CLEARWATER, Fla. — The long-delayed next chapter of Joe Girardi’s rather remarkable journey through the often humbling world of professional baseball is finally going to begin at the end of this month when the Phillies open this COVID-19 season. At 55, Girardi appears just as eager to tackle the challenges presented by a Phillies franchise that has not been to the postseason in eight years as he was in 2008 at the age of 43 to take control of a storied New York Yankees franchise that had been to the postseason for 13 straight years.
Before the Illinois native fills out his first lineup card, let’s take a look back at some of the seminal and sentimental moments of the square-jawed manager’s charmed career, which has included four World Series titles (three as a player and one as a manager with the Yankees) and 12 trips to the playoffs (six each as a manager and player). He also won a National League manager of the year award in 2006 after being fired by the Florida Marlins.
The story is told by Girardi and some of his mentors and closest friends. As it is told, you will hear things that the Phillies’ new manager is sure to repeat during his first season because his life has been deeply shaped by two things: his family and the game.
After Girardi spent four seasons at Northwestern University, where he also met his wife, Kim, the Chicago Cubs took the East Peoria, Ill., native in the fifth round of the 1986 draft and assigned him to their low-A club in, of all places, Peoria.
Girardi: “Imagine this: I took my last final on a Thursday and played on Sunday in Peoria for Pete Mackanin. Northwestern was on a quarter system, so we didn’t get done until June and I didn’t have to go to a minicamp in Arizona where it was 115 degrees like all the other players who were drafted. I got to go straight home. My girlfriend, Kim, who is now my wife, drove me down to Peoria after my last final and I played three days later.
“I was the only guy who was making $700 a month who was saving money. I lived at home with my dad [Jerry]. My mom [Angela] had passed. A lot of those trips in the Midwest League were commuter trips, so my dad would have a sandwich made for me every day and I’d get on the bus with it. He took great care of me. I played through August and then went to instructional ball.”
Mackanin, also an Illinois native and, of course, a former Phillies player, coach, and manager, was the 34-year-old manager at Peoria and he was impressed by Girardi’s grasp of how a catcher should approach his craft.
Mackanin: “Joe was always the perfect student and the perfect player. He had a great work ethic. He was always working on his defense. Looking back, he really reminded me of Chooch [Carlos Ruiz] because he never took his at-bats behind the plate. All the reports I filled out on him after that season were favorable.”
The following season, however, Mackanin was the Cubs’ minor-league field coordinator and he got a call from general manager Dallas Green and farm director Gordon Goldsberry telling him that Girardi was thinking about quitting even though he was in the midst of a terrific season at high-A Winston-Salem.
Mackanin: “So I went down to Winston-Salem to find out what was going on. We had a little one-on-one and he said, ‘I’m thinking about hanging it up.’ He said, ‘I have a degree in engineering from Northwestern. I miss my family and my girlfriend and I’m not sure I’m suited for this lifestyle.’ We talked for more than a half hour and I said, ‘Keep this in mind: You can have a successful career no matter what you do, but if you get to the big leagues you have a chance to make $300,000 to $400,000 a year.’ When I think about that now, it makes me laugh.”
Girardi, according to Baseball-Reference.com, made $21.2 million during his 15 seasons in the major leagues and he has made considerably more than that as a manager.
Girardi: “That was 1987 and I had lost my mom in 1984 and as soon as the funeral was over, I left to go play baseball again. I don’t think I had ever officially dealt with my mom passing. So in 1987 my grandfather died and I went home for that funeral and I don’t know if it brought back feelings of losing my mother, but it was just really difficult and I had a hard time coping with it and I said, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to go back.’ Pete and I had a long conversation about it. It wasn’t like I was playing poorly. I was hitting well and playing well. I think at the time I was hitting over .300 and I just remember Pete saying, ‘Joe, you realize you have a chance to make a million dollars in this game.’ I know he says $300,000 or $400,000, but I remember him saying a million.
“My wife, Kim, convinced me to go back. The reason I was going back was that God had given me a gift and the gift was baseball and I didn’t need to waste it.”
Girardi and Mackanin crossed paths again in the winter of 1988 in Venezuela. Mackanin managed the Maracaibo-based Zulia Eagles squad and Girardi, after playing at double-A Pittsfield (Mass.) that summer, was the team’s primary catcher, thanks to an invitation from Ruben Amaro Sr., the former Phillies infielder and coach. Mackanin noticed the quiet kid from Peoria who contemplated quitting the year before had emerged as a leader.
