Diamond Joe

Yankee catcher Joe Girardi has been a winner since his Northwestern days.

by Allan Kreda (GJ88)

Editor's note: Reprinted from the fall 1998 issue of Northwestern Perspective.

Flash back to the sixth game of the 1996 World Series at Yankee Stadium. The home team is a win away from snaring its first world championship in 18 years, but Atlanta Braves ace Greg Maddux is standing in its path. In the bottom of the third inning of a scoreless game, the last hitter in the Yankee lineup, catcher Joe Girardi (McC86), strides to the plate with a runner on third base and one out.

He proceeds to launch Maddux's first pitch deep to center field. The ball flies over the head of outfielder Marquis Grissom and bounces off the wall for a triple, driving in the game's first run. The unexpected power surge energizes the capacity crowd and sparks a three-run rally for the Yankees, who go on to win the game 3-2 and capture the series.

It's as good a defining moment as any for the soft-spoken Northwestern graduate, who began dreaming of playing for the Chicago Cubs when he was an 8-year-old in Peoria, Ill. Producing under pressure has been Girardi's calling card throughout his baseball career.

"His drive and determination are at a very high level," says Paul Stevens, who was an assistant coach when Girardi played at Northwestern and is now head coach here. "If someone told Joe he couldn't do something on the field, he'd surely find a way to prove that person wrong."

"I always believed I could do it," says the 33-year-old Girardi, relaxing on the bench in the Yankee dugout before a recent home game. "When I was in the third grade, I actually wrote an essay saying I wanted to play for the Cubs someday."

Coming into the 1998 season, Girardi had played 844 major league games with a career .272 batting average. He's been on playoff teams with the Cubs, the Colorado Rockies and the Yankees. His offensive numbers have always been solid, but it's his presence behind home plate that's made Girardi a favorite of teammates, coaches, managers and fans.

"He sure is the thinking man's catcher, very even keeled and never out of control," Yankee pitcher David Cone says. "He's so into every moment of the game and is quick to adjust to changing situations and conditions. He communicates with us [pitchers] constantly. It means a lot to look in from the mound and be confident in your catcher."

Yankee manager Joe Torre says Girardi is "an inspirational guy on a team full of stars." Close observation reveals how intensely Girardi plays. He hustles down to first base on every ground ball to back up on throws. He snaps the ball back to his pitcher with a zing. A baserunner's managing to steal second brings a grimace and stomp of disgust from Girardi. Girardi himself is an excellent baserunner for a catcher, leading all catches in stolen bases in 1996.

All the way back to Little League, catching was Girardi's forte. He was All-State in baseball at Peoria's Spalding Institute, leading to a baseball scholarship offer from Northwestern. "My parents' eyes lit up. Education was stressed in our family," relates Girardi, whose sister and three brothers achieved academically and went on to successful careers. "I knew Evanston was the place for me to be."

What followed was a college career during which Girardi was three times an Academic All-American and was twice named All-Big Ten. He also met his future wife, the former Kim Innocenzi (SESP86), at Northwestern.

Far from regretting that he deferred baseball for college, Girardi, an industrial engineering major, says his education made him a better ballplayer. "It helped me to make accurate snap decisions in a baseball game," he says. "I feel that being able to think quickly is a definite help in calling a game."

In addition to receiving a "top-flight education" at Northwestern, Girardi played college ball on "some very close-knit teams." Recalling teammates Grady Hall (SESP86), John Stewart (McC86), Eddie Tompa (McC86), Bobby Miller (WCAS86) and Dan Grunhard (WCAS87), Girardi says, "We spent so much time together, we had so much fun, it was one of those periods of my life I would gladly revisit."

Coach Stevens, who witnessed the Girardi era firsthand as an assistant to then–head coach Ron Wellman, says Girardi is "a model of what a ballplayer at Northwestern should be.

"Joe was one of those people who stopped at nothing to attain their goals," he says. "He has an incredible desire to succeed. He always found a way to step up his level of play when the pressure was on. I remember when we had just installed a new scoreboard, and Joe hit a line drive so hard that it not only dented it but remained stuck in it. I don't think I ever saw anyone hit a ball harder. To me, that typifies Joe's drive and determination."

Girardi's pro dreams began to take serious shape in June 1986 when he was drafted by the Cubs in the fifth round of the free-agent draft. First up was a year playing for his hometown Peoria Chiefs of the Midwest League (A ball), during which he hit .309 to lead all catchers. Then it was off to the Carolina League (also A ball) for a year with the Winston-Salem Sprints, where he was named an all-star. In 1988 Girardi moved to Pittsfield, Mass., of the Eastern League (AA ball), where he led the league's catchers in all defensive categories, including fielding percentage and throwing out runners attempting to steal.

