Girardi facing biggest test of season

New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi grew up with a Little League coach who wouldn't let his players sleep with air conditioning the night before games. From the start, as a 9-year-old playing on an All-Star team for 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds in East Peoria, Ill., Girardi believed in outworking everyone, injuries or no injuries. Before each practice or game, his coach, Dave Rodgers, made his players run what they called the "sea merchant mile."

It didn't matter if it were 70 degrees and breezy outside, or 100 degrees and humid.

"He would win every time," said Rodgers of Girardi.

These childhood anecdotes demonstrate the roots of Girardi's philosophy and his outlook on his current plight. Girardi has no use for injuries as an excuse. He has no patience for self-inflicted wounds. And, finally, he plans on keeping his head down and continuing to win every time.

With a $200 million payroll and eight All-Stars, the Yankees' manager is supposed to win, which means he can't win in the credit department. Girardi is paid handsomely, but with the way the Yankees are set up, he can only take the blame for the losses, not the bows for the wins.

"Not anyone could do that job," said Yankees GM Brian Cashman, giving Girardi high marks and noting that the Yankees have the best record in baseball.

Still, as the calendar moves toward August, Girardi has his biggest challenge of the season upon him. Andy Pettitte is out for at least a month with an injury to his 38-year-old groin. A.J. Burnett has blood on his hands, egg on his face and a lot to prove. Joba Chamberlain -- the eighth-inning guy -- entered the second half of the season as the Yankees' biggest question mark, and didn't provide any definitive answers on Sunday.

This leaves Girardi in the toughest division in baseball, with a cushion over the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox, but in his thorniest situation of the season. He is the man who must keep the Yankees in line, even when things are a little off-kilter.

For Girardi, this is when he leans on the teachings of his mentors. There were none bigger than his mom and dad. His father, Gerald, worked three jobs (salesman, bricklayer and bartender). But somehow, Girardi said while shaking his head, his father always had time for Girardi and his four siblings, teaching them about toughness and perseverance.

Joe's mother, Angela, taught him so much as well, even though his time with her unfairly ran out too soon. When Joe was 13, his mom was diagnosed with cancer and was told she had three to six months to live. Angela, a full-time child psychologist, who still found time to always have Joe's uniforms clean and to run a full house, fought that cancer. She died six years later, when Joe was 19 and at Northwestern.

"She taught me about staying the course," Girardi said.

His parents' messages were reinforced on the major league level by Joe Torre, who had "the ability to make you feel that things are going to be OK," Girardi said. Girardi learned how to think about the game from Tony La Russa, but was also taught not to forget his gut by Don Zimmer. And Don Baylor reinforced toughness.

Girardi is quick to point to not as famous but just as important mentors. Rodgers, his Little League coach, taught him to prove to players that you believe in them. Ron Wellman, his coach at Northwestern and now the athletic director at Wake Forest, made such a big impact, Girardi said Wellman is still one of his mentors today. Dave Lane, his high school football coach, thought like Girardi, using numbers as often as words.

By the time Girardi hit his 30s with the Colorado Rockies, he knew he wanted to follow all his mentors and lead. He loved the strategy of the game and the relationships with the players. He had always approached the game as much with his mind as his body.

"The night before games I remember thinking, 'How is David Cone going to get this guy out?'" Girardi said. "I was kind of managing a game then. Those were things that went on in my head, over and over."

Over-managing is the area in which Girardi receives the most criticism. Some people say he thinks too much -- which is not the biggest insult in the world, but a critique Girardi doesn't agree with.

To him, he is just prepared and works the numbers. Even as the Yankees' bench coach for Torre in 2004, Girardi was known for his encyclopedic knowledge of opponents.

"I love numbers," Girardi said. "Ask me to write a paper -- I'm not too fond of that. Ask me to study some numbers and look for tendencies and I love doing that."

Girardi would spend hours each day studying averages, lefty-righty matchups and any other morsel that could arm Torre with an edge.

"He is a caring person, who just happens to be organized," Cashman said.

So as the Yankees deal with their first real questions of the year, Girardi will remain unchanged -- leaning on the lessons of his mentors, offering reassurances, studying the numbers, staying steady and not offering excuses. That is what he was taught -- and that is what he teaches.

Andrew Marchand covers baseball for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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