Mackanin: “He was all business and he was all about winning. I remember a game in Maracaibo on a Sunday morning. It was around 11 in the morning and we had 15 to 20 thousand people … and I think everybody in the stands had definitely had a few cervezas.
“One of our best players showed up late and hung over and we had this long bench. This guy is sitting on the end of the bench with his head against the wall and his cap over his eyes. The other team scores six runs in the first inning and Joe comes running off the field after the top of the first and jogs right past everybody and goes right up to the guy and grabs him by the shirt.
“Joe says, ‘Let me tell you something, if you’re going to pull this crap and don’t want to play, then I’m going to go home and I’m going to take all the Americans with me.’ A fight broke out, but not between Joe and the guy. Other guys came after Joe.”
Girardi: “It was 11 in the morning and it was hot and we were fighting for a playoff spot and the guy didn’t necessarily come ready to play. It made me mad because our center fielder missed a ball and he was the person who replaced this guy and that led to six runs for the other team in the first inning. I was mad. I probably overreacted and I probably could have handled it in a better way, but I was young and feisty and hot, and Pete had to protect me in some instances because life is a little bit different down there.
“The player I yelled at told someone else and they went and got bats and started coming after me, and the pitching coach, Jim Wright, stepped in. It kind of cooled off after that. Pete says to me, ‘OK, because of this you’re going to have to play every day now because if you don’t play it looks bad.’ I ended up with 300 plate appearances in winter ball because we ended up winning the whole thing.”
Zulia’s Caribbean World Series title was a distant memory for Girardi by the end of the year because it was trumped by the magical memories of his rookie season in 1989. He made his major-league debut for the Cubs in an April 4 game against the Phillies at Wrigley Field and got his first career hit off Floyd Youmans. The Cubs won, 5-4, after Mitch Williams pitched out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam by striking out three straight batters, including Mike Schmidt.
Girardi: “I’ll never forget that first game. It was what I had dreamed of my whole life. My friend Todd and I would play Cub-Cardinal Wiffle ball. I had to hit lefthanded for Billy Williams and righthanded for Don Kessinger and Todd was a huge Cardinals fan. We’d play hours and hours and hours of Wiffle ball. It was my dream to play major-league baseball. I even wrote about it in an essay in third grade.
“And then I get the chance to play in the big leagues. I got engaged after the game. We were supposed to get engaged after I came home from winter ball, but because the team kept winning I got home really late and I didn’t have time to do it. It was probably the longest season of my career because I got home from winter ball on Feb. 10 and left for spring training a week later. By the end of the year I was spent, but we had so much fun.”
By the end of the season, the Cubs had won 93 games and reached the postseason for just the second time in 45 years. Girardi, meanwhile, had received the first of what would be many seasons of baseball education from manager Don Zimmer, his most influential mentor.
“The Boys of Zimmer is what we were. I think a lot of people thought we were going to finish in fourth or fifth place, but there were so many things that Zim did that made it so enjoyable that year. It wasn’t like we didn’t have problems. The only reason I made the team out of spring training was because Damon Berryhill was hurt. Zim believed in me and I think it is so important for players to know that you believe in them and that’s because of him.
“To me, Don Zimmer is baseball. The only thing he ever did to earn a paycheck had something to do with baseball. He never had another job. He played football in high school, but baseball was his life. I could sit next to him and listen to story after story after story and love every minute of it. He just fascinated me. There was a toughness to Zim, too. He would get on you, too. He would get on the superstar as well as the young player the same. He didn’t treat people different and he was just great to be around.”
Girardi’s first stop in the big leagues also included some brushes with greatness. The 1989 Cubs were led by the trio of Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson, and Greg Maddux, all of whom would eventually be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Girardi: “Andre was focused on his everyday routine, and what he had to go through to play the game was amazing to watch. He had knee surgeries like people get oil changes. He would stand on a table and they would take the panel out of the ceiling in the home clubhouse because he was too tall and he would get taped while doing biceps curls. After the game, he’d ice and sign fan mail at the same time.
