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Joe Girardi fondly looks back on being Tino Martinez's teammate

06/21/2014 1:43 PM ET
By Lou DiPietro

Joe Girardi (left) and Tino Martinez (right) celebrate after the Yankees clinched the AL East division title in 1996.(AP)
Joe Girardi and Tino Martinez played together in New York from 1996-99, winning three World Series titles together as part of a Yankees dynasty, and had a brief reunion in 2003 when both spent their only season with St. Louis.

They now reunite every year on Yankees Old-Timers' Day, but on Saturday, that reunion came a day early when Martinez was honored with a plaque in Monument Park.

"Everyone loved Tino; he was a great teammate and a great first baseman, a middle of the order hitter with power, and he brought an edge to the game," Girardi recalled Saturday morning, barely two hours before the Yankees' ceremony. "I enjoy being around him (and) I would still call him a close friend. He was a great Yankee, and I think it's wonderful what's happening here today."

That first statement was especially obvious just by looking at the attendance for Saturday's ceremony; ex-teammates David Cone, Paul O'Neill, Mariano Rivera, and Jorge Posada, manager Joe Torre, and even former head trainer Gene Monahan all came in "a day early" to be on hand, joining the Martinez family to watch as Tino's plaque was unveiled in front of the mound and he was bestowed with gifts from the organization.

PHOTO GALLERY: Yankees honor Tino Martinez

The near-capacity crowd on hand watching the ceremony also fervently appreciated Tino, as they have for most of the last two decades, and Girardi thought that was a testament to the will and talent of a man who, initially, was booed when he first came to the Yankees in 1996.

"He took over for a great first baseman, and I think he had some really big shoes to fill," Girardi said. "Donnie (Mattingly) was a fan favorite and rightfully so, a great New York Yankee and an awesome first baseman, and Tino kind of had to earn his stripes, and he did it fairly quickly. He did a really good job in handling that situation."

As for his own love of Tino, well, Girardi recalled one story from those playing days that at least facetiously contradicts his earlier statement.

"There's a lot of stories, probably some that I can't share, but I remember one day him and O'Neill were arguing," Girardi laughed. "Tino was jealous of the average Paul was hitting for and Paul was jealous of the home runs Tino had; I was kind of in between their lockers, and I was thinking shut up, I don't need to hear this! I'm fighting every day to hit .260, and one of you is hitting .320 and the other has 25 home runs, so I don't feel bad for either one of you. But that's how they were, and as I said, everyone loved Tino."

The numbers weren't always rosy, though, and as one member of the media pointed out, Martinez has said in the past that he credits Girardi for helping keep him afloat during some of the tough times.

"Well, I think that's true for a lot of players. When you're in the midst of struggles, your teammates probably recognize how good of a player you really are, and when you're not feeling too good about yourself it can be difficult," the Yankees skipper said. "I was a big believer in Tino because he did a lot of great things here, and put up a lot of big numbers. You think about some of the names we had here, and Tino was a big part of it and a big part of all the championships."

Girardi was of course most focused on the Yankees' game with the Orioles on Saturday afternoon, so he may not have gotten to sit back and enjoy Martinez's ceremony as much as others. But, they will likely spend time together Saturday night and again during Sunday's Old-Timers' Day festivities, when nearly a dozen players from those late-1990s teams will be back together on the diamond one more time, and when all is said and done, it will be a weekend the skipper looks back on fondly."

"It means a lot to me to see these guys. I don't like to consider myself an old-timer - I don't think any of us ever want to feel that - but it does mean a lot. To see some of the guys that I played for, played with and managed that were champions, it's a thrill for me."

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