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03/23/09 7:32 PM ET

Yanks' Girardi one year wiser

Skipper accustomed to pressures, challenges of New York

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The rap music, blaring through stereo speakers, vibrated from one end of the Yankees clubhouse to the other. In fact, it was so loud it could even be heard outside where a heavy rain was pelting the Bright House Field turf as thousands of drenched fans took cover.

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The thought occurred to me as I tried to talk over the almost deafening sounds that this says a lot about the 2009 Yankees.

On this day there was no sign of the enormous pressure, intensity and wicked distractions that stalk the Pinstripes. The players were loose, having a good time and not at all affected by the fact they're New York Yankees.

Manager Joe Girardi wants it that way.

Once, when he thought his troops were gagging on Spring Training drills and baseball last month, he took them to a pool hall. Eight ball in the corner pocket was better than a single through the middle.

Not only did the bizarre respite relax the players, the hours away from the war field soothed their tensions.

"Joe's running the best camp I've ever been a part of," said outfielder Johnny Damon, almost shouting through the clubhouse din Monday. "We're in a great frame of mind. We just have to go out there and win. We haven't won the World Series since 2000 -- that's eight years."

"It's been a great camp," said Girardi. "The guys have worked extremely hard. Because this spring is so long, we've been trying to take care of them physically. We're able to give days off and break it up somewhat."

It's the best team money can buy and it must win. Or else.

The Yankees are moving into their magnificent new palace next week across the street from fabled old Yankee Stadium. There's no margin for error. They have to succeed, especially considering general manager Brian Cashman has spent nearly a half-billion dollars on pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, and first baseman Mark Teixeira.

Girardi became manager last year when Joe Torre decided not to return for 2008, turning down the Yankees' one-year offer in favor of a three-year deal from the Dodgers.

But the Yankees fell short of the postseason for the first time since 1993 in 2008, and now Girardi is on the hot seat. He'll be gone faster than you can say "George Steinbrenner" if the Yanks stumble this year.

"We definitely have a team everyone knows who the players are," said Damon. "It's definitely star-studded. With the acquisition of those guys we've certainly put ourselves in a good position. It's up to us."

The angry Clearwater skies brightened after a 41-minute delay, allowing the sold-out Grapefruit League game to be played. Damon singled in the first inning, but the Phillies won, 8-3, roughing up starter Chien-Ming Wang.

Girardi, 44, was Torre's bench coach in 2005. The following year he became National League Manager of the Year when he guided the young Florida Marlins to an unexpected fourth-place finish in the NL East. Then, Girardi was let go after a dispute with management.

"Joe's running the best camp I've ever been a part of. We're in a great frame of mind. We just have to go out there and win."
-- Johnny Damon

This spring has not been without major distractions.

First, Torre, in a book written with Sports Illustrated reporter Tom Verducci, took shots at some of his former players, such as Alex Rodriguez, Damon and closer Mariano Rivera.

That book news had barely sunken in on Feb. 7, the day the story broke that A-Rod had used steroids while with the Texas Rangers. He confirmed it was true a few days later.

Now, A-Rod is gone for at least two months, recovering from hip surgery.

The Yankees certainly are going to miss their third baseman -- Girardi says Cody Ransom will replace him, but A-Rod's absence will lessen the constant badgering from the media that would otherwise have taken place.

Maybe by the time A-Rod is welcomed back, the controversy will have subsided.

"I think you get used to the distractions here," said Girardi. "It might be for a day, or two days, but you move on. 'OK, it's business as usual.'"

As bench coach, Girardi stood by Torre's side for a season and thought he knew a lot about managing the Yankees.

In reality, he didn't. Last year was a learning experience which Girardi said better prepares him for this season.

"It's one thing to watch someone sit in that seat," said Girardi. "It's another thing to actually sit in that seat with all you actually have to deal with. Yes, you deal with things as a player in New York, but you only have to deal with yourself.

"I watched Joe Torre as his bench coach and thought, 'Yeah, I have a pretty good understanding.' But you really don't until you sit there. There are situations you understand how to handle better. Our team garners a lot of information and you have to be prepared for that."

There was a time when Girardi thought otherwise, but "as I get older, I realize how important the media is to our game. I have aunts and uncles who are older who look forward to reading newspapers about the Yankees or watching them on TV. It becomes a daily part of their routine."

There's Aunt Marge, "who calls me after every game," Girardi said. "She's 81 and never misses the call. When I was working on TV, she'd call and say, 'You look great,' and talk about my clothing.

"My mom's family are farmers. They go out on the tractors, turn on the radio and listen to everything. It's a big part of their life. I understand that better."

Girardi adds the greatest thing about baseball, unlike other sports, "is that every day you have a chance to see something real special."

To him, that should be the 2009 New York Yankees.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.