“Ryno just made the game look so easy. He was so graceful with everything he did. And then Greg Maddux was the biggest competitor I ever saw in my life. He always had his teammates’ backs. I remember him saying, ‘I’m going to hit this guy and it may cost me 20 wins, but I’m going to hit this guy so just don’t let him get to me.’ That was his response to somebody hitting Ryno. When I came up I would just listen to him and he would never miss a pitch during the game or even during the other team’s BP because he thought he could learn something.”
The good times did not last after Girardi’s first season in Chicago. He missed most of the 1991 season with leg and back injuries and the Cubs fired Zimmer early that year. Girardi split time at catcher with Rick Wilkins in 1992 and was sure he was going to be selected by the Florida Marlins in the expansion draft that November. Instead, he ended up with the Colorado Rockies, where he was reunited with Zimmer, who had taken the bench-coach job under manager Don Baylor.
Girardi: “My wife and I had just bought our first home in Chicago and they always say never buy a home. But I had four years in the big leagues and for some reason I was sure I was going to Miami. I should have figured it out because the house we bought was on Aspen Lane. I should have known I was going to Colorado. I embraced it because I knew I was going to get a chance to play every day. I was all for it because I wanted to play every day. Those three years are really fond years in my career.”
The Rockies lost 95 times in 1993 and finished sixth in the seven-team NL West, but they also drew nearly 4.5 million fans, which remains a single-season attendance record. They also won their home opener at Mile High Stadium in front of 80,227 fans, which remains the biggest opening-day crowd in baseball history. The Rockies might have lost a lot, but no losing team was ever loved more.
Girardi: “It was wonderful. We had the time of our lives. It was just a great place and a great time in my life. I think E.Y. [Eric Young Sr.] led off the first game with a home run and I don’t think any of us realized what it was going to be like playing in front of that many people. I think we had a series against the Dodgers where we drew 210,000 people and you’re like, ‘Man, this is unbelievable.’ It wasn’t just Colorado — it was the whole Rockies region: the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming. The other thing is we got pretty good pretty quick. By the third year we were in the playoffs and we had this beautiful new ballpark.
The Rockies became the first National League wild-card team in 1995, which would be Girardi’s final season in Denver. He was sad to leave, partly because he loved the place and partly because he had made a friend for life in Rockies outfielder Dante Bichette.
Bichette: “The way I remember it is that our wives were close friends and then because of that Joe and I started hanging out and talking a little bit. We were two opposites that attracted. I was five minutes late for everything, my hair is long and I’m a little undisciplined. Joe is the exact opposite. He’s an hour early, way more disciplined and way more routine-oriented. He always kidded that he’d like to be a lot more like me and I wanted to be a lot more like him.”
Girardi: “I guess opposites do attract. The first time I saw him in spring training he just made me laugh. There were so many things about him. He was flaky and he went by the seat of his pants, but he was also big and talented and soft-spoken and a student of the game.”
Bichette, according to Girardi, was also a two-sport star in an era known for the sensational football and baseball exploits of Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders.
Girardi: “We always joked about how he was a two-sport athlete — baseball and foosball. He was really, really good. I mean ranked in our country. I used to laugh so hard at him because that was the time of Bo and Deion and he’d be like, ‘You know, I’m a two-sport star athlete.’ He’d play foosball until 3 in the morning, sleep until 2 o’clock the next afternoon, then come to the ballpark and get three hits. I’d be like, ‘How did you do that?’ I was going to bed at midnight and getting up at 10 o’clock, so it was just fascinating for me to watch Dante on a daily basis.”
Bichette: “I loved foosball. During the strike year , I went on tour and during spring training one year I won the Tucson city championship.”
The friendship between Girardi and Bichette grew so tight that Girardi named his son Dante after Bichette. Bichette’s youngest son Bo is named after Bo Jackson, but his middle name is Joseph after Girardi.
Bichette: “I think Joe just liked the name. I guess just the fact that he named him Dante means he didn’t hate me a whole lot and he didn’t think I did anything to embarrass the name. Joe ended up lockering next to me the whole time he was in Colorado and that was really awesome for me because I always wanted to act irrational and go in and yell at somebody and Joe would always tell me, ‘OK, but wait until tomorrow.’ By then, of course, I had calmed down.
“I really cherished my relationship with Joe. I still keep in touch, but we don’t get to see each other the way we used to. I would not have normally hung out with a guy like Joe, but he became such a unique friend. I never met anyone else like him. He’s the most genuine person I know.”
