Girardi a tough guy with a tough team

NEW YORK -- Joe Girardi has been managing the New York Yankees for five years, and nobody around the ballpark talks much about his predecessor anymore. It is not an insignificant thing, you know, since the guy Girardi beat out for the job, Don Mattingly, had likened the challenge of following Joe Torre to that of following John Wooden.

Gene Bartow won 52 of 61 games over two seasons at UCLA, falling short of a national title before leaving Westwood for a saner basketball life far, far away. Girardi knows he can never be Wooden's dear friend, Torre, just like he was never going to be Thurman Munson behind the plate.

He doesn't have Torre's charisma, his human touch, his gift for coming up with a cute line or disarming anecdote to fit every occasion. Some people have it, some people don't. Joe Girardi is the grim face of those who don't.

But he is most definitely a manager who has shaped a championship contender in his own image. On Sept. 4, the Yankees lost the last remnant of their 10-game American League East lead and fell into a tie with the Baltimore Orioles. For a full month, under an old high school quarterback who is built like a strong safety and who projects a football mentality vibe, the Yankees were charged to make a stand on a fourth-and-goal at the one, over and over and over again.

"And they never relinquished the lead," Girardi said. "They kept it at either zero, or one games, or two, but never a minus. That's what makes me most proud about this team."

A three-time champ of a catcher who wasn't afraid to succeed his four-time champ of a boss, Girardi is a pretty tough guy with a pretty tough team. In an interview with ESPNNewYork.com outside his clubhouse Friday night, before finding out that the Orioles (who else?) would be his Division Series opponent, Girardi said his parents were the source of his own strength, his own insistence on finishing what he starts and weathering the storms along the way.

His mother, Angela, was given three months to live after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1977, and Angela turned three months into six years. Before the vile forces of Alzheimer's confined him to a nursing home, Girardi's father, Jerry, was a bricklayer, bartender, salesman and restaurant owner who taught his five children about the value and virtue of rubbing some dirt on it.

"I'll never forget watching my dad trying to change the spigot on a bathtub," Girardi said. "The wrench slipped and he broke his thumb and it was bleeding all over the place, but he taped it up and finished the job. That's what my mom did, too, she finished the job. That's what I saw every day."

Despite losing Mariano Rivera and Michael Pineda, despite Andy Pettitte's broken leg, despite diminished production from Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and CC Sabathia, Girardi's Yankees finished as the American League's No. 1 seed. They were 0-58 when trailing after eight innings, a seemingly damning stat, but they ended up 1-58 by staging the one dramatic comeback they needed Tuesday night to hold off Baltimore for the division crown.

Girardi wasn't quite the picture of calm and cool when things got tight. He chased after a heckling fan in Chicago, and some of his news conferences were defined by terse and semi-confrontational responses.

"My personality is different from Joe's," he said of Torre. "I've had a feistiness ever since I was a little kid, and that was my dad. I've got my dad's personality, and sometimes when I come off as feisty, people don't understand it. I was the same way as a player, as a player in high school, in college. That's who I am."

Early on, succeeding Torre didn't come any easier to Girardi than succeeding the popular Mike Stanley, who was good for 18 homers and 83 RBI in 1995. "I tried to do too much, tried to hit home runs," Girardi said of the early hours of '96. "It was a great lesson for me."

So was the lesson Torre delivered as a parting gift in 2007, after he received an offer designed to be refused. "Joe gave me great advice," Girardi said. "He told me, 'Be yourself. Don't try to be this guy or that guy.' ... But you don't realize what it's like to sit in that chair until you sit in that chair."

Girardi closed down the old Stadium with a season to forget, the first season since the players' strike of 1994 that the Yankees finished out of the playoffs. Brian Cashman, GM, and Jason Zillo, PR man, spent the offseason begging Girardi to quit telling unnecessary lies about injuries and to embrace Tom Coughlin's slightly kinder, slightly gentler approach to his dealings with the players and the press.

Girardi agreed to tweak his style, not abandon it. The Yanks spent hundreds of millions on marquee free agents, and their manager became a made man by claiming the franchise's 27th World Series title.

But Girardi knows that one-and-done wonders aren't the stuff of Yankee lore. Joe McCarthy and Casey Stengel each won seven titles, Torre won his four, and Miller Huggins three.

"I don't worry about my legacy," Girardi said, "because the people that really know me are the people that I want to really know what I'm about. I'm going to do my best here every day, and if you win multiple championships that's great. ... But I know in everything you do in life, you can't please everybody."

No, Girardi isn't the crowd-pleasing type. Sometimes he's been too tough on the people covering his clubhouse, and not tough enough on the people inside his clubhouse (A.J. Burnett last year, Robinson Cano in 2008), letting Cashman be what the GM called the team's "attack guy."

Sometimes Girardi is hopelessly lost inside his binder, and sometimes he'll bat a hobbling Teixeira ahead of a hot Cano for no good reason. But all in all, Girardi did a hell of a job managing around the injuries this year and keeping his aging team in first place.

Now he's got Baltimore in the first round and a real shot at a second ring here, a ring that would put him in a whole new weight class. When Girardi won his first in 2009, Cashman said his man "did a nearly impossible thing. He only needed two years to establish himself after Torre, and that's almost a miracle. Joe did it by being a fighter."

He was raised by fighters, of course, as good an explanation as any why his Yanks are heading to the Division Series and ready to answer the bell, one more time, against those all-too-familiar faces from Babe Ruth's hometown.