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Passion in Pinstripes
By Kevin Kernan
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2012 Kevin Kernan
All rights reserved.
Time in a Bottle
when joe girardi talks about his dad, it is with reverence and pride. The lessons he learned from his father, Jerry, will be with him for the rest of his life, and he continues to pass those lessons on to his own children.
The greatest lessons can come along in the most ordinary of circumstances. That is what truly makes them so special, so powerful, and so memorable. If you really want to know about Jerry Girardi, all you have to do is listen to Joe tell the following story about his dad. It is a small story, but it says so much. It tells you where the son gets his inner strength and how Joe was able to play 15 years in the majors at the most difficult position, catcher. It tells you about Joe's determination as a player and as a manager.
If you don't make the postseason your first year as Yankees manager in 2008, you find a way to make it to the playoffs the following year and win the Yankees' 27th world championship. You may not make it to the World Series, but you always finish what you start, no matter how difficult the circumstances, no matter what obstacles may come your way.
"I saw my father do something I will never forget when he was adding the addition to our house," Joe began. "He was working on the faucet in the bathtub, and he had one of those big plumber's wrenches, and he smashed his thumb. His thumb was bleeding all over the place — he actually broke it — and he just put tape around his thumb and finished the job first. That's who my dad was."
That's Jerry Girardi. That's also Joe and all his siblings — John, George, Jerry, and Maria. Finish the job. Do the best you can do with the equipment you have. If you smash your thumb, you tape it up and move on. Don't make excuses. If something goes wrong, work to the best of your ability to correct the situation. Finish what you started.
Everyday life really is about smashing your thumb.
Perseverance may be the greatest lesson any father can teach a son or daughter. No matter what obstacles get in the way, finish the job. Jerry Girardi has long suffered from Alzheimer's, and Girardi longs for the days when he could sit and have a conversation with his dad. He wishes his children would know their grandfather as he knew the man. He wishes he could do the simplest things with his dad, who has struggled through this dark time for many years.
"I really miss fishing with my dad," Girardi said of the wonderful simple acts their relationship was built upon. "That's one thing as a father and a son that you can always do. The days of playing basketball or playing baseball, those days are over, but you could always fish together."
Just throw a couple of lines in the water and talk and enjoy the time together. Despite the cruelty of Alzheimer's, Joe makes the best of those times when he is able to visit his dad, who is in a full-care facility, not far from where Joe grew up in East Peoria, Illinois. Whenever the Yankees are in Chicago during the season, Joe makes the trip to see his dad. After the season is complete, he makes sure to visit as often as he can, and through it all, he knows his father is getting the best care available.
"They do a really great job with my dad," Joe said with emotion in his voice. "My concern would be that he is skinny and frail, but every time I go he's been fed and he seems strong."
As he makes the two-and-a-half-hour drive to see his dad, Joe thinks of the good times as a family. He thinks of his mom and dad and growing up and all the people who were there to help him in his life. He thinks of how his mother battled ovarian cancer for six years. When Joe was 13, Angela Girardi was diagnosed with cancer and given three to six months to live. She lived another six years. Her spirit lives on in Joe every day in the final words she told him: "Don't forget me." He never will.
He thinks of those long summer days when he played with his good friend, Todd Mervosh, the games they played and all the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches Todd's mom, Phyllis, used to make for them every day at Todd's house. The two friends lived five houses from each other on Oakwood Road, and Todd's house offered the perfect side yard in which to play all day long.
Todd, now a scientist working for the state of Connecticut, remembers those days fondly as well. "We played everything from Wiffle ball to badminton to croquet to touch football there," Todd said. "For a period of time, Joe was my closest friend."
Joe was a Cubs fan. Todd was a Cardinals fan. "We'd trade baseball cards," Todd said. "He'd have a Lou Brock; I'd have a Billy Williams. We'd trade so I could get the Cardinals players and he could get the Cubs." Todd also remembers the toughness of Joe. The yard was ringed by a honeysuckle hedge. One day Todd's dad trimmed the hedge, leaving some sharp edges. Joe went back to make a catch during a Wiffle ball game and ran smack into the hedges. "Joe had his mouth open, and he crashed into the hedge and cut the inside of his mouth really badly with the cut end of the hedge," Todd recalled. "Joe made the catch, his mouth was bleeding all over the place; my mom came rushing out to take care of him. He didn't even cry. He was just a tough kid. If that had been me, I probably would have been bawling my head off."
On a recent trip back home, Joe stopped to see Mrs. Mervosh, and, yes, she offered him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich just like when he was a youngster.
