Yankees' Girardi begins stress test

Jeff Passan

TAMPA, Fla. – Joe Girardi rapped his knuckles against the Formica table. He was trying to portend good luck for his New York Yankees, an old, expensive and undeniably talented bunch, and sometimes a man as busy as Girardi doesn't have time to prowl his office in search of wood to knock.

The Yankees manager's improvisation came on the team's final day here following seven weeks of spring training – seven long weeks divided into a distinct before and after. The first four centered around Alex Rodriguez, his steroid use, his mysterious cousin, his bum hip, his back pages, his hookers and all of the other detritus of his dirty-bomb persona. A-Rod, A-Rod, A-Rod, like Jan Brady would say.

Over the last three weeks, with Rodriguez rehabbing in Colorado following surgery, Yankees camp has been something of an anomaly to those accustomed to such chaos. It's been … quiet? Peaceful? Perhaps easy?

"It's gotten a lot better," outfielder Johnny Damon said. "This is my 15th camp in the big leagues, and it's been my favorite. I love the coaching staff. I love the players. I love the feel. And I hope it translates into great things for the season."

Granted, early in the camp, Damon found out all of his bank accounts were frozen, a victim of the Stanford financial scandal. Nevertheless, his sentiment rings true: the Yankees packed their wares, a confidant team, and headed north to open their $1.3 billion homage to excess, the new Yankee Stadium.

They are full of hope again, something that harkens back to their teams of the late '90s, before championships became a birthright and expectation. The Yankees missed the postseason last year for the first time in more than a decade. Four of their stars underwent surgery in the offseason. And even with a $400 million-plus outlay in the offseason, they are fallible, very much so, especially if A-Rod's hip keeps him out past his expected return in May.

Even Girardi, the would-be rock, reflected Wednesday on his mood entering camp and said: "I was pretty concerned." Not just about Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera's shoulders but Hideki Matsui's knees, Chien-Ming Wang's foot, Rodriguez's psyche and, sure, his own job security.

Though Hal and Hank Steinbrenner's trigger fingers do not itch and twitch like their father's, another October on the love seat and they won't hesitate to summon the guillotine. What, you think the pair of trenches running across Girardi's forehead and the gray hair – the sort that creeps up the sideburns of the highly stressed and ends up cannibalizing the rest of their heads – is for aesthetics?

"You understand when you take this job that you're under the microscope all the time," Girardi said. "And if you don't produce, your job's on the line. There's no getting around that. This isn't a job where it's, 'Give him three years and see what happens.' It's not this type of job."

Such is the allure of a gig with the Yankees. The expectations are different. So are the resources (Mark Teixera for $180 million, CC Sabathia for $161 million and A.J. Burnett for $82.5 million). And still, that can't draw from the typical calamities that befall every team.

When Rodriguez went down it took the team's best bat out of the lineup. Slated to hit fourth is Matsui, who turns 35 in June and missed nearly as many games the last three seasons as he played. Joining him in the everyday lineup is Damon (35), Posada (37), Derek Jeter (34) and Cody Ransom (33).

"We're not the youngest team around," Damon said.

Ransom, the unfamiliar name of the bunch, has 183 major-league at-bats. He is Rodriguez's replacement. Barring a trade or waiver claim, Ransom will start at third base on opening day and wave at the first roll call from center field in the new stadium . He is hardly the portrait of Yankee excess.

"I'm excited about what this team can be," Ransom said. "Knowing the people we have here and what's possible, that's why it's great to be here."

Such is the standard response here, from the eight-figure giants to the players making $400,000. Humility isn't a Yankee trait, and it could be little more than March optimism that will fade by tax day – or when Rodriguez returns to face all the tawdry revelations of Selena Roberts' book, due in early May.

Then again, maybe the Yankees understand the test ahead. After conquering the mountain for all those years, they are Sisyphus. Boston's pitching staff runs 15 deep. Tampa Bay's starters might be even better. And both lineups could score more runs than the Yankees.

So nothing is a given in New York anymore, not even close, and it's why even now Girardi finds it necessary to invoke some higher power to cast luck upon his ballclub. The Yankees finished strong Wednesday, a victory against Philadelphia locking up a Grapefruit League-best 22-10-1 record. It doesn't mean anything. It is the first step – the smallest – in a process as long in months as spring training was weeks.

"Winning a championship is a big task," Girardi said.

One that no amount of wood-tapping or hoping or any other mental analgesic can ensure. It's about talent. And whether the Yankees – the once-mighty Yankees – again have enough.