NEW YORK -- It was $201 million of expectations that Yankees manager Joe Girardi was faced with when he entered last season, the weight of both the blessing and curse that comes with managing the New York Yankees. And considering Girardi's inaugural year at the helm -- a third-place finish and no playoffs for the first time in 14 seasons -- it would have been easy for the man who likes regimen and schedule to sink deeper into his crew-cut, no-nonsense approach.
And while his trademark haircut was still intact, it was in many ways a different Girardi who went to Tampa in the spring, worry lines softened and jersey No. 27 -- worn purposely to signify what he hopes will be the Yankees' next World Championship -- broken in.
"I know he's been here as a coach [under current Dodgers manager Joe Torre in 2005], and as a player, but it's a little different as a manager," said Yankees captain Derek Jeter. "I'd have to assume he's probably more comfortable [with one season under his belt]."
Newcomer Mark Teixeira, who along with pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett constitutes the majority of the Yankees' offseason splurges, noticed the message from his new manager right away: Enjoy your teammates.
"He set the tone in Spring Training, he really did," Teixeira said. "Every team meeting we had was all about staying together and pulling for each other."
It's a mantra that has worked wonders for the Yankees. Whether they are on the field or shooting pool -- Girardi organized a tournament in place of one day's spring practice -- the 2009 Yankees have been cheering, smiling and doing a whole lot of winning.
After a 13-15 start, New York posted a Major League-best 90-44 mark to cruise to an American League East title and secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Their 103 wins were the most for a Yankees team since 2002, making Girardi just the fifth manager in franchise history to reach 100 wins in his first or second season with a club.
"He has done tremendous with this team," closer Mariano Rivera said. "It's not easy to fill in for a guy like Joe Torre."
Considering Torre's legend of having managed the Yankees to four World Series and 10 AL East titles, one of Girardi's greatest challenges last year might have been stepping out of Torre's shadow.
"It's very hard [to succeed Torre]," said Rivera, one of four Yankees who had played almost their entire careers under Torre before Girardi took the reins. "But Joe [Girardi] has done a tremendous job keeping us together since Spring Training. He trained us his best and it worked. He kept us together and now we fight. We fight together for the same cause, and we're here."
Here is the American League Championship Series against the Angels that opens on Friday night. A sweep of the Minnesota Twins in the Division Series has New York among the final four teams in baseball for the first time since 2004.
But the first round wasn't without controversy, as last Friday's Game 2 drew significant buzz given that Girardi decided to have Jose Molina catch Burnett instead of veteran Jorge Posada. It's a decision that will come into play again in the ALCS, and once again, it figures to draw raves if the Yankees win and ire if they lose.
In other words, it's another day on the job for Girardi.
"He doesn't want the credit but he will also take the blame, and as a player [playing for Girardi], that's great," Teixeira said. "It's a tough job for him but that's why we all love him."
Indeed, ask Yankees players to discuss their relationship with the second-year skipper and there is one underlying constant: their appreciation.
"I think he should probably get more credit," Sabathia said, "definitely in that Manager of the Year discussion. I mean to not make the playoffs last year and bring in a bunch of new guys and end up having probably one of the better teams in the league, he has to be in that discussion."
Added Jeter: "He's got a good rapport with the players, communicates well, and I think he's done a tremendous job this year."
Like most managers, Girardi shies away from any talk about the future, preferring to take one day, and one game, at a time. But a man as shrewd as Girardi knows his place in Yankees lore won't be judged on his smashing success in the regular season, but rather, what his team does come October.
It's the reason Girardi chose to wear No. 27 on his back, as a daily reminder to the Bronx faithful that his priorities are focused on one thing: bringing New York its first world championship since 2000.
"He has the right equipment, and I think he has the right mind," Rivera said. "I think he has everything."
Brittany Ghiroli is a contributor to MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.