New cup of Joe ready to open season

New cup of Joe ready to open season

NEW YORK -- The memories Joe Girardi has from his first day wearing Yankees pinstripes seem to differ from what the highlight reels show of the 1996 home opener.

That was the unforgettable day snow cluttered the playing field in the Bronx, weighing down the brim of Andy Pettitte's cap as he worked against a shivering Royals lineup. Kansas City committed four errors in a lengthy 7-3 New York victory that begged for summer's arrival -- or at least a Florida reprieve.

Girardi remembers the precipitation and the cold, of course, but that April 9 game better remembered for Derek Jeter's first Opening Day has another meaning for the new skipper.

"What I remember most was actually walking into the clubhouse and seeing Thurman [Munson]'s locker," Girardi said on Sunday, "and then you walk down the tunnel and you walk on the field. You think about all the great players [who] have played before you, and that you have an opportunity to play on the same field. It's pretty amazing."

In Girardi's case, he now has the opportunity to manage from the same dugout as his predecessors, a group almost as laudatory and recognizable as the players who rested their bats and gloves there. He imagines that he will have a lot of the same feelings that he did when he was wearing a chest protector as he did for Joe Torre's club 12 years ago.

"You're anxious," Girardi said. "Maybe the night's sleep is not as good as most games, and you have some butterflies before the game starts. Once you get involved in the game, all of that goes away and you relax."

Will he be able to on Monday? Well, there does appear to be symmetry as Girardi assumes the reins, following the immensely popular Torre. As a player in 1996, Girardi was brought in to replace Mike Stanley, a power-hitting backstop whose absence would be noted in no uncertain terms by segments of the paying population.

Girardi said that he doesn't have any expectations for Monday's season opener -- well, his goal is to beat the Blue Jays, naturally. Then again, he didn't really have any in the spring of '96, either.

"I knew that I was replacing a fan favorite and there was going to be some backlash," Girardi said. "I'm not sure what's going to happen tomorrow, but you have to earn your stripes here. I expect that. I had to earn it as a player and it took some time, but the fans since that time have been gracious to me and my family."

It may be a strong contrast for some to peer into the dugout on Monday and not identify Torre eyeing a pitcher, but Girardi's players insist that the transition has gone about as smoothly as anyone could have expected.

It's true. When the name Joe comes up in the Yankees' clubhouse, it's for G, not T. Who'd have thought that could have happened so quickly?

"It's a little different because Joe has been here," Jeter said. "I think it'd be different if it was someone coming from a different organization. I'm familiar with Joe -- he was here two years ago as the bench coach -- so I think a lot of the guys are familiar with him. It's a new beginning in terms of the manager, but there's a lot of familiarity."

"I've had a feel for Joe for a long time," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "He was a player under me as a general manager and a coach under me, and now he's a manager under me. I was fully prepared for what Joe Girardi would bring to the table."

There are some other reasons to flash back to the '96 season opener, a day when Pettitte worked 6 1/3 innings of three-run ball to kick start the Yankees' long path to a 23rd World Series title. That was a year when youth was in vogue -- Jeter, Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and, as Girardi tossed in, Andy Fox -- headed to the Bronx to supplement a veteran cast.

Similarities abound when contrasted with the '08 Yankees, though the best of the youth now is on the pitching side. The roster is going to lean heavily on the Big Three of Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain, and there will be more on the way. Girardi sees his offense now as a bit more powerful and balanced than it was in '96.

"I think this lineup is a little bit deeper," Girardi said. "We were a little bit different type of club. We were a club that probably played a little more small ball."

Farewell Yankee Stadium

Not that it necessarily couldn't, at least in small doses. When Cashman is pressed to name one young player who will impact the Yankees in '08, his answer is speedster Brett Gardner, a player who will open his season at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

As the main storyline of Girardi's first Spring Training at the helm went, the Yankees were a better conditioned club, more prepared for the rigors that await over a 162-game schedule -- and for another opening homestand of cold New York weather.

"Joe Girardi asked us to do a few things, and all of us players abided by it," Johnny Damon said. "We went out there and worked very hard. We enjoyed getting to the ballpark and being around the guys. Spring Training actually went very fast, and it never does that."

No one believes that Jason Giambi will become an overnight stolen-base king or that there will be many squeeze bunts coming off Alex Rodriguez's bat, but the Yankees at least responded and let Girardi know that they would be more than willing to try it his way.

"I'm excited about this club," Girardi said. "I like the character of this club and I like the heart of this club. They showed me in Spring Training and I was very proud of them. Whenever you have a change, there are going to be things that are done a little different. They embraced it and did it with open arms, and for that, I'm very thankful."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.