Hammerin' Hank comes out swingin'

TAMPA, Fla. -- On the first day of the first spring training following the death of George Steinbrenner, it was almost as if his ghost was roaming the corridors of the field that bears his name.

Already, early arrivals had been greeted by a full-size bronze statue of "The Boss," standing ramrod straight and forbidding in front of the main entrance of George M. Steinbrenner Field.

And just inside the glass double doors, a new, framed color photo of Steinbrenner and his wife, Joan, gazed down upon visitors to the lobby.

But now, a couple of hours after the last players had left the building, ready to return for the first official workout Tuesday morning, here was The Boss' kid Hank, not only looking kinda/sorta like his dad -- "Boy George" was sporting a day or two's growth of white stubble on his face, a definite Boss no-no -- but sounding as if he were channeling the old man from the great beyond.

"We're gonna be in it every year," Hank Steinbrenner said. "Every single year. You can't say that about any other team, except maybe the Red Sox. But they weren't in it last year. And the Phillies seem to be keeping it going, but how long will that last? The only team you can be assured as long as we own them is going to be in it every single year is going to be us. We're gonna be a major contender to win the championship every year."

And just like that, in one concise paragraph, it was déjà vu all over again at Legends Field, which is what they used to call the place when The Boss prowled the halls during his three-decade reign of terror.

In one fell swoop, "Son of Boss" restated the family's commitment to winning, took a swipe at his team's main divisional rival and its counterpart in the other league, and gave his reasons for why Carsten Charles Sabathia would never follow in the footsteps of Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez and hold up the Yankees for a raise after this season as per his contractual rights.

It was a load of hogwash, for sure, especially the last part, because no matter how much CC loves being a Yankee, like just about every other human being he loves money more, and his singular ability to grab more and more of it.

But if nothing else, it made you forget, if just for a moment, that all too often, the Yankees have seemed like a rudderless ship since George Steinbrenner went into his decline a couple of years ago before dying of a heart attack at age 80 last July 13.

Hal Steinbrenner, Hank's younger brother and the man said to be really in charge of things, is smart like his dad but cold and colorless. Brian Cashman, the GM, knows the right things to do for his team but learned once again this offseason that "full autonomy" goes only so far for a general manager of any baseball team, let alone the New York Yankees. Randy Levine, the team president, has his strengths. But the three of them taken together barely comprise one pale imitation of The Boss, an act that will never be truly duplicated.

Hank Steinbrenner, of course, can't fill the void, either, as demonstrated in the 2007 offseason, when -- after Cashman had drawn an appropriately hard line in the sand against Rodriguez, in the same position then as Sabathia is now -- he stepped in, overruled the GM and bid against himself, rewarding A-Rod's duplicity with a contract extension and a raise.

Since then, the muzzling of Steinbrenner has made things quite a bit easier for the Yankees' front office in a public relations sense. There's hardly ever a mess to clean up around here anymore. And the fact that what he said Monday is likely to raise a few eyebrows is less an indication of the power of his words -- really, this was pretty mild stuff in The Boss' heyday -- than a reminder that things like this are almost never said around the Yankees these days.

If nothing else, fire and brimstone, or at least color, temporarily returned to the scene around the Yankees on Monday.

Earlier, Joe Girardi, earnest but about as spicy as tapioca, had tried to make the case that his team was improved this year despite the fact that it had lost Andy Pettitte, had failed to land Cliff Lee and was, in the case of most of his core players, one damaging year older.

By the time he had finished talking, the manager had laid out material reasons why all four of the Yankees' divisional rivals had in fact gotten better, but on behalf of his own team, he could offer little more than obligatory managerial hope.

"Well, I think the experience that a guy like Phil Hughes got last year, the progress that [Brett Gardner] made being an everyday player, the progress that Robby Cano made, the progress that [Curtis Granderson] made the last two months, I think we've improved," Girardi said. "I think we got younger in some areas, we got younger behind the plate, that doesn't necessarily mean we've improved, but we're always trying to get younger as well. So those are ways that we've improved."

There's never been a Yankees manager, from Miller Huggins to Stump Merrill, who has come to the first day of spring training claiming his team hasn't improved. Still, even by those loose standards, Girardi's reasons were vague and unconvincing.

Hank Steinbrenner, on the other hand, was forthright and definite and, well, Boss-like.

Of course, if the 2011 version of A.J. Burnett is the same as the 2010 version -- or, if the 2011 version Hughes isn't the same as the 2010 version -- and if Derek Jeter really is a .270 hitter now and Granderson remembers he really can't hit lefties and A-Rod's numbers continue to slide and Mark Teixeira decides to take off another April, Hank's words, too, could turn out to be so much empty bluster.

But on the first day of the first Yankees spring training without George Steinbrenner, it seemed as if The Boss had never actually left the building.