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Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Updated: February 17, 9:52 AM ET
Yanks an underdog? Just go with it, Joe

By Johnette Howard
ESPNNewYork.com

Joe Girardi hasn't managed a game yet in 2011, but he already made his first tactical blunder of the season Monday during his State of the Yankees news conference as pitchers and catchers reported for spring training.

With the Yankees already engaged in an offseason attitude shake-up -- they fired shots across Joba Chamberlain's bow, pre-emptively told Jorge Posada he's their full-time DH, admitted their starting pitching rotation is a concern and rattled Derek Jeter's cage -- Girardi was mistaken to say that with the Yankees, "You've never felt like you were the underdog. It just sounds kind of funny to hear someone say that."

Maybe Girardi didn't get the memo about Yankees general manager Brian Cashman's offseason remark that the Boston Red Sox are "better" than the Yankees right now.

But Girardi should embrace the underdog label for the Yankees -- then milk it for all it's worth.

Continuing the attitude shake-up and distancing this veteran-laden Yankees team from its fat-cat image is something the Yankees could use more of from Girardi once the season begins. This Yankees team has so many question marks -- at least until Cashman swings a blockbuster trade -- that a combative attitude is going to have to cover up some flaws night in and night out.

Cashman did most of the ego tweaking and sacred cow tipping in the offseason between his gotta-be-me charity stunts like rappelling down a skyscraper dressed as a Christmas elf or pulling draft beers as a celebrity bartender with a skull and crossbones do-rag on his head. But now it's Girardi's turn to take the baton.

To act any differently would be to ignore the challenges facing the Yankees this season. And it would ignore the glaring lesson embedded in how the Red Sox somehow managed to stay in touch with the AL East leaders well into September last season despite leading the majors in players sent to the disabled list (23) or games lost (a staggering 1,050). Even Red Sox haters have to admit that was impressive to watch. Some nights, the Red Sox sent out a starting nine that looked like one of its B-game lineups in spring training, yet they never gave up. They battled and battled for manager Terry Francona 'til they just ran out of games.

Joe Girardi
The sooner Joe Girardi embraces the underdog idea, the better off his Yankees will be in 2011.

Since then, the Red Sox have added Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Bobby Jenks to a 2011 team that will be getting a healthy Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia back. Meanwhile, the Yankees' biggest acquisition was setup man Rafael Soriano, who can join ace CC Sabathia in opting out of his contract after this season.

Just in case those roster swings didn't put the Yankees in touch with the underdog idea, Cliff Lee -- the ace who got away -- showed up at Phillies camp Monday and said he chose Philadelphia over the Yankees because he thought the Phillies gave him the best chance to win more World Series going forward.

Talk about adding insult to injury.

The Yankees are underdogs, all right. So why not seize this rare opportunity to other people have the bull's-eye on their backs and use it as a liberating, team-bonding thing?

This isn't the time for Girardi or any of the Yankees to be self-conscious that critics could retort it's preposterous to suggest that a team that annually pushes $200 million in payroll, as the Yankees do, now wants to style itself as the little old team that could. For one thing, Girardi actually has a plausible out; it's a twist on the old Bill Parcells lament: Girardi only cooks the meal, he doesn't shop for the groceries.

The Yankees are asking him to win with a 36-year-old shortstop (Jeter) he might have to drop in the order; a full-time DH (Posada) who's admitted in the past to hating being a DH, a center fielder (second-year Yankee Curtis Granderson) who recently confessed he struggled because he needed most of the year to adjust to playing in New York, and a slugger whose declining power and average could be traced in 2010 to a delicate hip (A-Rod). The starting rotation would've looked great with Lee and Andy Pettitte but looks bereft without them.

(Even A.J. Burnett's candid admission Tuesday that he finally realized how important he is to the Yankees as he flew home after they lost the ALCS -- this halfway into his four-year, $52 million contract -- was more annoying than reassuring. Burnett is a likable guy, but only now the 34-year-old veteran says he "gets" that the Yankees expected him to be highly focused and produce as the team's No. 2 starter for all that money? Really?)

Every worry the Yankees have should be more fodder that Girardi can leverage into a team battle cry, or wake-up call, or day-in, day-out reminder that urgency goes hand in hand with being underdogs. The Red Sox look like a 100-win team, and the AL East looks more competitive from top to bottom this year as well. The Yankees figure to be hard-pressed to even win the wild-card playoff spot that's so often gone to the AL East runner-up.

The Yankees are underdogs, all right -- not top dogs, no matter what their paychecks say.

The sooner Girardi embraces that idea to prod this team, the better.