He will play in a minor league game Wednesday and, if all goes well, will fly to New York on Wednesday night and be in the lineup Thursday. ... Rather touching moment in the clubhouse after the game as Mariano Rivera, looking like a father taking care of a teenaged son, knotted a necktie for Rafael Soriano. ... Contrary to a report on the YES Network, Girardi said he had not made a final decision for his leadoff spot but said, "Jeet will lead off against lefties. You can bank on that." ... The Yankees have a workout, closed to the public, on Wednesday at the Stadium. ... Fans, be warned: This season, parking at the Stadium lots has increased from $23 to $35 per game.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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