"She was working on her Christmas tree, so I didn't want to bother her," Joe said with a smile. "I think about the way she took care of me as a little boy, I'd play with Todd all day. It was like being in a camp." He then added,"I really missed the times we grew up. I used to ride my bike to baseball practice, which was five miles away, and Mr. Mervosh would bring me home in his mail truck. Our practices were from about 3:00 to 5:00, and when he got off work, he would take us right home."
Just put the bike into the truck and climb aboard. Todd, who played with Joe later on the Sea Merchants travel baseball team, said years later that his dad, Ted, who passed away in 2008, would say that he did not cart Joe home in the mail truck, noting that his dad would comment, "Oh, no, I was always careful never to use the mail truck."
Personal truck or mail truck, everyone looked out for each other in that community, and in many ways people are still looking out for Joe and his family.
"Sometimes it's just me when I visit my dad and sometimes the family goes," Girardi said of his trips to see Jerry. "My father doesn't really speak anymore, but it seems that the times that I bring my kids, he'll say something. Now it doesn't necessarily make sense, but he'll say something. Whatever it is in the kids' voices, it will always trigger something in him. It's great.
"His friends visit him, which is great. Judy, to me, is our little angel."
Judy Shea is there to help Jerry Girardi nearly every day. "Many years after my mom passed away, my dad started dating Judy," Joe explained. "They were basically together for 10 years before he went into the home. She took care of my dad. She traveled with him. She took him to Italy, where he got to see where he grew up. She's amazing. And she goes and sees him probably five days a week."
With Joe and his wife, Kim, being so far away, that is a blessing.
"As I see my dad, and as I get older, I realize that I'm really a lot like my dad," Joe said. "I realize how much I look like my father now that I never really saw in the past. I realize that the time that I spent with my kids is really what I saw my father do."
Joe is his father's son. Jerry Girardi was the perfect role model for Joe, and that is why Joe loves to spend time with his children. During a weekend visit to New York City in November to take care of some business, Joe said he had to hurry back to his home in Westchester to help coach his son Dante's football team. It is always about family. "My father took me to work, and that's why I'm a big believer in allowing players to take their kids to work — because I saw what my dad did and I enjoyed it," Joe said.
Even if it is not his own kids at the game, Girardi goes out of his way to take care of them. Aris Sakellaridis, a retired New York City corrections officer and good friends with Hank Steinbrenner, is a freelance writer and photographer who authored the book Yankees Retired Numbers. One day a charity that Sakellaridis was associated with brought a young man to Yankee Stadium to be an honorary batboy for the game. About a half hour before the game, Girardi sat the youngster, who was about 10 years old, in his office as he scanned the Yankees lineup. Joe handed the lineup card to the youngster and said, "How's that look to you?"
"That was priceless," Sakellaridis explained. "The kid felt a part of it, like he had something to do with that lineup that day. Girardi treated the kid as if he were his own son. You watch Girardi every day when he steps out on that field for batting practice. He will always go behind that rope to sign autographs or pose with the kids for pictures. He'll never just come out and go straight to the cage. He'll always spend time with those kids. Joe is as real as they come."
That is how he treats his players, as well, he is there for them. This is the essence of his philosophy. He wants his players as healthy as possible for the postseason. That is the goal. "I'm not going to hurt someone to win a series," Girardi explained. "The important thing is that we stay healthy. ... The goal here is to not just make the playoffs. The goal here is to win the World Series, and you have to have healthy players to do that."
For the last four years, the Yankees have run an award-winning program called Hope Week, and Girardi takes an active role each year in offering hope to those in need. For five consecutive days during Hope Week, the Yankees shine the spotlight on a different individual, family, or organization worthy of recognition and support. The outreach usually takes place at a community location and ends with a visit to Yankee Stadium.
The event can be anything from a double-decker bus ride around New York with refugees from Haiti who endured the devastating earthquake (a trip that included the participants lighting the tower of the Empire State Building), to a day at the beach with Tuesday's Children (children who lost a parent on 9/11), or it can be a trip to the ballpark with a lifelong Yankees fan who has been blind since birth.
"If we were going to do this," explained Jason Zillo, Yankees director of communications and media relations, "we wanted everyone to be invested in this." That included the Big Four of Girardi, GM Brian Cashman, Yankees president Randy Levine, and chief operating officer Lonn Trost. "I went to Joe first and presented it to him — without his blessing I was not going any further," Zillo said. "He embraced the concept. He loved the fact that it was something different and that the players were going to be able to work together on some of these days with random pairings of players. He thought that would be a great way for our guys to kind of get away from the ballpark and spend two or three hours together on something that is pretty meaningful. He just said, 'What do you need from me? Because I want to see this thing happen.'
