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Great Expectations

Manager Joe Girardi carries a lot of weight on his pinstriped shoulders -- the pursuit of a 27th world championship for the legendary Yankees.

by William Weinbaum (J82, GJ83)

It's 20 minutes after a routine early spring training game in Tampa, and 20 journalists surround Joe Girardi's desk. Concluding a relaxed Q-and-A session, the 32nd manager of the New York Yankees bends over and breaks open a large box filled with wrapped sandwiches and plastic containers of meats and cheeses from Little Italy in the Bronx.

Girardi (McC86) is in the honeymoon phase with the notoriously aggressive New York media. From his desk, topped with his laptop and an impromptu smorgasbord, he offers the delicacies with gusto, and a couple of reporters snag samples before filing out of the manager's office.

Two years before, Girardi says, perhaps six or eight reporters would query him after most regular season games when he stunned baseball by managing the low-budget Florida Marlins to a competitive season. And unsolicited care packages from Mike's Deli, 10 minutes from Yankee Stadium, were not among the perks in Miami.

"You might like this one, Yogi. This is the 'Yankee Stadium Big Boy,'" Girardi calls out to Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, who crosses the threshold. "Italian bread, prosciutto, salami, mortadella, sopressata, provolone, lettuce, sweet peppers," Girardi elaborates.

"This is good," says Berra, eschewing the sandwiches for nibbles of sopressata, a spicy Italian salami. "Ya gotta get some crackers," he adds. Berra, a spring instructor and legend for all seasons, leaves and comes back for more, then does it again.

On being manager of the Yankees and feeding Berra at his desk, Girardi says, "It's amazing. You kind of say, 'Is this a dream?'"

Girardi recalls first dreaming of managing about 10 years ago, but says he also considered pursuing a front-office job.

His wife, Kim Innocenzi Girardi (SESP87), says she told him that he'd be better on the field and might even be better suited for managing than playing, given his problem-solving acumen.

It takes similar aptitude and attitude, says Girardi, for industrial engineering — his Northwestern major — and major-league managing. "You figure out how to make systems run better and be more efficient, and really that's what you're trying to do as a manager, and that's what you're trying to do in your life, whether you're a husband, a father, whatever you're doing. You're trying to get the most out of your time and the people around you."

What has set Girardi apart, most say, during 15 years as a big-league catcher, two as a broadcaster and now three as a coach or manager, is an unyielding commitment to preparation. He says the battle to surmount the distractions that come with being a manager is surprisingly analogous to what he faced as a Northwestern Wildcat.

"I did have distractions," he says, "I had school. In a sense, it's a lot the same. You had to manage your time. You had to be a student first and an athlete second, so you had to get your work done or you couldn't play.

"I've always been better the busier I am. I always did better in school the busier I was, because I knew I had so much time to get it done and I couldn't procrastinate, and that's the way I like it."

Girardi did far better, far sooner than anyone expected in leading the unheralded Marlins to playoff contention in 2006, becoming just the third Manager of the Year as a rookie. But he also lost his job, culminating a contentious relationship with team ownership.

He has never publicly addressed how or why things fell apart in Florida after just one season. "I don't think any good will come from it," Girardi says. "I'm extremely thankful that I went through that experience, and you realize that God's got a bigger plan than what you could've imagined."

Some good soon resulted from being unencumbered, as the Girardis were freer to deal with two momentous family developments. Their third child, Lena, was born a month before Girardi's October 2006 firing. Meanwhile, his father, Jerry, was descending into the abyss of Alzheimer's disease.

Girardi, whose mother, Angela, died of ovarian cancer 24 years ago, apologizes for his eyes filling with tears as he discusses his dad's condition. Jerry is no longer able to keep the 1996 Yankees World Series ring Girardi surprised him with during an emotional Northwestern Athletic Hall of Fame induction in 1997. "I have it back, and I will give it to one of my children, but he had it up until about a year ago and wore it everyday."

That ring is one of three Girardi earned in four years playing for the Yankees, so he already has World Series rings for all three of his children — Serena, Dante and Lena.

Upon accepting the Yankees' job last October from General Manager Brian Cashman, Girardi requested uniform number 27. Without a title since 2000, the Yankees have won 26 World Series. "He knows the mission," Cashman says, "to the point where he put it on his back. I think it's a great statement."

The benefit and burden of Yankee tradition, according to Girardi, can be captured with one word he professes to embrace: "expectations."

On the eve of the team's first full squad workout in February, Hank Steinbrenner, the Yankees' general partner (and a son of Yankees principal owner George Steinbrenner, who served as an assistant football coach for Northwestern in 1955) told the New York Post, "I think Girardi is going to end up being one of the greatest managers in the history of the game."

There are big shoes for Girardi to fill, given that his predecessor, Joe Torre, led the team to the post-season all 12 years of his tenure. But the new man notes that his own size 13s are just what Torre wore.

Don Zimmer, who served Torre as bench coach and managed and coached Girardi with the Cubs, Rockies and Yankees, predicts success for Girardi. That doesn't mean, Zimmer says, Girardi or anybody else could match Torre's performance in one important respect.

