Pressure to perform encircles Girardi

New billion-dollar stadium. Superstar talent. Joe Girardi knows what's expected of him. AP Photo/Rob Carr

Friday, March 13, was, ironically, the start of a good week to be Joe Girardi. The New York Yankees manager's most important player, Mariano Rivera, was upbeat and confident. Rivera hadn't thrown a baseball in earnest since offseason surgery but was scheduled to throw a bullpen session and, in the coming days, appear in his first spring game. Two other key players, Robinson Cano and Damaso Marte, had returned to spring training in Tampa, Fla., from the World Baseball Classic, albeit with minor injuries.

The next day, A.J. Burnett, the laconic, hard-throwing right-hander who had so tormented the Yankees in the past that they signed him to a five-year, $82.5 million contract in December, threw four innings of shutout ball against an overmatched Houston split squad. Burnett was so dominant in the game that after his start, he retreated to the bullpen to throw a few more pitches to complete his scheduled workload for the day.

Most critical, however, was Girardi's ability to give a mundane springtime housekeeping list a news-producing heft because "The Circus" -- as Yankees players, staff and writers alike referred to Alex Rodriguez and his constant swirl -- was no longer in town. Rodriguez was in Colorado, recovering from the hip surgery expected to sideline him until mid-May. For the first time, to the relief of all, the performance-enhancing drugs Rodriguez took, where and how he obtained them, and how long he used them did not overwhelm the afternoon. The Yankees, momentarily undistracted, actually focused on baseball.

In his office at Steinbrenner Field, the Yankees' spring training cathedral, Girardi seemed relaxed, sitting across from his desk at a circular table while he addressed the 20 or so local, national and international reporters who follow the team on any given day. His office is sparse -- an oversized rectangular wipe board mapping out the remainder of the Yankees' spring schedule and pitching assignments rests on the wall above the table. On the far wall is evidence of past glories, three photos of Yankees championships and another of Girardi exalting.

Behind his desk sit two football helmets facing each other: the purple and white of Northwestern -- his alma mater -- and the scarlet and gray of Ohio State, signed in black by Jim Tressel.

"I really admire what he does," Girardi says, "And I'm a Northwestern guy."

Girardi appeared thoughtful and polite with the reporters, periodically addressing the regular writers with personal touches, calling them by their first names ("That's a good question, George."). He nodded when fielding a question, his right index finger partially concealing pursed lips, suggesting heightened concentration.

But if Girardi's interaction with the writers -- what he said, how he said it, the varying levels of candor in his answers -- appeared to be monitored as closely as he monitored Rivera's bullpen session, it was because Girardi, in his second year as Yankees manager, is under a three-front siege currently in quiet remission. There is a winning imperative embedded in the Yankees' way, an imperative so intensified by $432 million in offseason spending that insiders say Girardi -- and possibly even general manager Brian Cashman -- might not survive a slow start.

There is the dry season: The Yankees have appeared in the World Series twice in the past eight years but haven't won since 2000, a record that keeps much of the free world happy -- but the Yankees measure championship droughts in dog years.

There is the fading but omnipresent specter of Joe Torre, who took the Yankees to the playoffs in each of his 12 seasons and to the World Series in half of them only to have Girardi succeed the legend, fail to make the playoffs last season and come in third in the American League East, the lowest the Yankees had finished since 1992, when they lost 86 games to finish in a tie for fourth.

Finally, there is the reason for the scrutiny in the room that day and each day moving forward: the lingering and as of now unanswered question of whether Girardi's professional personality will ultimately undermine his acumen as a baseball manager. It is an issue that has persisted to varying degrees since his curious (critics say damning) end to his first managerial job, in Florida following a successful 2006 debut, and as the Yankees' playoff hopes faded last season, with members of the Yankees' press corps openly calling the manager a liar and an emotionally spent Girardi choking back tears in the Fenway Park visiting manager's office, promising a better relationship with the media.

How Girardi handles each of these crises might very well determine the length and success of his Yankees career, a path he and people close to him say he has been planning since his earliest playing days.

The pressure to produce circles Girardi no differently than it has any previous Yankees manager, but as his mentor Torre -- 3,000 miles away in Glendale, Ariz., for spring training with the Los Angeles Dodgers -- told me, Girardi is managing during a time of ridiculous expectations and impossible impatience. "It's gotten to a point where you can barely recognize it," Torre said of a New York baseball culture that places money first, winning second and humanity a distant third. "It's gotten to that you have to step away from it to see it clearly.

