2008 marked Joe Girardi's first year at the helm of the Yankees' ship. After his first year in spring training, Girardi was viewed as somewhat of a drill sergeant, making sure that all of his players were in top shape before leaving camp.
After missing playoffs for the first time since 1995, the Yankees decided to try and return to some of the ways that helped them win four championships over fiver years in the late 90's. They spent the off season signing some high-end starting pitching as well as some other key players to improve their team.
The new and improved team had a new goal coming out of spring training. Girardi sought to inspire more than just physical fitness, but team unity. He made his team take a break from their workouts, and put together a field trip to a pool hall in Tampa. It was an opportunity for the new guys to get familiar with their teammates and get away from baseball before the long season started.
It's highly unlikely that Girardi could have anticipated just how well his players would get along, but there is no question that the field trip to the pool hall helped cement a good sense of unity.
While the Yankees have had their share of ups and downs this season, they have rarely looked like a team that didn't think they could overcome whatever odds were thrown at them. No matter what the deficit, they seem like they'll come back and win the game, and usually they do.
Of course success is built on a lot of different variables. Everything has to be clicking at the right time in order for a team to be successful, but the difference between this Yankee team and teams of the recent past, is that while a player or two might go through a bit of a slump, there are a number of players that are on the right track. One player isn't trying to carry the whole team, and therefore no one is getting burned out.
A lot of the team's success also has to do with the fact that the players on the Yankees genuinely like each other. That doesn't mean that everyone gets along with everyone all the time. I'm sure some guys like some players more than others, but there is still that sense of unity that hasn't existed since the late 90's.
There will be those who will argue that team chemistry is not an important factor for a team to be successful, and that is most likely true. The championship Oakland A's teams of the 70's were known for their fighting with each other, and the '77-'78 Yankees weren't called the 'Bronx Zoo' for nothing. Those teams were successful, and they certainly weren't all going out and eating dinner together, but it seems that when that sense of togetherness exists on a team, there is a greater chance for big things to happen.
The Yankees have posted 13 walk-off wins this season, and with each win, they make it look like it's their first. Guys jumping out of the dugout and rushing to home plate to greet the player responsible for the winning run, the tossing of the batting helmet in the air, and of course the pie in the face courtesy of A.J. Burnett have all become customary in the Bronx.
There is also "Kangaroo Court" that has been in session twice so far this season, where Mariano Rivera resides as the judge and various players are fined for "crimes". A "crime" can consist of showing up late for practice, not wearing a shirt during an interview, or giving up a hit in a game.
Some people may view something like "Kangaroo Court" or the Yankees' players bonding as unnecessary details in order for them to win in October. There is no doubt that to make it in the playoffs, the Yankees have to pitch will and hit when it counts, but there is also something really nice about seeing a team that genuinely likes each other.
Perhaps Girardi sensed that was the final piece of the puzzle. For years, the Yankees have had talented players on their teams, but they haven't been able to take that talent and translate it into a championship.
If the Yankees are able to go all the way, there are going to be a lot of reasons why they were able to do so. However, one of the reasons that will undoubtedly be overlooked, is the day that Joe Girardi brought his team together for an afternoon at a pool hall. That day helped spark something the Yankees have been missing for a long time; team unity and appreciation for every guy on the roster to get the job done.
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