Joe Girardi’s baseball life is most associated with the Yankees, the place where he played for four seasons, coached for one, and managed for 10 years. When he was traded to New York from Colorado for reliever Mike DeJean in November 1995, however, he was not thrilled to hear the news. As a visiting player from the Midwest, he was never in love with New York and he knew he was replacing the popular Mike Stanley, who had left via free agency for Boston after making the All-Star team in 1995.
Girardi: “I wasn’t thrilled because I loved Colorado and your vision of New York is completely different as a visiting player than when you actually go live there. It was intimidating. I was a little nervous and I was not well received because Mike Stanley was there and they loved him. Fans in New York are very loyal if you do well. I got booed at Fanfest. I got booed at the welcome home dinner. There were signs telling me to go back to Colorado. It was a tough time in my life and the first month I struggled because I was trying to do too much. I was trying to hit home runs.”
Girardi leaned on a strong support group. His old friend Don Zimmer was the Yankees’ first-year bench coach and new manager Joe Torre had urged new general manager Bob Watson to go get Girardi even before Stanley signed with Boston.
Torre: “I remember it very vividly. From experience, I knew if we were going to have an impact we would need a defensive catcher and I always admired Joe when he was with the Cubs and Colorado. Mike Stanley was leaving and I was more interested in a defensive guy than an offensive one. Joe was my priority and we were fortunate to be able to make a deal.”
Twenty games into Girardi’s career with the Yankees, he was hitting .237 and the anxiety he felt immediately after the trade had heightened. Right around then, he got the same speech in stereo from Zimmer and his wife, Kim.
Girardi: “I call it Don Zimmer’s Knute Rockne speech. He had a talk with me and my wife also had a talk with me. They both said the same thing: be yourself. They said, ‘Go be yourself and the fans will like you.’ And I stopped trying to hit home runs.”
Even better, he caught Dwight Gooden’s no-hitter on May 14 against the Seattle Mariners at Yankee Stadium while the pitcher’s father was in a Tampa hospital awaiting heart surgery.
Girardi: “That’s when it all started to change. I remember carrying Doc off the field, but the thing I remember most is that his father was awaiting open-heart surgery and he told him, ‘You pitch, son, and come see me tomorrow.’ That’s what I think about most: a father being a father and a son being a son. After that I fell in love with New York because of the passion for baseball in that town.
“East Coast baseball is just different. It’s electric. You need passion and toughness and I fell in love with it. I fell in love with living in New York, too. We lived just outside the city in Westchester … and the falls are magnificent on the East Coast. We fell in love with the landscape and everything there is to do there. It just took a while.”
It’s easier, of course, to fall in love with a place when you’re winning. In Girardi’s first season, the Yankees won the World Series for the first time in 18 years, the team’s longest drought since they had won their first of 27 titles in 1923. After losing the first two games of the Series at home to the favored Atlanta Braves, the Yankees rallied to win four straight, with Girardi putting them ahead to stay in Game 6 at Yankee Stadium with an RBI triple off Greg Maddux. New York would forever be in love with Girardi.
Girardi: “During the course of the season, I had 13 safety squeezes for RBIs. Zim was really the mastermind behind that. So I walk up to the plate with Paul O’Neill on third base and I think I’m going to get the safety squeeze to put us up 1-0 on Greg Maddux.”
Torre: “Joe could run pretty well for a catcher and that’s why we had him hitting second for most of his first year. We did a lot of things that frustrated George Steinbrenner that year because he liked a team that hit home runs and we were a team that manufactured a lot of runs. Joe was a big part of that. He’d hit second and he was great at bunting.”
Torre instructed Girardi to hit away.
Girardi: “I was not a patient hitter. I would swing at the first thing I thought I could hit. Maddux threw me a fastball that he kind of left up and it came back over the middle. [Marquis] Grissom was playing me like I was in Little League and I hit the ball over his head.
“Sometimes you’re asked questions like, ‘Is there one moment in your life you would want to go back and relive?’ For me, that’s really the only one. I would not want to go back to playing every day again. I’m good with that. But that was one moment I wish I could go back to because people tell me the stadium was shaking and the place was so loud, but I don’t remember any of it. It’s just a blur.”