"He called me to ask me if I was going back, and then when it became evident that I wasn't going back there, he sort of called me not asking for permission, but letting me know he wanted to know if it was OK," Torre said. "I said, 'Are you crazy?' I know that's a job where you would do well. Unfortunately in our game anymore, we want instant gratification, and constant. It was a wonderful 12 years. You finish in the postseason for 12 years but you haven't won the World Series in six, and everyone is wondering what the heck is wrong with you. That type of thing started wearing on you."

In a nod to uncompromising expectations and as an overture to the media, Girardi has offered candor. "On the first day of camp, he said, 'If we don't play deep into October, I can't say I expect to be here for a third season,'" said Jason Zillo, the Yankees' public relations man. "I think you're going to see a different Joe this year. Last year, I don't think, he would have never made that kind of admission. I think it says a lot."

In turn, Girardi moves with the suspense of a man withering in the desert. Whether he will discover a resuscitating oasis or become a carrion is unknown at present, but in a short span, an answer awaits. Girardi, in a sense, enters 2009 with even more pressure than the beleaguered Rodriguez, for win or lose, big season or mediocre, Rodriguez will wear a Yankees uniform in 2010.

Girardi cannot -- and does not -- say the same.

THE PEOPLE WHO KNOW GIRARDI BEST often return to similar themes. They speak of him in straightforward terms. Rivera, whom Girardi caught during the dynasty years, sat at his locker, pounding a small mallet into his glove. "He's pretty simple," Rivera said. "He cares about his family. He cares about winning. All he wants to do is win. He doesn't talk a whole lot about anything but baseball, about winning the baseball game."

Dick Pole, who was the pitching coach when Girardi broke into the big leagues with the Chicago Cubs in 1989, used the word "stubborn." Mike Harkey, who played with Girardi in Chicago, coached with him in Florida and now is with the Yankees as the bullpen coach, alternately used "driven" and "hardheaded," a word Torre also used. The Harkeys and Girardis are so close that the families have babysat each other's kids nearly to adulthood.

Girardi displayed that single-mindedness that Saturday in March. Hours after Burnett pitched, Girardi discussed the less favorable elements of the New York narrative -- and the sporting culture in general -- and his refusal to be enveloped, as if by force of his personality he can will those elements away.

"There's this saying that you hear all the time," Girardi said. "They say, 'Perception is reality.' I hate that. I really do. Perception isn't reality. Reality is reality! Just because people believe something or because something looks a certain way doesn't make it so."

Yankees outfielder Johnny Damon said Girardi is one of those people who believe they know from day one what the future holds and better still can prepare themselves for that destination.

"I don't know what I'm going to do from one minute to the next. He's the guy who has the next five years mapped out. He is totally prepared, totally a detail guy," Damon said. "And he backs it up with work. I guess that's why I don't get too upset when he makes us do wind sprints, because he's in such great shape, he's out there doing them with us."

It's an image Girardi does not discourage, rather one he reinforces with his physical appearance. He wears his hair closely shaved, gray showing under his cap, a militaristic look, but one created more from comfort than by name, rank and serial number. He has a serious face and is very much in playing shape. He is fastidious in his dress. Only Rivera and possibly Derek Jeter wear their uniforms as perfectly tailored as Girardi does. He appears a disciplinarian, a soldier, a football coach who somehow found his way into a baseball dugout.

AT 44, GIRARDI IS THE THIRD-YOUNGEST MANAGER IN THE MAJOR LEAGUES, older than only the Washington Nationals' Manny Acta and the Cleveland Indians' Eric Wedge (a former teammate). And if there are baseball people who spend their lives in the game hoping to one day find themselves in that exclusive, important managerial pipeline, Girardi's ascent to the manager's office seems almost preordained. He retired as an active player before the 2004 season, served as Torre's bench coach in 2005 and was named the Marlins' manager in 2006, one of the shortest spans between playing and managing in the history of the game. Even before taking the Florida job, Girardi had turned down the vacant Tampa job that eventually went to Joe Maddon.

People in the game -- even the detractors, who did not see how the connected Girardi became such a hot property so quickly without any managerial experience -- respected his work ethic and drive.

"I always have a plan. For me, it's easier to go through life when you have a plan, when things are planned out. It is probably, it's a part of my upbringing," Girardi said in his office one day. "Early in my career, I went back and forth about whether I wanted to work upstairs or in the field. When I started to get into my 30s, I began to realize that my real passion was on the field. I haven't changed. I love the competition, the strategy, the players. I knew that I couldn't play forever."

Perception isn't reality. Reality is reality! Just because people believe something or because something looks a certain way doesn't make it so.