As a result of Girardi's success in the minors, the Cubs brought him up and put him in the starting lineup for opening day at Wrigley Field in 1989. He was the first rookie to be starting-day catcher since Randy Hundley in 1966, and the gravity of the situation was not lost on young Girardi.

"It truly was the fulfillment of a dream," he says. "I used to go to Wrigley as a kid, and now to have the chance to step on the same turf was an amazing thrill."

The thrill got better: Girardi had a hit in his first big-league at bat in the friendly confines. When regular Cubs catcher Damon Berryhill returned to the lineup, Girardi briefly was sent back to the minors, spending six weeks of the 1989 season in AAA with Iowa of the American Association, and then returned to the majors for good. The Cubs captured the National League East crown that year, and Girardi got a taste of postseason play in the league championship series that the Cubs lost to the San Francisco Giants.

Girardi had his most productive year with the Cubs in 1990, playing 133 games and batting .270. In his four years with Chicago, he caught a total of 299 games. After the 1992 season, the Florida Marlins and the Colorado Rockies expansion teams were stocking their rosters, and the Cubs had left Girardi unprotected. The Rockies tapped him. He guided a young pitching staff in Denver for three years and in 1995 hit a career-high eight home runs.

When the Yankees decided to sever ties with fan-favorite catcher Mike Stanley in 1996, Girardi was acquired to fill the void. The move was not initially popular with New York fans, but they came to appreciate the gritty heart-and-soul style of their new backstopper.

"New York is a very intense city and very intense place to play baseball," Girardi says. "I knew how the fans felt about Stanley, but I worked hard and I feel appreciated now."

A man who's had a front-row seat for all but one year of Girardi's major league career, Don Zimmer, says he's always known Girardi is "a winner." Zimmer was Girardi's first manager with the Cubs, was a coach during Girardi's time in Colorado and has been bench coach of the Yankees since 1996. "When I leave this game," Zimmer says, "Joe will be one of the very top people in my life I'll never forget. He's a manager's type of player. He can go 0-for-4 but be the happiest guy in the world if you win. But if he gets two hits and you lose, he doesn't like it."

This season, Girardi has no longer been the Yankees' everyday catcher. He shares his duties with 27-year-old Jorge Posada, who will eventually take his job. Where other players might complain and be uncooperative, Girardi has gone out of his way to help the young catcher.

"He's more than a teammate, he is my friend," says Posada. "He's never jealous of what I do. He's been helping me all the way and giving me support. I hope I can do the same for a young player when I am older."

Again, no surprise to Northwestern's Coach Stevens.

"Joe has always been that type of giving person," Stevens says. "A lot of people say they care about others, but he proves it with his actions."

One recent action back at his alma mater exemplified Girardi's generosity and graciousness. He was inducted into Northwestern's Athletic Hall of Fame in February, and about 10 members of the Girardi family were in attendance at the Allen Center ceremony. Girardi brought tears to the audience by delivering a heart-tugging speech to thank his parents, siblings and extended family. He spoke for about 20 minutes and had to compose himself every time he mentioned his late mother. He noted that his wife helped him to improve his swing by throwing socks at him when they were newlyweds. His talk reached a high point when he took off his World Series ring — a ballplayer's most coveted possession — and presented it to his father, Gerald.

"I think I surprised him," the younger Girardi comments. "I know he wears it around and is very proud of it. He deserves it! I wanted him to know that everything he did for me all those years did not go unnoticed."

Gerald Girardi, a retired salesman for Westinghouse who took up second jobs when his five children were growing up, recalls the emotional evening: "Joe said, 'Dad, would you come up here, I've got something for you.' So I get up there, and he pulls his World Series ring off his hand, gives it to me and says, 'Dad, this is for you.' Well, I just choked up. I couldn't say a word. I gave him a big bear hug, and he gave me one. I had tears coming down like someone poured a bucket of water over my head."

"My dad was always there for me," the son says. "He was the one who played catch with me, he was the one who took me to all my Little League games, he was the one who took me to Cubs games where I could see my favorite players like Ron Santo and José Cardenal in action."

Told that he was a childhood favorite of Girardi's, Cardenal, who played for the Cubs in 1972–77 and is now on the Yankees coaching staff, says the admiration is mutual. "Actually, I used to go to Wrigley to watch Joe catch for the Cubs," says Cardenal. "He's a great guy, always with a smile and always there for his teammates. He's a valuable human being on any team."

Allan Kreda (GJ88) was a New York–based writer and editor for the Associated Press when he wrote this story in 1998. He is now a freelance sports and business writer.