"To me," says Zimmer, "there's not a man alive who could go to New York and handle the media like Joe Torre handled it."

But Zimmer quickly adds that he was impressed with how Girardi conducted himself at his introductory news conference, when he immediately made clear that he is "his own man."

The perceived differences between Girardi and Torre dominated the coverage when players reported for spring duties. Unlike the laid back and avuncular Torre, Girardi was portrayed as controlling and exigent. His first training camp as Yankee manager was made out to be a boot camp, replete with a printed list of 17 rules for the players.

But in interviews with Northwestern magazine, Yankee executives, coaches, players and Girardi, himself, say the team's approach to getting ready for the season had few significant changes from years past under Torre, for whom Girardi was bench coach in 2005.

"We always have 17 rules," observes Mike Mussina, in his eighth year as a Yankee pitcher. "I think they changed the date on top of the paper and handed it out."

"They were the same rules Joe Torre had," says Cashman.

After the first day of spring workouts, two New York tabloids, over photos of a Pattonesque Girardi, ran the back-page headlines: "G.I. Joe."

"I laughed. That's because of my appearance more than anything else," says Girardi, who sports a tight-cropped haircut as he has for nearly 20 years. "People ask me why I wear a flattop, and it's because my hair is uncomfortable if it's any longer. My hair's real thick, and it gets hot and miserable, so I just found it easier to have really short hair."

Beyond the minimalist hairdo, the most striking aspect of Girardi is his fit and firm physique, testament to his daily runs and weight-room workouts. "I want to be able to do whatever my kids ask me, whether it's my son asking me to throw batting practice when he's 18 years old or my daughter asking me to do cheerleading jumps."

Gene Monahan, the team's head trainer for the last 36 years, speaks of Girardi getting to the stadium at 6 a.m. and going right to the weight room, adding, "Working out helps his mind."

Another reason Girardi gives for his passion for working out is the need to offset a savory activity. "My favorite 'hobby' is probably food. I love food."

He says he weighs 197 pounds, three under his perennial playing weight.

"If you're leading the cavalry, you better look good sitting on a horse," says bench coach Rob Thomson, the spring training coordinator under Torre and now Girardi.

"The manager's got the best body in the clubhouse, that's how hard he works," marvels All-Star catcher Jorge Posada.

"I think that's why he makes sure we go out there and run a lot. He wants us to be in better shape than he is," surmises outfielder Johnny Damon.

Girardi's commitment to hard work also frames his response to baseball's recent steroid scandal.

"I think the way the steroids era really damaged baseball is that players were able to take shortcuts," he says, "and it took away from the importance of working out, the importance of pushing each other and being accountable to each other and dragging each other to the weight room and talking about the game, after the game, when you're working out."

Girardi's regimen and fitness reinforce the main substantive changes in the 2008 Yankees' workouts — more running and stricter adherence to time standards, again evoking the military comparison.

"If you'd have told me he was in the Navy or the Army, I wouldn't have been surprised," Posada says. "He is that straightforward, he does everything at time. We have to run under time, all the drills are timed. It's like going to the Army."

A year after the team was rocked by injuries, Girardi states a simple message, "The way to stay healthy is to be in shape."

"He demands things from his players, and he believes there's a right way to do things," Mussina says. "And there's nothing wrong with that."

Kim Girardi says her husband is definitely not a control freak, but he is "no nonsense."

"From the time I met him in college, his motto was 'no one will outwork me.'"

Posada, who was Girardi's understudy as a rookie, has a vivid recollection of the advice he received from the veteran. "When he was here in '96, he said, 'Don't lose your job because somebody's working harder than you.' I think that says it all.

"All through my winters, every winter, I remember those words, and that's what gets me going."

Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, two likely future Hall of Famers who also played with and now play for Girardi, say their new manager is a role model for how to approach the game.

"He really got the most out of his ability," says Jeter. "He did it by working extremely hard and paying attention to detail, and I think that's the type of manager he is. He wants us to work hard, he wants us to pay attention to detail."

"He wasn't that super player, so he had to fight for everything," Rivera says. "He had to do things differently, he had to do things better, and that's what made him the way he was and the way he is, because he had to fight for it."

In Mussina's words, "If he's out there working as hard as we're working, it might even push us a little bit. How can we sit back when our manager is working harder than we are?"

When Girardi gave his first speech to the team as a whole, he spoke about discipline, accountability and work ethic. He also characterized the Yankees as a family in which everyone takes care of each other.

"He's a guy who leads with a strong hand, a firm hand, but with a big heart at the same time," says Cashman, who was in the room for that meeting.

"That's the combination that's most important."

William Weinbaum (J82, GJ83) is a New York–based producer for ESPN-TV and contributor to ESPN.com.

Tell us what you think. If you have any questions or comments, please e-mail the editors at letters@northwestern.edu.

To learn more about Joe Girardi's early baseball career, read the online story "Diamond Joe" by Allan Kreda (GJ88) that ran in Northwestern Perspective in 1998.