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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Joe Girardi back at Yankee Stadium, and when games really count, ex-manager surely would love to beat old club

Phillies manager Joe Girardi, wearing a new uniform

Phillies manager Joe Girardi, wearing a new uniform and a mask, was back at Yankee Stadium on Monday.  Credit: Jim McIsaac

Joe Girardi would never admit it publicly, and certainly not on the occasion of Monday’s Bronx homecoming, his first time back at Yankee Stadium wearing another team’s uniform.

But now that he’s a manager again, for a Phillies team that should challenge for NL East supremacy, the thought of beating the Yankees, as early and as often as possible, has to occupy significant real estate in his head.

It’s got to. And why not? General manager Brian Cashman chose to end Girardi’s decade-long tenure in the Bronx when leaving was the last thing on the manager’s mind. If Girardi felt he had unfinished business — after winning that one title, in ’09 — then Cashman wanted Aaron Boone to finish it.

Given Girardi’s competitive streak and his obsessive attention to detail, those slights don’t get put away on the shelf. Now, every time we see Girardi in Phillies red, scanning the field from the visitors' dugout, we think Buck Showalter 2.0, the vengeful ex forever trying to come up with ways to twist the knife right back.

Showalter’s Bronx severance played out differently, but like Girardi’s, it came in the wake of a painful playoff ouster: the ’95 Division Series loss to the Mariners. George Steinbrenner even tried to hire him back shortly after Showalter agreed to become the first manager of the expansion Diamondbacks. But once Showalter got the Orioles' job in 2010, sharing the same division with his former club, he became fixated on whacking the big-spending Yankees (he never failed to bring up the money).

Now that he resides in the NL, Girardi won’t have the same opportunities that Showalter did. But with this year’s regionalized schedule, he gets the Yankees right from the jump, with a four-game home-and-home series that begins July 27 at Citizens Bank Park.

Girardi will return to the Bronx for the Yankees’ home opener, sadly devoid of fans.  Instead, we’ll have to settle for him simply being back in the empty building, trying to dent the Yankees’ title chances — reflecting all the while on the good memories stacked up before his stunning departure at Cashman’s hands after the 2017 ALCS loss to the cheating Astros.

“I think it will probably come out a little bit more during the game,” Girardi said Monday afternoon. “When you’re in a clubhouse, it’s different than being on the field. You’re in a room. But I’m sure there’ll be some emotions. I have 15 really, really fond years of being here, whether I was a player or a coach or a manager, and they were great days and a great part of my life. So there’s really a lot of fond memories.”

Then again, the stoic Girardi never shared much in the way of feelings in the public domain. But the Yankees  probably are that one time when business veers into the personal for Girardi, who described Monday’s arrival as “awkward” because he had to enter the stadium through the loading dock en route to the visitors' clubhouse.

The rest of his pregame was more surreal, as Girardi — clad in a Phillies red mask — chatted up Brett Gardner and Boone during batting practice, otherwise keeping their social distances. Gardner said a day earlier that Girardi was almost like a second father to him, based on their decade together, and added, “I definitely miss him.”

To some, Girardi’s intensity could be overbearing as the years accumulated, and Cashman’s selection of the more-chill Boone was a nod to both clubhouse chemistry as well as the highly coveted collaboration with the front office. But the Phillies did Girardi a favor this winter by enlisting Didi Gregorius — another Bronx castoff with a chip on his shoulder along with having an allegiance to his former manager. And of course,  super-sub Ronald Torreyes, who first blossomed under Girardi.

“Everyone loves Toe,” Girardi said. “I mean, how can you not love Toe?”

Going forward, the dynamic between Girardi and Boone isn’t likely to result in the war of wills that seemed to exist with Showalter, who can’t help himself when it comes to playing a chess match between the lines. The game has changed, with front-office execs mostly calling the data-driven shots rather than the dugout masterminds.

But going up against Girardi in these four meetings will be somewhat of a personal challenge for Boone, now entering his third season after winning at least 100 games in each of the first two. Boone has the superior team, but Girardi — who borders on maniacal in terms of preparation — certainly possesses extra motivation, so I asked the current Yankees manager if he thinks much about the psyche of his dugout counterpart in general.

“I think you’re always aware of the other manager,” Boone said. “You try to have an idea for what a club typically does. The teams you play against more, you get a little more familiar with a manager and what you believe their impact may or may not be on the game.”

No one outside the Yankees knows them better than Girardi, and very few — if any — would relish beating them more.

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