WEST POINT, N.Y. -- In most places, the Yankees are hardly an afterthought. But when manager Joe Girardi started walking around West Point on Saturday, he noticed an interesting phenomenon.
And he didn't have to look hard. The popular phrase, "Go Army. Beat Navy," is all over the campus at West Point, and Girardi cannily tried to find a way that it might benefit his team. Army is so fixated on Navy, quipped Girardi, that the Yankees might just get their own free pass on Saturday.
"Maybe Army will overlook us," he joked in the hours before the Yankees took a 10-5 exhibition victory over the Black Knights. "Since they're playing Navy the next four games."
That age-old rivalry -- commemorated everywhere on campus, but most pointedly on the roof of Gillis Field House, which reads, "Sink Navy" -- may be big news starting Sunday, but the Yankees were the bold-faced headline Saturday. The exhibition game marked the first time since 1986 that a big league team has visited West Point, and it improved the Yankees to 22-0 all-time against Army.
Perhaps more importantly, it continued a tradition that had fallen out of favor. The Yankees began playing against Army all the way back in 1927, and they made the trip to West Point frequently in the 30's and the 60's. Prior to Saturday, though, they hadn't played against Army since 1976.
It probably won't take another generation to happen again. The Yankees seemed thrilled to take a campus tour and to spend time with the cadets in the mess hall, and the West Point faithful set a record attendance (6,127) as part of their welcome to the reigning American League East champions.
"I thought it was a wonderful experience going around the university and looking at the different buildings," said Girardi. "I took my time. I had a chance to eat with the cadets in the mess hall, and then the game. I spent 2 1/2 innings over there talking to their players. That was a real thrill."
And Girardi wasn't alone. He sent several of his players over to the Army dugout to spend some time with the cadets, sharing stories and inquiring about their lives at the academy. For Mark Teixeira, sidelined due to a wrist injury, it was a reminder of his college days at Georgia Tech.
"I forgot how fun it is to be in college," said Teixeira of his afternoon at West Point. "When I was a freshman, I got to play against the [Atlanta] Braves. Being a kid who was a switch-hitter and playing third base, getting to play against Chipper Jones was just unbelievable for me. For these kids, I hope they had the same experience. I know my teammates, and we enjoyed the heck out of it."
Normally, the Yankees are answering questions. But for one day, they were asking them.
Much of their interest, predictably, centered on the cadets' routine and how they manage to fit baseball into their arduous schedule. Girardi said he asked the Army players about their days and their duties, about their responsibilities and about how their lives will change once they enter the service.
The Army players, by contrast, were happy to talk about baseball and to ask their own questions about life in the big leagues. Senior catcher Andrew Johnson said that it's a natural inclination to think that pro ballplayers are completely different specimens until you stand right next to them.
"Sometimes, with MLB dreams, you think they've gone over and beyond people's expectations and that they do crazy things," Johnson said. "But honestly, those guys just simplify the game for themselves. When you watch them take batting practice, it's nice and easy and they do a lot of the same things that Coach makes us do. To watch how easy they make the game is really an eye-opener."
Girardi had to take care of some business on Saturday, and he said that Adam Warren and Cody Eppley have earned the final two spots on his roster. Girardi also said that Travis Hafner was scratched from Saturday's game due to general stiffness, but that he could've played in a regular-season setting.
Brennan Boesch, who replaced Hafner in the lineup, drilled a two-run homer in the second inning and the Yankees never trailed. Army made it 5-4 after three innings, but New York pulled away with two runs in the sixth. Reliever Boone Logan notched just one out and gave up all four earned runs for the Yankees.
But this game -- and this day -- was bigger than the box score. For the Yankees, it meant an opportunity to both get some work in and to give back to the community at the same time. And for Army, it was the opportunity of a lifetime and the chance to measure themselves against the best in the world.
"I think the big thing that was obvious today was respect," said Army coach Joe Sottolano. "These individuals, each and every day, they've been to this type of situation hundreds of thousands of times. They've come to these types of ballgames and lived it each and every day. Not only did they come over [to our dugout], but they came over open and with a legitimate interest. It wasn't a job at that point. For them, I believe it was more of a curiosity and something they really wanted to partake in.
"They made us feel special, even though for them it's two days away from their Opening Day. They're not going to see their families very often, and tomorrow's Easter Sunday. The greatest gift that they say you can give people is time. They gave us that time, and we're very respectful and grateful for that."
Girardi, for his part, was impressed by the talent on the other side and even more touched by the way that Army's cadets approach the game. Girardi said it was a special day for everyone involved, and he said he came away from West Point with a profound appreciation for his country and the military.
"This is not something that everybody gets to do, and the tour we got was from cadets and from people who have been here," the manager said of West Point. "I think it's a great way to end Spring Training. It all starts for us Monday. And for them, it all starts tomorrow, because that's their first conference game."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com.