TAMPA, Fla. -- Joe Girardi puts his hands behind his head, crosses his fingers and leans back in his chair inside the Legends Field manager's office.
He is the picture of contentment, relaxation. And why shouldn't he be? He is, after all, managing again in the big leagues after a year's hiatus.
"I love it. It's one of my true passions," said Girardi, the New York Yankees' first new manager since 1996. "I love the game, I love the strategy, I love the competition, I love the relationships."
Wait a minute.
Should Girardi really be so relaxed?
After all, he's managing the Yankees, a team with the game's highest payroll and a rabid fan base that expects to win the World Series every year.
Oh, and he is replacing his mentor, Joe Torre, a likely Hall of Fame manager who made the playoffs in each of his 12 seasons in pinstripes.
Also, Girardi's my-way philosophy clashed with Florida Marlins management and cost him his job after one Manager of the Year season in Miami.
And don't forget he's only 43, just five years removed from his playing career, and now he's the authority figure in a clubhouse filled with veterans.
Girardi laughs easily when told how tough this new job could be.
"I think it is the ultimate, the ultimate challenge," said Girardi, who spent 15 seasons as a big-league catcher, including four with the Yankees. "You have the ultimate resources. You have an incredible desire and spirit to win every day. And I played here."
After being fired by Florida after the 2006 season, Girardi turned down the Washington Nationals' managerial job a few months later.
Then, last June, new Orioles president Andy MacPhail offered Girardi the opportunity to replace Sam Perlozzo. Girardi, who worked with MacPhail in the Chicago Cubs organization, said he seriously considered MacPhail's proposal.
But his father is in the final stages of Alzheimer's disease, and Girardi said when he left Florida he promised himself that he would spend most of the summer of 2007 in Chicago with his dad.
"I had a great relationship with Andy MacPhail, and the job was very intriguing," Girardi said. "But I had just gotten to Chicago. And I said, 'You know what? If God wants me to manage, I'll manage again. But I want to be with my dad now.'"
There was speculation that Girardi knew he would be the Yankees leading candidate if Torre didn't return. But Girardi said that never entered his mind. In fact, he said, he still doesn't think about the enormity of replacing Torre.
"Obviously, I look up to Joe Torre. He was one of my mentors," Girardi said. "But I think anytime you take this job, it will be [tough]. When are the expectations going to change?"
Yogi Berra, the Hall of Fame catcher who also once managed the Yankees, said Girardi has a difficult task. But he added that he thinks if anyone can replace Torre seamlessly, it's Girardi, who played for Torre and was his bench coach. "I think he was the right choice, and I think he'll do a good job, I really do," Berra said.
The Yankees' players are saying the same thing.
"I think he brings a lot of energy and a different feel," Yankees outfielder Johnny Damon said. "I definitely loved Joe Torre, and loved the opportunity to play for him, play for a Hall of Fame manager. But I am enjoying Girardi so far."
Veteran pitcher Mike Mussina, just four years younger than his new manager, said spring camp seems about the same, except Girardi is more hands-on.
"He still seems to me to be a veteran player that happens to be in charge," Mussina said. "He hasn't reinvented spring training. He hasn't reinvented managing. He lets spring roll right along and gets everybody ready for April."
The real test starts when the games count and Girardi's every move is scrutinized. But he has plenty to work with: All-Stars at nearly every field position, a starting rotation that features a mix of talented veterans and kids, and a bullpen anchored by likely future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera.
Certainly, there will be challenges on the field, but Damon doesn't expect any in the clubhouse. The players have accepted that Torre is gone and a new Joe is in town.
"He is the guy in charge, and we are not above the game," Damon said. "Whatever he says, we will abide by."
LF Johnny Damon
SS Derek Jeter
RF Bobby Abreu
1B Jason Giambi
C Jorge Posada
CF Melky Cabrera
RHP Chien-Ming Wang
LHP *Andy Pettitte
RHP Mike Mussina
RHP Phil Hughes
RHP Ian Kennedy
*-Might start season on disabled list
AL East this week
Tomorrow: The Blue Jays think they can be good enough to compete for the divisional crown - if they can stay healthy.
Saturday: Tampa Bay has a new name, new uniforms and an old closer, Troy Percival, who is having a blast with his young teammates.
Online: To read previous articles in this series, go to baltimoresun.com/aleast