-- Joe Girardi

In addition to Torre, Girardi views Don Baylor and Don Zimmer as two of his main managerial influences, but according to Torre, Girardi was the most detail-oriented player he had ever managed. Jim Hendry, the Cubs' general manager with whom Girardi interviewed for the vacant Cubs managerial job following Dusty Baker's firing in 2007 (the job eventually went to Lou Piniella), said Girardi's preparation would make him a formidable candidate for any managerial position.

"I was always very inquisitive of my coaches," Girardi said. "If my name wasn't in the lineup, I didn't ask why. I always felt whatever manager I was playing for knew what was best. I have always been intrigued by the strategy of the game. It's nothing for me to manage a game and then go watch two other games."

STILL, THE NAME JOE GIRARDI is a toxic one in Florida. No one in the Marlins' front office who dealt with Girardi cared to speak about the year Girardi managed the team, even though the young players -- second baseman Dan Uggla and shortstop Hanley Ramirez, for example -- who now show so much promise blossomed during 2006.

Florida turned into a disaster. Being a first-year manager with a $14 million payroll, starting the season 20 games under .500, rebounding to play .600 baseball and getting fired only to win the National League manager of the year award is a very difficult thing to do. Yet Girardi did just that. Larry Beinfest, president of baseball operations, did not return phone calls. Nor did team president David Samson and general manager Mike Hill. For his part, Girardi will not discuss the details of what happened with the Marlins.

Hard feelings exist, but the details remain submerged. Inside the organization, stories swirled that Girardi put up a wall between himself and the front office. The Marlins, a small-market team that despite two World Series championships has never gained a solid foothold in the South Florida market, sought Girardi and his Yankees cachet to be the ebullient, public face of the organization.

According to sources, Girardi refused to engage in the social functions critical in a struggling market, arguing that his place of his business was the dugout.

There was talk that Girardi repelled management, that when certain members of the front office entered his office, even owner Jeffrey Loria, he would talk on the telephone to his family until the officials left. According to sources, Loria also liked to sit in on the manager's interview sessions -- a tense subject between every manager and the front office because it can appear management is spying on the manager -- which Girardi apparently resented.

There were clashes with the media over what were considered to be misleading statements by Girardi regarding personnel and injuries, and hard feelings about how Girardi handled the pitching staff, most notably Josh Johnson. One late September game against the New York Mets, Girardi returned Johnson to the mound following a long rain delay. Johnson blew out his arm, and some Marlins officials never forgave Girardi for the decision.

"I talked to him a lot in Florida, and my conversations were really consistent with the guy I knew," Torre said. "He would call me more with media-related stuff instead of player stuff. He's pretty hardheaded. He knows what he wants. But the media stuff, when he had his problems with the owner, I said, 'Just ride it out and take the high road.' That was the only advice I gave him."

Two days after the 2006 season ended, Loria fired Girardi. Six weeks later, Girardi was named manager of the year.

Inside the tightly controlled baseball world, such tumultuous breaks often finish careers. But instead of becoming a pariah, Girardi became the anointed. He rejoined the Yankees as a broadcaster, and when Torre's return grew more uncertain after the Yankees were knocked out of the divisional playoffs by Cleveland in 2007, Girardi became the heavy favorite to succeed Torre.

Ownership -- Hal and Hank Steinbrenner -- wanted a Yankee to manage the club. And Girardi long had been on Cashman's radar. He first appeared on that radar during a key stretch of the 2005 season, which the Yankees started by losing 14 of 23 games.

"When he was a coach in '05, we had a team meeting down in Tampa Bay. Joe Torre spoke. The entire coaching staff spoke. We were having our difficulties, and this was where I got a view of him. Everybody in that room spoke about what ailed us, from the manager to the coaching staff," Cashman recalled.

"Joe Girardi was the only one I thought who really nailed it. He assessed what ailed us, what was going on with the infighting, and he ran right toward it. He didn't stay general. He got really specific. What he said was the most impactful, most got the players' attention. He attacked the issues directly, what needed to be said specifically was Joe Girardi. After that, I was like, 'Wow.' I thought the meeting would have been a waste of time if Girardi hadn't spoken."

To the outside world, Girardi was being handed the most difficult, most prestigious managing job in baseball without competition. Cashman received outside calls for the job but demurred. He believed the transition from Torre would be difficult enough that it was imperative a candidate already be familiar with the Yankees' way.

"It wasn't that we couldn't go out and hire someone completely different, someone new to this place. We did that with Joe Torre," Cashman said. "But after the Joe Torre success, for as long as we had it as a group, it was probably in our best interest that the learning curve wouldn't be so radically different. That's why I interviewed Tony Pena, Don Mattingly and Joe."

