Yankees spend day bonding at arcade
Girardi thinks off-campus excursion will pay dividends to all
TAMPA, Fla. -- The Yankees believed chemistry was one of their strengths as they pursued a 27th World Series championship last year, and along the way, many pointed back to an off-campus billiards tournament in February as one of their building blocks.
Given that success, manager Joe Girardi is hoping that the formula will work one more time as the Yankees prepare to defend that title. They left the bats and balls at the ballpark on Tuesday, heading off to a Tampa-area arcade for an afternoon of fun and video games.
"I think it's good to get the guys together away from the field," Girardi said. "We're here together always on the field. There's competition, there's cheering for each other. It's just a nice day to hang out in a big group."
One year after Mariano Rivera schooled the rest of his teammates in eight ball, the Yankees were asked to compete in three separate events -- video Indy car racing, Skee Ball and Pop-A-Shot basketball, with winners rewarded by way of gift certificates.
The victors may have been surprising. A.J. Burnett dominated at the racing game, with strength coach Dana Cavalea finishing second. In Skee Ball, it was 6-foot-10 pitcher Andrew Brackman taking the gold ahead of infielder Eduardo Nunez, and Royce Ring showed off his winning skills at Pop-A-Shot, ahead of second-place finisher Mark Melancon.
"The highlights were A.J. Burnett just smoking the field in the video game racing, and Royce Ring being probably the best Pop-A-Shot basketball player I've ever seen," Mark Teixeira said. "Those two were hands down the best at those two events. Whenever the basket is moving, Royce takes the cake."
Players could also play any other games they wished while not competing in the three events, but the real benefit comes in the bonding, especially with younger players getting to interact with the veterans in a group setting that they otherwise would not experience.
"I think it's important during the course of the year, if you get called up, that you're familiar with these guys, too," Girardi said. "Maybe you walk into that clubhouse with a little more ease than you would if you hadn't spent time with them."
That was the case for rookie catcher Francisco Cervelli, who briefly slipped into a starting role in 2009 when Jorge Posada and Jose Molina were both lost to injury. Cervelli said Tuesday that the billiards tournament had helped his confidence.
"I think it's a key for every rookie player or every guy who comes from another team, because we ... feel sometimes a little scared to do things," Cervelli said. "When they do events like the pool party, it helps you to talk with the other guys. They open the door for you."
Even for players who had been around a little bit longer, having the chance to go outside their comfort area had benefits. During Spring Training, pitchers and position players might go the entire day without speaking, so Phil Hughes said that getting everyone in the same room pays dividends.
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"It's one thing to be in the clubhouse or on the field and run around, but you really don't get to know the guys unless you're away from the field," Hughes said. "It's also nice to be able to get away from baseball for the day. It's kind of a cool thing to help us catch our breath before games start."
Curtis Granderson said that he had never experienced anything like the field trip, and joked that he used to be a lot better at Skee Ball than he showed on Tuesday. Granderson said he spent a good part of the day talking about non-baseball topics with Andy Pettitte, but the highlight of the day for him was watching Kei Igawa repeatedly and hilariously struggle at Indy Car racing.
"He kept racing up against the wall and damaging his tires. He wouldn't move off of it," Granderson said. "He had his left hand on the wheel and he was just cruising like nothing was wrong. He was doing that for a good three minutes. Everyone was shouting, 'Turn left! Turn left!'"
Now in his third year as New York's manager and his fourth as a big league skipper, Girardi said that he is continuing to learn how to develop a team concept and relationships with players. He said that when the Yankees inevitably go through adversity during the course of the season, they might be able to lean back on the video arcade trip on some level, as the 2009 club pointed to the billiards tournament.
"There was just a closeness here that I thought was extremely important," Girardi said. "It was a very close-knit group of guys. I thought we went through some tough times early in the year that guys pulled together and hung together. You could just see that there was a camaraderie there."
Several players suggested ideas for this year's excursion, but Girardi found that there were limitations due to injury concerns. Among the rejected thoughts were paintball, ping-pong, bowling and miniature golf. For the most part, the coaching staff kept the plans a secret from the players, but some had an inkling -- as CC Sabathia proclaimed, "If it's video games or something, I'm going to win."
"It was a great day," Teixeira said. "The fact that we get three or four hours not to have to worry about baseball and not have to compete on the baseball field, it was fun. Playing video games, we felt like kids again."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.