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02/23/09 5:00 PM EST

Yankees ditch bats for pool cues

Girardi takes club to billiard hall to help build bonds, assuage distractions

TAMPA, Fla. -- Joe Girardi was about 10 years old when billiards taught him an important lesson in controlling his temper. Throwing a pool cue into a piece of drywall did not produce favorable results once Dad found out.

Three decades later and a long way from that Illinois basement, Girardi used 8-ball for another purpose. The Yankees manager called off a team workout and organized a field trip to a local billiards hall Monday, part of an exercise to help his club build relationships.

"I've never been on a team that's done something like this before, but I often wondered why," Girardi said. "There's a lot of other sports that do these types of things. We can get away from the park and enjoy each other off the field and get to know each other."

After veterans like Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada signed off on the idea last week, Girardi announced the news early Monday morning, addressing players after they completed workouts in the batting cages, bullpen and weight room.

With smiles circling the room, players were told to change back into their street clothes and board the buses waiting beyond the left-field fence at George M. Steinbrenner Field, which remained shuttered for the afternoon.

"It's all about really getting together," Posada said. "If I was a young man coming on this trip, it's something that you don't see often. You can hang out with the veterans and be away from the field.

"Hopefully, we start some relationships here and get going. We've got a lot of young guys, and we need to be on the same page. I think this is going to help us."

Instead of fielding drills and live batting practice, Girardi sent his players into a two-on-two tournament -- the "Annual World Championship of Pool," the scoresheet announced -- with players chalking their sticks for a NCAA-style bracket.

"Today is one of those days that, as a ballplayer, you'll never forget," Johnny Damon said. "I don't think any team has ever really done this. It says a lot about Joe. He knows we've been working hard and he rewarded us."

Mariano Rivera was the afternoon's big champion, winning twice -- once with Phil Coke and once with Andy Pettitte. The pairing of Rivera and Pettitte defeated the tandem of Nick Swisher and Hideki Matsui in the final tournament.

"It looked like [Rivera] was pretty good -- he definitely had that closer mentality, even playing pool," Damon said.

Girardi and the club's coaches were to remain separate, competing in their own tournament. The winners of the players tournament were rewarded with restaurant gift certificates, and other members of the team played cards, darts and dominos before lunch.

"It makes you relax and realize that we can have fun off the field," said Mark Teixeira, who said it was the most fun day of Spring Training in his career. "Once we get on the field, it's business, but we can build some relationships as well.  

"You want to feel closer to your players. You want to bring a group together. It's important that a group is united when they leave Spring Training."
-- Joe Girardi

"Usually during the season, you get to hang out with guys, because we're always on the same bus or the same plane -- our schedules are identical. In Spring Training, you don't go on trips together, the pitchers have different schedules than the hitters and the hitters are in different groups, so there might be a couple guys you don't get to know at all."

The idea hit Girardi in the early days of Spring Training, realizing that camp runs longer this year because of the World Baseball Classic and a day of respite might be welcome before exhibition games begin.

It would also be a good way for Girardi to better familiarize himself with the team.

"I think every year you're here as a manager, you want to have more knowledge about your players and their personalities," Girardi said. "You want to feel closer to your players. You want to bring a group together. It's important that a group is united when they leave Spring Training."

Looking for an event that could not be impacted by weather, Girardi originally considered renting out a bowling alley, but the idea of having his pitchers whipping 12-pound balls down the lanes dissuaded him.

The Yankees found a billiard hall that could accommodate a large group, and Girardi told the Yankees to book it for a few hours. The tournament was expected to last about 2 1/2 hours -- until lunch -- but Girardi acknowledged it might take longer, with no real pool sharks known to be on the roster.

One by one, the 64 players in camp walked through the concrete corridors, many of them grinning at the unexpected twist to their day. Swisher cranked Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy" on his portable iPod player, CC Sabathia chuckled and Teixeira waved goodbye to reporters, saying, "Field trip!"

It has been a spring of some distraction for the Yankees, highlighted by Alex Rodriguez's 33-minute news conference on Feb. 17 to address his past use of performance-enhancing drugs. That event, held at Steinbrenner Field, was attended by more than 150 media members and many of Rodriguez's teammates.

With that and other news items sometimes obscuring actual baseball, Posada said that there would be no negative to stepping away for one afternoon and enjoying the day. The Yankees will go through a full workout on Tuesday before beginning exhibition games on Wednesday against the Blue Jays at 1:05 p.m. ET in Dunedin, Fla.

"I think it's a matter of understanding where Joe is coming from," Posada said. "We want to have a fun camp. When it's time to play, it's serious. But when it's time to have fun like this, we're going to have fun together."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.