Joe Girardi, away from the dugout for a second year after managing 10 straight seasons, began searching this summer for clues that could lead him to his next destination.
He stayed around the game as a broadcaster and coached a youth team, but Girardi yearned to manage again. A friend -- who Girardi said watches MLB Network all day -- texted him in August that he would land with the Phillies.
“It started triggering all these things that I thought about,” Girardi said Monday after buttoning his pinstriped Phillies jersey at a news conference at Citizens Bank Park, bringing validity to a friend’s prediction.
Combing through his memories, Girardi began building a trail of clues that led to Philadelphia. He grew up a Cubs fan and watched Larry Bowa after the legendary Phillies shortstop was traded to Chicago. An early date with his wife Kimberly was to the Wrigley Field bleachers, where she stepped on a man’s hand to retrieve a home run hit by a Phillie.
Three years later, he made his major-league debut against the Phillies at Wrigley. Girardi threw out Bob Dernier trying to steal second in the first inning, and slapped a single off Floyd Youmans in his first at-bat. His first major-league road trip with the Cubs was to the DoubleTree Hotel on Broad Street.
In 1991, burly Phillies first baseman John Kruk broke Girardi’s nose in a collision at home plate and then visited him in the hospital. Girardi became close with John Vukovich and Jim Fregosi, and his son, Dante, idolized Ryan Howard even as the Phillies slugger crushed Girardi’s pitchers when he managed the Marlins. Girardi managed the Yankees against Charlie Manuel in the 2009 World Series and saw what South Philadelphia looks like when the baseball team plays in October.
“OK, what’s going to happen in my life, what’s next?” Girardi said he asked himself. “And I’m thinking, ‘Man, I got all these Phillies ties.' I can’t tell you how excited I am to be here because I feel like this is part of who I am.”
Girardi’s return to the dugout will not take him back to Chicago, where he was passed over for the Cubs job. Nor will it bring him to New York, where he interviewed a few times for a Mets job that is still not filled. But it will bring him to a familiar place.
The intense fans in Philadelphia are similar to the ones in New York and Chicago. The attention on the Phillies is just as bright as the focus on teams in other major cities. And the expectations -- to win -- are the same in Philadelphia as they are in New York and Chicago.
“I’m selfish. I want to win,” Girardi said. “That’s why I came here, because I think there’s a great opportunity to win here because you have a dedicated ownership, you have a dedicated general manager and front office, and you have dedicated fans that support this club and want the same thing.”
The Phillies invested a half-billion dollars in their roster last winter and are gearing up for another big offseason. Last season was a disappointment, but that will not change the expectations the team will carry into spring training. The Phillies did not hire Girardi to end another season in September.
The Phillies brass fired Gabe Kapler earlier this month in California and decided on their flight home that their next manager would carry major-league experience. Other teams are handing their dugouts over to rookie managers, but the Phillies limited their interviews to Girardi, Dusty Baker, and Buck Showalter.
After Kapler’s two seasons without a winning record, the Phillies had a type in mind. Girardi brought experience, and also a willingness to use analytics. He will bring a balance of old-school thinking into a dugout that became a bit too reliant on new-age trends. Girardi was the team’s ideal candidate.
“We’ve reached a place where it is time to win. No questions asked, it is time to win right now,” general manager Matt Klentak said. “That lends itself to bringing in a guy who has done that, who has won in the toughest markets with the pressures and has hoisted that World Series trophy over his head. I think that’s all what lead us to Joe.”
Girardi has reached out to roughly two dozen Phillies players since being hired. He called Rhys Hoskins and Bryce Harper and even spoke to Vince Velasquez while the pitcher was vacationing in Thailand. Everybody seems excited, Hoskins said.
And then Girardi received a text message from Pete Mackanin, who was Girardi’s first minor-league manager and told him 30 years ago that he was headed to the big leagues. Mackanin, the Phillies manager from 2015-17, was congratulating the man who was taking over his old office. Girardi had yet another connection to the Phillies.
“He said, ‘Check for the change in the drawer,’ and he would appreciate it if I sent it back,” Girardi said.