Before he was done playing in New York, Girardi would win two more World Series titles, in 1998 and 1999, but his playing time dwindled each year as Jorge Posada went from a top prospect to an emerging star.
Torre: “When we turned the reins over to Jorge and he started catching more regularly, Joe was very understanding and he rooted for Jorge a lot. That never became an issue because Joe was a good leader and cheerleader.”
Girardi nearly caught a second no-hitter in September 1996. David Cone, in his first start back after missing four months because of a brain aneurysm, pitched seven no-hit innings against the Athletics in Oakland.
Girardi: “He had a pitch limit because it was his first start back. Joe said, ‘You know, David, we have to take you out. The prize is not in September, it’s in the month of October.’ But you don’t know if you’re ever going to get that chance again.”
A second chance for Cone came on July 18, 1999. On a scorching hot day, something so extraordinary happened that it makes you wonder if there really was some supernatural presence inside the House that Ruth Built. Yogi Berra returned to Yankee Stadium for the first time in 14 years, ending a feud with Steinbrenner, and Don Larsen, the only pitcher to ever throw a postseason perfect game, threw out the first pitch. Cone pitched a perfect game.
Girardi: “It was Yogi Berra Day and Don Larsen threw out the first pitch. So eerie. I don’t believe in ghosts or anything, but there was something going on there.
“One of the really weird things was that we started a series on a Sunday. Montreal had played in Baltimore the night before. After Don Larsen threw out the first pitch to Yogi, I asked Yogi to bless my glove and he must have. Saint Lawrence.”
Torre: “It happened on my birthday. It was so hot my wife decided not to come to the ballpark and she ended up kicking herself for it. Our pitchers just always had a great deal of confidence in Joe and that’s so important because when a pitcher is in between about what he should throw, it’s always a great feeling when you can trust your catcher.”
The game was delayed for 33 minutes in the third inning by rain. By the sixth inning, Girardi was sure Cone had a chance to pitch a perfect game.
Girardi: “I started to think about it because I knew we only had to get by Vlad Guerrero one more time. He was the most intimidating hitter because no matter where you threw it, he could hit it. All I could think about as we were going through it was ‘Don’t screw it up. Don’t drop a third strike. Don’t miss a ball that you should block. Don’t drop a pop-up.’
“It was the only regular-season game I ever caught that felt like a World Series game. It was special because David Cone was always my biggest advocate when times were tough for me in the beginning in New York.”
Girardi, at age 35, left the Yankees after four seasons and returned to the Cubs as a free agent because the father who had made sandwiches for him during his first season in professional baseball in Peoria had Alzheimer’s disease.
Girardi: “The Yankees had offered me a deal to come back and San Francisco offered me a longer deal for more money, but the Cubs came in and Kim and I wanted to go home. My father was getting older and had Alzheimer’s. Kim’s father was getting older. We went home to be with our families and play for the team I grew up loving.”
In his first season back with the Cubs, Girardi received an unexpected call the day before the 2000 All-Star Game in Atlanta.
Girardi: “My daughter Serena was 9 months old and Kim and I just planned to relax and hang out in Chicago during the break. I get a call from [National League executive] Katy Feeney on Monday and she says, ‘Will you come to the All-Star Game?’ I say, ‘As a player?’ She says, ‘Yes, as a player.’ I say, ‘I’ll be there.’ She starts asking me about a flight and I say, ‘Don’t worry about it, I’ll get myself there.’ I made my own flights, got there, and watched BP before the home run hitting contest. It was one of the highlights of my career.
“A couple of people had to get hurt for me to make it, but I’m OK with that. I didn’t get to play and at the end of the game [National League and Atlanta manager] Bobby Cox says, ‘I want you to have this.’ He tried to hand me the lineup card. I looked at him and said, ‘Bobby, I am cool. I’m fine.’
“When they introduced the players, we got to bring our kids with us and I got to carry Serena in from center field. It was 95 degrees, smoking hot, and she fell asleep in my arms. When we got to home plate, her big eyes opened and that felt pretty good to me. That was my All-Star Game highlight. We had waited 10 years to have kids because we had some difficulties, so that was just awesome. I’m forever grateful.”
The official end to Girardi’s playing career came on Sept. 28, 2003. With an assist from teammate Tino Martinez, whom he had also played with in New York, Girardi singled in his final at-bat as a reserve with the St. Louis Cardinals after initially thinking his career was going to end with a strikeout as a pinch-hitter. Most of the season, however, was spent taking a managerial course with Tony La Russa.