"This is a lot to take in because you are talking about five straight days, and you don't want to do anything to interfere with these guys' preparation," Zillo added. It also shows that the Evil Empire is not so evil. One of the events in 2010 had Girardi, Joba Chamberlain, David Robertson, Chad Gaudin, and Tino Martinez make the trip from New Jersey to Yankee Stadium with a blind fan named Jane Lang, 67, and her guide dog, Clipper. The group took each step of the way of the morethan-two-hour journey that Jane usually takes when she goes to the ballpark, including the walk from her home in Morris Plains, New Jersey, to her local train station for the ride to New York, getting into Manhattan, and then taking the subway to the Bronx and Yankee Stadium. At the end of the day, Girardi made Jane's day by guiding her around the bases for her home run.
"That was one of the most powerful things when he walked Jane Lang around the bases," Zillo said. "When she touched home plate with Joe holding her, it was awesome."
Girardi insisted that each day the Hope Week participants bring the lineup card to home plate before the game. "Joe brings up hope every year because he believes hope is what allowed him to spend as much time as he did with his mother," Zillo said. "She wanted to see her kids graduate."
Hope is a powerful thing. Girardi's charity is the Catch 25 Foundation, and he said, "It's a foundation based on giving people hope." Even though he has had so many accomplishments throughout his life already, Girardi jokes that he is the black sheep of his family because of his highly educated siblings. "My two oldest brothers are doctors, and my sister is a professor," he said. "My other brother is an accountant. For me, four years of college was enough, and I'm really happy with what I do."
He was happy with his playing career, his broadcasting career, and now his managerial career. He loves being a father and a husband, recently celebrating his 22nd wedding anniversary with Kim, the girl he met in college, the girl he knew he would marry back when her name was Kim Innocenzi. "We laugh at how fast the time has gone because we've known each other longer than we haven't known each other," Girardi said.
Being a father means the world to Girardi, and it all comes back to being with his own dad and the great times they had in work and in play, the lessons learned, the time spent together.
"I had a great example in my father where it was about us," Girardi said. "It was making sure we did well in school, making sure we had fun playing athletics. Making sure that he had time for us whether he was taking us with on his job or whatever it was.
"Kim's always got the kids and makes sure we are together and everything is always right. I want them to know what we do. I want them to be a part of this. I ask them, 'Are you okay with Daddy doing this?'" And if they weren't, if it were best for his family to leave the game of baseball, Girardi vowed, "I would walk away." That is not happening. Everyone in the Girardi family loves the game. That is something that developed, the love of baseball that Joe's father taught him.
"My dad was the one who really taught me the game," Girardi said. "We'd sit down at home, and he'd teach me the game. My father was a salesman, and there were days I would ride in the car with him. I don't know if I acted good or bad when we were at the sales calls, but we would listen to the Cubs games on the radio because they were day games. We'd listen to Jack Brickhouse and Lou Boudreau. And then when they were on the road, we'd sit in the family room and watch them on TV."
Jerry Girardi was into every pitch. "My father could get a little upset if they didn't play well," Joe said. Jerry, of course, had plenty of chances to get upset. Those Cubs did not play well a lot of the time. "He brainwashed me to be a Cubs fan from when I was a little boy, and I know he's still waiting for them to win," Joe said with a smile.
Maybe someday the Cubs will win a World Series again, something that hasn't happened since 1908. Even for Cubs fans, there is always hope.
There are so many lessons Girardi learned from his dad. Shortly before the Yankees played the Cubs in a weekend series in Chicago in June 2011, Girardi told Jack Curry on The Joe Girardi Show the impact his father had on him: "When I think of my father, I think of two things: the value of hard work and toughness. My father wanted us to know what he did, and my father worked three jobs to support the five children. He would take me on the weekend to be the laborer. He would lay bricks on the weekend. He would pay me for my work and taught me the value of money. We would work hard. For a seven-year-old to be carrying bricks and to be mixing the mortar and to be smoothing out in between the layers, it was a great experience for me."
That work experience made Joe strong, it made him pay attention to detail, and to do the job the right way. "The other thing he taught me about was toughness," Girardi said. There were plenty of opportunities for that. Sports were the perfect outlet for Jerry Girardi to teach his son about toughness. They would wrestle. Wrestling was big in the Girardi family. "My dad's brother was a longtime wrestling coach at Illinois State," Girardi said. "But I never wrestled. Only my older brother did, one year."
They would play basketball — tough, physical basketball. "We would play basketball in the backyard, and he would push me around," Girardi said. "When I would shoot, he'd hit me in the stomach. He wanted to teach me to fight back and to be tough because there would be situations in life and sports that you would have to display that."
Excerpted from Girardi by Kevin Kernan. Copyright © 2012 Kevin Kernan. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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