Cashman had followed the Girardi situation in Florida as it was happening.

"We stayed in touch. He would open up now and about some of his difficulties and struggles. He would ask for my perspective as a GM to the manager, my experiences and how I related to Joe Torre compared to his experiences in Florida. I was more a friend relationship, just staying in touch.

"I certainly looked back at it when he became a candidate for our vacancy and tried to do the best I could," Cashman said. "I talked to the people in Florida because they're dear friends of mine. I have great respect for Larry Beinfest and his crew, and I relied on Larry to give me some information about his experiences with Joe, and it was beneficial to the decision we made. Obviously Joe had some success in Florida and some failures in Florida. The key is, did you learn from it?"

But in the milieu of the Yankees, it was Torre who still cast the largest shadow over Girardi, and it under that shawdow that perception and reality combined into one.

THE PRISONER OF SUCCESS is not the one who succeeds but the person who follows him. Torre's success transcended the job, at times overtook even George Steinbrenner as the public face of the organization. The result was similar to what Reggie Jackson produced in New York. Jackson -- no matter that the myth is far more distant, far more attractive than the reality that his time often was as problematic as successful -- became the standard no free-agent hitter has yet to live up to.

The "Torre Way" -- his outward calm, easiness and comfort with the media -- became the New York standard for how a manager should behave in that city. It was the Torre Way, to some degree, that buried Willie Randolph with the Mets. Girardi lives with a similar phenomenon. Torre sat behind his desk during interviews, Girardi at the round table, to seem, in his words, "more conversational."

Now in Arizona, Torre sits on a golf cart, relaxed, and it is clear the Torre Way lives. Just as in New York, a clubhouse kid brings the manager his green tea during his interview session with the media. Torre, on many subjects germane to the daily operation of the ballclub, is no more forthcoming than Girardi, but the Torre victory is in his delivery, moving in and out of conversation smoothly. In between discussing the Dodgers' pitching staff, he tells a story about being the kid catcher on the 1962 Milwaukee Braves, when Charlie Dressen would refer to Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette as "The Katzenjammer Kids."

There is none of this type of ease with Girardi. Girardi answers questions with no frothy anecdotes about baseball life. Torre sessions link the history of the game, stories about the day's starting pitcher eliciting a yesterday tale about Bob Gibson or Lou Brock or Tim McCarver.

There is a vulnerability with Torre. His prostate cancer was virtually a public affair, as were the health troubles of his brother, former big leaguer Frank Torre, during the 1996 title run. He does not shy from the abusive home of his childhood. Torre's sister, a nun, aided victims during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He is unafraid to tell anecdotes, even some that do not flatter him.

Life has stolen some of Girardi's sunshine as well, but it is that humanity he shields with his stern, clipped delivery. Associates say Girardi simply refuses to allow the public to see him appear at his weakest, such as while dealing with his father's Alzheimer's disease or losing his mother as a teenager. These are private affairs. Behind the wall, Cashman, Torre and Harkey all talked about the "huge heart" Girardi keeps from the world.

"It's a tough act to follow only if you try to follow it," Torre said of the combination of his success and popularity. "And the advice I gave Joey when he took this job was, 'Be yourself. Change whatever you think needs to be changed, but don't change things just to prove that there's somebody different.'"

However, the breach with the media was not personal but professional, culminating in the breakdown in Boston. Information is as valuable as talent, but during his first season with the Yankees, Girardi failed the first test with the media: If you can't talk, don't, but don't purposely mislead. On at least two high-profile occasions -- a rib injury to Phil Hughes and a shoulder injury to Rivera (from which Rivera is still recovering) -- Girardi told the the media the injured player was "fine," which intensified the rift.

"The one thing that you have to remember with Joey," Torre said, "is that when I came to New York, I had done this job a few times before."

This season looms, and Girardi, not Torre, will be the one to open the new Yankee Stadium on April 16. The pressure will increase, and it is inevitable that each of these three fronts will challenge him at one point or another during the season.

"I don't think any of this will be a lingering problem for Joe. I honestly believe that," Jackson said. "I don't think he thinks the way the writers do. My attitude going into a season was, if it took .280 or .290 to win the batting title, then I had a shot to win the batting title. If it took 33 to 39 home runs to win the home run title, then I had a shot to win the home run title. I competed against myself. I think Jeter does the same thing.

"I think it is also true of Joe. I don't think Joe is competing against Joe Torre. I think Joe is thinking about the things he does that can give him success, and he works on those. But what he understands, also, is that all this other stuff goes away if you win. Then he gets to become his own standard. That's the reward."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.