Girardi: “Tony sent me up to pinch-hit the last day of the season in Arizona and I made an out. I may have even struck out. I went back in the clubhouse and I was crying like a baby because I knew my career was over. I knew I was retiring because I couldn’t stay healthy. Tino went to Tony and said, ‘Hey, he’s retiring, let him play.’ So I went back out and got one more at-bat and I got a hit. The great thing is I didn’t end on a tax form — 1099. I ended with 1,100 hits. But if Tino had not gone to Tony I would have never got that hit. But Tony was great all season while I was doing my rehab for a back injury. He would come up to me and say, ‘Why do you think I did that?’ He would talk things through with me and he was really helping me prepare and I’ll never forget that.”
It didn’t take Girardi long to find a new line of work. That October he broadcast a playoff game on the radio with the late Jim Durham. John Filippelli from the Yankees’ YES network was listening and offered Girardi a job. Before spring training, however, Girardi also got a call from Yankees general manager Brian Cashman asking if he’d be willing to serve as an emergency catcher during the Grapefruit League games.
Girardi: “Now I’m working harder than I ever have in spring training. I’m doing all the catching stuff and then I’m doing a kids show in the afternoon and I’m exhausted. The show was great. We went horseback riding, I drove a Daytona car and it was tremendous. But then the games started and Posada got hurt and [John] Flaherty, the backup, got hurt and I’m playing more than I ever have in spring training. I’m 39 years old and I’m saying to myself, ‘I did not sign up for this.’ In my mind I was done.
“Then they asked me if I’d go to Tokyo, where the season was starting, and play in the two exhibition games and then broadcast the two regular-season games. I did that. Had a tag play at the plate the last game I ever played. Now we’re flying back to Tampa and there’s another week of spring-training games before the regular season resumes and Joe Torre says, ‘You’re going to stay the rest of spring training, right?’ I looked at him and said, ‘No, I’m going home to rest. I am exhausted.’ Flaherty had come back, Posada was healthy, and I said, ‘Joe you don’t need me. I don’t want to catch anymore.’ So I went home and started my broadcasting career.”
The broadcasting career lasted only a year. Girardi loved the work, but not enough to remove his drive to become a big-league manager that had long since been implanted in him by conversations with Zimmer, Don Baylor, Torre, and all the other managers he encountered over the years. He joined the Yankees as Torre’s bench coach for the 2005 season.
Girardi: “I’d sit in the Yankees dugout when I wasn’t playing and I’d listen to Joe and Zim and [pitching coach] Mel Stottlemyre and it was just priceless. I loved it. I’d hear them thinking and throwing ideas off each other and I was hooked.
“Zim was my greatest mentor when I think of managers that I watched and picked their brains about situations. Zim managed from numbers and what he saw with his eyes. It wasn’t strictly one way or another and he also taught me to never let my personal feelings about a player affect how you use them.
“There was an incident that happened when I was in triple A with the Cubs where a couple of guys were mad that they had been sent down and they created a dartboard with pictures of the manager and the general manager [Jim Frey]. Lo and behold, we play the big-league team and Zim and Frey see the dartboard. But someone got hurt and they asked who was playing the best and it was the guy who created the dartboard. Zim says, ‘Bring him up.’ The guy did great. So never let your personal feelings get in the way of what’s best for the team.
“When I think of Joe Torre, it was just his ability to make his players feel like everything was going to be OK if we worked hard and stuck together. Joe was also great at insulating us from Mr. Steinbrenner. He had a way to calm Mr. Steinbrenner down and let him know that everything was going to be all right. After we lost the first two games at home to the Braves in 1996, Mr. Steinbrenner came in and Joe said he was really mad. Joe says to him, ‘George, don’t worry. Atlanta is my town. We’re going to win three there and then we’re going to come home and win it in six games.’ That calmed George down.”
After one year as Torre’s bench coach, Girardi was hired by owner Jeffrey Loria to manage the Florida Marlins, a team in the midst of a major rebuilding project three years after beating the Yankees in the 2003 World Series.
