By Manny Navarro
---- — TAMPA, Fla. — At one point during his playing days, Yankees manager Joe Girardi experienced what it was like to cross over and play for the hated rival.
After spending seven seasons in two stints with the Cubs, Girardi spent his final season with the St. Louis Cardinals. Of course, Girardi never told the media on his first day of spring training he would always be a Cub.
New Yankees third baseman Kevin Youkilis made that mistake last week, telling New York reporters he would “always be a Red Sock.”
“If you read it as just ‘I’m always a Red Sock,’ it looks bad,” Youkilis said a day later after seeking out reporters. “But it’s not that way. I’m a Yankee today and I’m excited. I’m proud to be a Yankee.”
The misstep in words caused a bit of stir as two New York tabloids picked up the quotes and played them big on their back pages. But if the 33-year-old, three-time All-Star can perform like other former Red Sox stars did in pinstripes — Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs, Johnny Damon, Babe Ruth —Girardi is pretty sure all should be forgiven and forgotten in the Bronx.
After spending 81/2 seasons with the Red Sox, winning two World Series and becoming one of the most hated players in New York thanks to the intense rivalry, Youkilis was traded to the White Sox last June. Once it became evident Alex Rodriguez would miss significant time this season following hip surgery, the Yankees moved fast to sign Youkilis to a one-year, $12 million contract.
While Rodriguez recovers from hip surgery for the first half of the season, Youkilis will attempt to turn his career around. He hit just .235 with 19 homers and 60 RBI in 2012 and posted a .745 OPS — the lowest percentage in his nine-year career.
That’s why he was the first position player to check into Yankees training camp this spring on Thursday, running sprints on a back field at George M. Steinbrenner Field with conditioning coach Dana Cavalea.
And that’s probably why his new teammates —even reliever Joba Chamberlain, who threw at Youkilis in the past — only gave him some friendly ribbing for making headlines in New York on his first day in pinstripes.
“I talked to him when I saw his comments,” Girardi said Friday. “You can’t just erase eight years of anyone’s life, that’s the bottom line. I know he’s happy to be here. I know he’s excited to be here and I know he’s going to bring it every day.
“Players are used to new guys walking in all the time. We’ve had other Red Sox players that have walked in here and done well and our fans have really warmed up to them and really enjoyed them. I think Youk’s going to be the same type of guy.”
The Yankees, coming off a 95-win season, frankly have plenty of other issues to worry about. Shortstop Derek Jeter, who turns 39 on June 26, is coming back from surgery to repair his left ankle. Closer Mariano Rivera, 43, is returning from a season-ending knee injury. Ace CC Sabathia had elbow surgery to remove a bone spur right after last season’s ALCS loss to the Tigers.
Nick Swisher, the starting right fielder for the past four seasons, signed a three-year deal with Cleveland. Russell Martin, the starting catcher for the past two seasons, signed with Pittsburgh. Rafael Soriano, the closer who saved 42 games last season after Rivera went down, is now with the Nationals.
Youkilis and Travis Hafner, who who signed a one-year deal to replace Raul Ibanez as the left-handed designated hitter, were the Yankees’ two big signings this winter.
“I believe we’re still a very talented club,” Girardi told reporters when camp first opened. “I know we didn’t get it done in the playoffs, but you can win 105 games and not win in the playoffs. That doesn’t mean you weren’t a good team. There were teams that made big splashes in the free agent market last year and were expected to win the World Series and get to the playoffs, and didn’t even get there. There’s no guarantee.”
As for Youkilis, he made it clear that when he takes the field on Opening Day against the Red Sox, he wants to “beat them.”
“I want to beat the Red Sox because I want to start off with a win at Yankee Stadium,” Youkilis said. “I’m excited. What better way than to open up as a Yankee by playing against your former team?”