Tampa, Fla. — We saw a different side of Joe Girardi early Monday morning, before he canceled practice at Steinbrenner Field and took his players to a billiards bonding expedition.
The Yankees’ second-year skipper exhibited his best attribute as a player, defense, in discussing beliefs and perceptions about him.
“People assume I’m rigid by the way that I look,” Girardi told reporters. “That’s not necessarily the case. I think sometimes I’m portrayed as more rigid than I am. Because of the way I look. My haircut. If I had long hair or dreadlocks, they might perceive me a little bit different.”
Girardi’s words remind us that Denial ain’t just a river in Africa. The good news for Yankees fans is, even as he dismissed some of the conclusions drawn about him, Girardi acknowledged that he needs to change for the better.
The billiards tournament comes right out of the Tom Coughlin “How to Lighten Up” playbook; following a disappointing 2006 season with the Giants, Coughlin worked to connect better with both his players and the media. The Giants proceeded to shock the world with their Super Bowl XLII victory.
He’s familiar with Coughlin’s actions, Girardi said, and he indeed wants to get closer with his players.
“I think the biggest one for me was improving on relationships with everyone in the clubhouse. Knowing my players better this year than when I knew them last year,” he said. “I think it’s vital. And each year, realistically, you should know your club better. That’s a focus. As a manager, your job is to get the most out of them. You have to know what makes them tick.”
He already has admitted this spring that he should have handled Robinson Cano differently last year. That letting the second baseman sleepwalk through the season — until the Sept. 14 midgame benching at Yankee Stadium — didn’t work out too well. Too often, Girardi was tentative when a situation called for rigidity, and rigid when relaxation would’ve ruled the day.
However Girardi regards himself, he is something very close to rigid. Perhaps that word carries too negative a connotation; how about detail-oriented?
But shoot, that part of his personality appealed to both Brian Cashman and the Steinbrenners. After seeing Joe Torre appoint the ultra-relaxed Ron Guidry as his pitching coach and prioritize his gut over statistics, Cashman jumped for a manager who craved information and fully embraced the responsibility of running a $200-million payroll.
During the offseason, Cashman said, the only area for improvement he discussed with Girardi was his relationship with the media. So far, Girardi has taken efforts to be more cheerful and forthright. They discussed other issues during the season, Cashman acknowledged, including player communication.
“He’s a smart guy,” Cashman said of his manager. “Smart people can go back on the previous year and make the necessary adjustments.”
The true test of Girardi’s learning curve, of course, will not come in February, in a billiards hall or in a news conference. It will come during a May losing streak, after an in-game decision backfires or when a player’s health is being discussed.
For now, however, spring training is the time for optimism. If Joe Girardi wants to be the next Tom Coughlin, who are we to bet against it?