The Yankees’ team bus was on the Henry Hudson Parkway last Saturday when Joe Girardi’s phone rang. After deteriorating from Alzheimer’s disease since the 1990s, his father had died in Illinois.
”I had tears in my eyes on the bus, so I put some sunglasses on,” the manager said Thursday, struggling not to cry, ”and (did) probably what a lot of men do when they go through difficult and sad times, we try to stay busy. That’s what we do. And I tried to focus.”
For five days, Girardi did not disclose dad’s death to his players, preferring not to talk about it and not wanting to distract his team. Jerry Girardi, who was 81, will be buried in Tampico, Ill., next Monday – an off day in the AL championship series.
”I was going to tell them, you know, God willing we get into the next round, that I was going to the funeral on Monday and I wouldn’t be at the workout,” he said. ”That’s when I was going to tell them.”
The Yankees held a 2-1 lead over Baltimore in the best-of-five division series going into Game 4 Thursday night.
A man on a mission. That’s what Joe Girardi is. That’s what he learned from Jerry Girardi and his mom, Angela, who died in 1984.
Not managing for a night never entered his mind, not last weekend, not now.
”The one thing that both of them, besides many other things that they taught me, was always to finish the job at hand,” Girardi said. ”So my thought process was my dad would want me to do everything that we could do to go win a World Series. He had been a part of them with me as a player. 2009 – I don’t think he understood what we did at that time. He was at a stage in Alzheimer’s that he wasn’t talking, so I don’t think he understood.”
And then the manager with the close-cropped hair and serious look, a man who almost always maintains a steely cool, got emotional and choked up.
”I had a tremendous relationship with my father. Wherever he went, I went. When he stopped, I ran into him,” Girardi said. ”And I’ve always said, if I could be half the husband and father my dad would be, that would be special.”
It was as difficult a pregame news conference as there can be. A night earlier, Girardi made the toughest decision of his six years as a major league manager. With the Yankees trailing 2-1 in the ninth inning, he pinch hit for slumping Alex Rodriguez, baseball’s most expensive player. Raul Ibanez batted for A-Rod and not only hit a tying home run, hit went on to hit a winning homer in the 12th to give New York a 3-2 victory.
”He would have been extremely proud and probably told all his buddies,” Girardi said of his dad.
Jerry Girardi served in the U.S. Air Force in the Korean War and worked in construction sales and as a bricklayer. Sounds like he was a tough guy who didn’t back down.
”I was watching my dad change a bathtub spigot, and he had the wrench, and he was trying to tighten it, and the wrench slipped and hit his thumb and he broke his thumb and it was bleeding,” Girardi said. ”But he finished what he had to do. He finished that, and my mom was like, `You’ve got to go to the hospital,’ and he’s like, `Nope, I’ve got to finish it.’ He just taped it up.
”So I thought, that’s what my dad would want me to do, so that’s what I tried to do.”
Across the field, opposing managers look at Girardi and assume his fight comes from his dad. Baltimore’s Buck Showalter reflected on the 1991 death of his father, Bill, a retired high school baseball coach and principal.
”I talk about it all the time, we’re at the mercy of the mothers and fathers of the world, and I know you’ve got a pretty good idea what Joe’s dad must have been about,” said Showalter, who started his major league managing career with the Yankees. ”My dad passed away two weeks after I got the job here managing, and I think about him every day. I have a little special feeling for what I’m sure some form or fashion Joe is feeling.”
Alzheimer’s runs in the Girardi family. His father’s mother died from it and his father’s brother Ronnie did, too.
”We see what it does to families, and I’ve always talked to other people, because I’ve been through all the different stages about (how) sometimes we get frustrated with our parents when they’re going through that,” he said. ”And believe me, they don’t want to forget. They don’t want to forget where they put their keys. … You have to show them a lot of patience and kindness and try to understand the disease.”
Girardi talked baseball with his dad, went to Wrigley Field together, played catch in the backyard, watched Cubs’ games together on TV. He had given his father his 1996 World Series ring.
He thinks about his dad often, but not when he’s in the dugout and it’s time to make decisions. He smiled when he reflected about one change this week.
”I’ll be able to do my job, because I know that’s what they would want me to do,” Girardi said. ”When I think about it, it’s the first time in over 28 years that my mom and dad have seen a game together again. So they’ll be watching, and they’ll be mad if I’m not doing my job. I know that.”