Tidying up in Tampa

Tim Brown

TAMPA, Fla. – Judging by their previous two games against the Tampa Bay Rays, which resulted in one overrun catcher, one fractured wrist, one hit batter, one cleat dangerously close to the groin, one brawl, one (allegedly) very cheap shot, three ejections, three suspensions, a handful of fines and one chirping owner (more or less in order), the New York Yankees might have considered revisiting that whole Billy Crystal-as-leadoff-hitter thing.

You know, in case the Rays had any notions about retribution. Throw the funny guy out there, let him wear it.

But, wouldn't you know, Joe Maddon's boys again were the bigger men.

Meeting for the third time in eight days, the Yankees and Rays on Saturday afternoon kept their spikes, fists and complexes to themselves, even if – by baseball's own (arbitrary) code – the Yankees probably had one coming.

After a week in which Joe Girardi condemned a legitimate baseball play, in which a non-roster Yankees pitcher might have thrown at Evan Longoria, in which Shelley Duncan slashed recklessly at Akinori Iwamura and in which (baseball officials insist) Melky Cabrera sucker-punched Longoria, the Rays' only counter was Jonny Gomes' sprint-and-tackle of Duncan.

Cabrera first denied he had thrown his blind-side shot, then Saturday said he would have to look at the video, then sort of said he would appeal his suspension, but by then it was getting hard to keep track.

The Rays, meanwhile, carried their bats and gloves into Legends Field and started stretching.

"Let's stop the madness," Maddon said. "Move on and play baseball. … From our perspective, it's a done deal, and we're ready to move on."

The Rays were drifting in that direction already, before Duncan got loose with his spikes and Cabrera snuck up on Longoria.

"I'm concerned that we do everything right and appropriately," Maddon said. "We're here to play baseball today."

That was that, for now, except you wonder how it got this far, and you really wonder if it would have were Joe Torre still around. What's the world coming to when the Rays are teaching the Yankees about baseball and composure?

Maybe it's the difference between managing 27 years, most of them in the largest markets in the country, and managing one year in Florida. And the fact is that for more than a month Girardi has been the ideal replacement for Torre and, presumably, will continue to be.

These things aren't judged in New York until October, but Girardi has held a fair and firm hand to the clubhouse. He has dumped the dour Marlins persona, the one presumably triggered by the imperious owner there, and resumed being good ol' Joe, the approachable, regular guy who dispensed locker-side perspective and won championships in New York. His demeanor and early grasp of the job have allowed the Yankees and their fans to believe change wasn't only bearable but also necessary, which is a long way to go in a short time.

The Yankees-Rays feud gathered momentum, however, when Girardi wouldn't dismiss the Elliot Johnson-Francisco Cervelli collision as anything but two guys playing ball, and stayed its downhill course when Girardi wouldn't admit Duncan's kick-slide was over-the-top unsportsmanlike.

Now, Duncan is a very sweet kid who probably thought he was doing the right thing by his uniform, but mistakes in judgment happen and it's the manager's job to say so. If Girardi had any second thoughts about his live-by-the-pinstripes approach, it might have played out in Saturday's lineup, which had Duncan playing first base and batting seventh.

The Yankees and Rays held split-squad games; Cabrera went to Lakeland, Gomes to Orlando. Duncan stayed home and faced whatever the Rays had in mind. Turned out, it was a ballgame, and a 7-2 Rays win.

"I think everyone is trying to turn the page and move on," Girardi said. "It was nice."

There wasn't so much as a tight pitch.

"It was a normal game," Duncan said. "Nice, because we could focus on baseball. … It wasn't even on my mind, and I really got focused on the game today. Nothing went through my head. So it was pretty cool. A real baseball game. A real spring training baseball game."

As if to address Girardi's original point – that March games are no place for home-plate violence – Alex Rodriguez was thrown out there (by an Iwamura relay, of all things) by about 15 feet in the fourth inning. A-Rod rolled to a stop and graciously accepted the tag by Rays catcher Josh Paul, then laughed with his teammates about it in the dugout.

"Alex probably made the right decision," Girardi said.

Of course, Hank Steinbrenner, who before he's done might give the old man a run on Gotham's back pages, could let none of this slide.

While his baseball people were trying to extinguish the episodes, Steinbrenner was telling the New York Post, "There are going to be problems, especially if they go after our stars. It's not going to be tolerated."

The message: Have at poor Brett Gardner, and let Billy Crystal be.