TAMPA — Alex Rodriguez captivated his teammates before Friday’s game against the University of South Florida, speaking from the heart about dedication, determination and what it takes to win.
No, he wasn’t auditioning to become the next captain once Derek Jeter retires. He was simply taking his turn.
With an eye toward team unity, Joe Girardi decided that one afternoon at the Improv wasn’t enough. The manager has implemented a new tradition that calls for a different player or two to stand in front of the entire team every morning and recite a quote of his choosing, followed by an explanation of what the quote means to him.
“Words from your teammates can be really powerful,” Girardi told the Daily News. “They can be motivating. It also tells you a little something about that person from what they pick, so we get to know them. It’s worked out well.”
Rodriguez, however, impressed by taking a unique approach. He declined to discuss his presentation, but a witness said that instead of reciting a quote, the third baseman took the word “score” and used each letter to deliver a different message.
“What Alex did, it blew me away,” Eric Chavez said. “To get up in front of the whole team, out of your element, he really embraced it. I don’t see myself doing that. I can’t knock down those walls, so to see Al do it, it was like, ‘Wow.’”
Said A-Rod: “One of the hardest things to do is to communicate in front of your peers. I bet if you asked them, some guys would probably be more nervous about doing that than playing in the World Series. It’s hard to stand in front of 85 people that you trust and respect. It makes you feel vulnerable. It’s a great exercise and it’s setting the right tempo for our team.”
Girardi came up with the routine as he sought to better use the 15-minute block of time he had set aside to meet with the team each morning
“It just kind of came to me,” said Girardi, who often receives inspirational quotes via email from his friend, basketball Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman. “The biggest fear in life is public speaking, so this really encourages them to do a lot of different things.”
Girardi gave his players only two rules they must follow when choosing their quote. They were not allowed to use any of the motivational quotes that hang in and around the clubhouse at Steinbrenner Field or ask Chad Bohling, the team’s director of mental conditioning, for help.
“It gives guys an opportunity to get to know themselves,” Girardi said. “Guys are doing research, looking for something that’s really good and that appeals to them. Some of them are really deep. I’ve been wowed.”
Rather than assigning the days to players randomly, Girardi started with the oldest player in camp — 42-year-old Mariano Rivera — and told the team it would go in reverse order of age. That meant 39-year-old Raul Ibanez followed Rivera despite the fact that he has been a Yankee for less than a month.
“I absolutely love it. It starts off the day on a positive note,” Ibanez said. “There are going to be thoughts rattling around our minds all day long, so they may as well be positive. It’s nice to come together every morning as a group.”
Ibanez chose a quote from famed runner Roger Bannister — “The man who can drive himself further once the effort gets painful is the man who will win” — to share with his teammates.
“Everyone here makes you feel really at ease and really at home,” Ibanez said. “It wasn’t stressful. It’s a great environment.”
Ibanez and Chavez were discussing the easygoing nature of the clubhouse over the weekend, noting that the atmosphere is nothing like they imagined it would be.
“The perception when you first come here is that it’s a tough clubhouse,” said Chavez, entering his second year with the club. “It’s quite different. The cohesive unit that’s here is pretty amazing. You feel it right away. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Girardi asked his players to recite their quotes in English and Spanish, but Derek Jeter took it one step further, also translating his into Japanese to ensure that newcomer Hiroki Kuroda would be a part of the exercise.
“I’m trilingual,” joked Jeter, who got some help from Kuroda’s translator, Kenji Nimura. “You want to make sure everyone is included, make sure Hiro feels a part of it, too.”
Jeter likes the new tradition — one Girardi hopes becomes an annual one at Yankees camp — as it gives players an idea of what drives a teammate.
“You get a sense for how people think, what certain quotes mean,” Jeter said. “You get a look into the window of a guy’s personality.”
“The quote is one thing — we can all go to a library or go online and find 100 quotes,” added A-Rod. “To me, the most important part of the exercise is what that quote means to that particular person and why it makes that person tick. I’m really excited every day to see how the day is going to start.”
CC Sabathia is still doing research for the quote he plans to use, though he kidded that he’s going to have to buy a Rosetta Stone set to help him read it in Spanish and Japanese.
“It kind of gives you a look into what makes guys tick, what they’re thinking about to stay positive,” Sabathia said. “I think it’s extremely important, especially with the ups and downs that you’re going to have during the baseball season. This team is already pretty close, but this is making us even better.”