Girardi: “We had 23 rookies [actually 25] during the course of the season. Everyone was pretty much gone. So when I went to spring training I knew who the opening-day starter was — Dontrelle Willis — and I knew who my third baseman was — Miguel Cabrera — and that was it. So I learned about the evaluation process of players quick. But I learned more in that year by going through tough times and coaching young players than I would have if I had gone to a team where everything was great. You learn about all the different hats you have to wear. You learn about all the different relationships that are important. It’s important that you’re everybody’s choice and not just one person’s choice.”
He also learned that you cannot tick off the owner even when the owner is dead wrong. On Aug. 6 of the 2006 season, Girardi forcefully advised Loria to be quiet after the Marlins’ owner had berated home-plate umpire Larry Vanover about a pitch. Loria nearly fired Girardi after the game and then did fire him after the season. The Marlins went a surprising 78-84 under Girardi and a few weeks after he was fired he was named National League manager of the year.
Torre: “They banged heads and Joe was right in his disagreement with what happened there. He told me what the issue was and I couldn’t talk him off it. Actually I didn’t even try because he was right, but I think I did suggest that he approach it in a different way. Joe was pretty straightforward and pretty vocal in letting Jeffrey know how he felt. I couldn’t disagree with him, but you know how it’s going to turn out when there’s a disagreement between the owner and the manager. You just worry about him getting another chance to manage. It obviously did not hurt his chances.”
Girardi: “Jeff and I have a good relationship and we had a good relationship then, too. He has actually recommended me for other jobs and I still talk to him to this day. But the interesting thing about being fired was that I knew it was going to happen. At first I thought it would happen on the Monday after the season, but that was a Jewish holiday, so they set up the meeting for Tuesday. So I call my mentor Zim and I think I’m going to get some unbelievable wisdom from this guy. ‘Zim,’ I tell him, ‘I think I’m going to get fired tomorrow.’ Zim says, ‘Welcome to the club, pal.’ And I’ll never forget telling him, ‘That’s not the advice I was looking for.’ ”
After turning down offers to manage elsewhere, Girardi returned to a broadcast role with the Yankees and the YES Network in 2007. His next offer to manage after that was one he could not refuse. Torre was fired after the 2007 season even though he had taken the Yankees to the postseason for 12 straight years. Don Mattingly and Girardi were the top two candidates. The offer went to Girardi.
Torre: “I knew when it came down to him and Mattingly that Joe was going to get it, not because anyone told me, but because Brian Cashman always leaned toward guys with major-league experience and it helped Joe that he had managed in Miami. That was a difference maker. He was the first guy I wanted from another team when I became the Yankees manager, so I obviously felt a connection with Joe. I was happy for him. I was happy for me too because I was able to take Mattingly along with me to L.A. and I was in my late 60s at the time and I had the chance to develop someone to take over for me. I chose Donnie.”
Girardi, once anxious about replacing Mike Stanley as the Yankees catcher, knew replacing Torre as manager was going to be a more monumental task. It did not help when the Yankees failed to make the playoffs in his first year.
Girardi: “I called Joe and asked for his blessing. We all joked and called Joe The Godfather, so it was almost like I was calling my father asking him for his permission and his blessing to take over the role that he did so great for so many years. When I got his blessing, it meant a lot to me. And the best advice he gave me was, ‘Be yourself, don’t try to be me.’ That’s the advice I’ve been giving everyone ever since, because if you try to be someone else it’s not authentic.
“But that first year was difficult to a certain degree because of the relationships Joe had with the players that were still there. They were used to one way and I’m a little bit different than Joe. And then we didn’t win the first year and Joe had won every year. It was just a myriad of things that kept us down, but I still think we won like 89 games. I’m thinking, ‘Great, I took over for The Godfather who is so beloved in New York, we don’t make the playoffs for the first time in like 72 years and here I am, right?’
“And then I remember sitting around with about three days left in the season and I turned to Jason Zillo [the Yankees media relations director] and say, ‘You know, if we can get CC [Sabathia] and A.J. Burnett and Tex [Mark Texeira] … we’ll win the World Series.”
The Yankees, being the Yankees, spent $423.5 million to get all three players during the offseason and Phillies fans know all too well what happened next. The Yankees won 103 games and went on to win their 27th World Series by beating the defending champion Phillies in six games.
