Three months after Joe Girardi tripled off Greg Maddux in Game 6 of the 1996 World Series and became a Yankee hero forever, he was sitting on a low concrete wall outside a Times Square theater nursing an expensive stogie.
A friend came over, apologized for interrupting a conversation, and reminded him, ``It's almost showtime.'' With that, Girardi carefully extinguished his cigar and began looking around for a safe place to stash it. Apparently, he was going to duck out during intermission and finish the smoke. His pal checked his watch again and laughed.
``Joe,'' he reminded Girardi, ``you can afford another one.''
irardi coached under Joe Torre in New York and then managed the Marlins on his own. He learns fast, wastes little and always has a plan.
Girardi will need those qualities in abundance, and plenty of patience, if he plans to sit in Torre's old chair. He'd inherit the most expensive ballclub in baseball, but no longer the best that money can buy. That moniker is better applied to the budding Red Sox dynasty just up the road, and whether the Steinbrenners grasp the distinction could go a long way toward determining how long Girardi's run in New York lasts. That, and whether he learns to hold his tongue.
Girardi's one-year stint in charge of the Marlins was notable for two things. First, how he pushed a mostly unproven collection of youngsters into the NL wild-card race in 2006, despite the lowest payroll ($14 million) in the game; and second, how he got fired immediately afterward, despite being named National League manager of the year.
The tipping point apparently came when Florida owner Jeff Loria began heckling an umpire during a game in August, and Girardi made a point of telling the boss to button it up. We say ``apparently'' because while Girardi barely concealed his unhappiness with the Marlins' perpetually cheap front office, when he picked up his walking papers, all he would say, wisely, was thanks for the opportunity.
Girardi had better tread even more carefully this time around, at least at the beginning. Hank and Hal Steinbrenner are vying for the lion's share of the old man's authority and both would likely welcome an opportunity to establish their bona fides. The lightning-fast response to Alex Rodriguez' opening gambit in contract talks proved that much.
``I'll tell you this: the commitment from my family is '78 through '96,'' Hank Steinbrenner said, referring to the years between the Yankees' World Series championships. ``We will never go 18 years without a championship again. That's our commitment.''
There's also a clubhouse packed with high-priced veterans and promising youngsters who pulled together after a disastrous start last season out of a sense of obligation to Torre. They asked for rest rarely, complained little and overlooked sore arms. Chances are slim they'll feel the same indebtedness toward any newcomer, let alone someone like Girardi, who arrives with a demanding reputation and a penchant for punishing pitchers. By any measure, that's a combustible mix.
Don Mattingly, who didn't get the job despite joining the team as a coach at George Steinbrenner's invitation and being groomed as Torre's successor, said a few days earlier that filling those shoes would be like following John Wooden at UCLA. It might be even tougher than that, considering how loaded Boston is at the moment and that Yankee mainstays Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada could all wind up following A-Rod out the door.
Then again, Girardi spent at least as much time researching the new Yankee bosses as they spent analyzing him, and he spurned a few other suitors waiting for the right job to open up. And you can be certain Girardi's got a plan, just as he did in the third inning of Game 6 in 1996.
The Yankees were having trouble cracking Maddux that night, but the Braves' pitcher and Girardi had been teammates in Chicago a half-dozen years earlier. Girardi knew he wouldn't get too many opportunities to best his old buddy, but he turned around the only one he saw and pounded it all the way to the center-field wall, scoring Paul O'Neill with the game's first run en route to a 3-2 win and the Yankees first series title since 1978.
Whether Girardi can get the organization back to those heights remains to be seen. But he's probably got a cigar already put away for just such an occasion.
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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org.

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