Girardi: “Believe it or not, I think I enjoyed winning the World Series more as a manager than I did as a player. I think as a player, in a sense, you only think about yourself. You think about how you dreamed about it as a little kid, but as a manager I thought about everybody else. It was the first time for Alex [Rodriguez] and the memory I have is Alex and Tex running at each other with their arms up and you could just see how happy they were. The other vivid memory I have is giving Mr. Steinbrenner the ring and being able to thank him for taking a shot on me. What I remember most about the Philadelphia part of the series was our families being told not to wear Yankees gear to the ballpark. I knew it was a tough place to play.”
Girardi took the Yankees back to the postseason each of the next three years, losing once in the divisional round and twice in the ALCS. His team, like the Phillies team he had beaten in the World Series, was filled with aging stars, and the manager had to deal with the A-Rod steroids controversy and the declining play of Jorge Posada, the catcher who had once replaced him.
Girardi: “I think the most important thing to remember as a manager is that you don’t just manage the game, you also manage the people. We have a responsibility to get the best out of each person and you’re not just always talking about baseball. You’re talking about marriage and families and things that they go through and you’re always trying to be encouraging. You stand by them even though you don’t necessarily believe in what they did.
“Being a manager is like being a parent. At least that’s how I look at it. When my son or daughters do something I don’t approve of, I don’t turn my back on them. I try to help them make better decisions. I wasn’t supporting what Alex did, but I was supporting Alex. There’s a difference. We had a good relationship because he knew that I stood up for him and protected him.”
After Boston’s Ryan Dempster deliberately drilled A-Rod in August 2013, Girardi voraciously protected his player and was fined $5,000 after being ejected from the game.
Girardi: “Joe Torre called me and said, ‘I was afraid you were going to have a heart attack.’ But I’m laughing about all this stuff I’m hearing about the Astros this spring. Ryan Dempster was allowed to throw at Alex four straight times and nobody said anything about that. I don’t know what you consider worse, but that was the maddest I ever got in the game. It was my job to walk alongside Alex and protect him.”
It was also Girardi’s job to drop Posada in the batting order and remove him from his role as the team’s catcher in 2011, no easy task when the player was your former teammate and one of the greatest catchers in franchise history.
Girardi: “It was hard. To this day I wish I had handled it a little bit differently. You learn, but what you realize is that what makes great players great is their belief in themselves. What makes it hard for them is their belief in themselves because they don’t always see what everyone else sees. It’s tough because players need to have confidence in themselves because this is a tough game. But sometimes they’re not the same player and it makes my job really hard. The guys who can really self-evaluate, it’s easy when they get old. But the guys that can’t self-evaluate, which I completely understand because there is no human being in the world that wants to say, ‘I’m not what I used to be,’ that makes it hard and it’s hard to watch.”
Thanks to his vast experiences as a player, broadcaster, and manager, Girardi appears to be more qualified than any manager the Phillies have ever hired.
Paul O’Neill: “Joe wasn’t the type of player who lit up the stat sheet. He did the intangible things with the way he ran the game as a catcher and with the desire he had to win. Catchers, by nature, are in a position that has a lot to do with the outcome of a game and Joe was great at that. I think that’s his strength as a manager, too. He knows pitching, he knows bullpens, and he knows winning. There’s nothing like managing or playing for the Yankees. Everything you do there is questioned more than any other place. It really is all or nothing in terms of winning the World Series when you’re with the Yankees, but that’s a fun way to play baseball.
“You’re talking about a guy who had great relationships with Joe Torre and Don Zimmer and who knows the ups and downs of a long season and then he also has a mind that is able to embrace the analytics. He’s old-school and he knows the numbers, too. I think he’s perfect for the Phillies job because that is not a team that is rebuilding. They are on the brink of winning and they have a lot of talent. He understands the National League game.”
Torre: “Philadelphia has a young club on the rise and Joe is perfect for that because he’s a good teacher and nowadays that is really important. He will help players get better.”
Girardi: “I think I’ve been really fortunate in my life in what I’ve been able to do in the game of baseball. Obviously as a little kid you only dream about playing, but I never knew growing up or even when I was a player just how rewarding managing a big-league ball club could be. I know this isn’t going to last forever … and sometimes when you’re in the midst of things and you’ve been doing it for a long time … you forget to stop and smell the roses. I’m appreciative to the Middletons and the Bucks and Matt Klentak and the Philadelphia organization and fans for giving me this opportunity and I’m ready to embrace the red in the hats and the jerseys.”