Is Joe Girardi having fun yet?

ByAndrew Marchand ESPN logo
Friday, March 10, 2017

TAMPA, Fla. -- Joseph Elliott Girardi graduated in 1986 with an industrial engineering degree from Northwestern, which taught him how to optimize complex systems and eliminate waste. Girardi's entire life seems dedicated to this process. He's very good at it, though from an observer's point of view, it seems to cut down on fun.

Every morning, the 52-year-old New York Yankees manager wakes up without an alarm clock. The habit is a learned trait from 27 years of marriage to his college sweetheart, Kim, an early riser.

Girardi eats the same breakfast: six egg whites, a little ham and dry wheat toast he folds into a little sandwich. It helps keep his meticulously controlled weight at 193, in the same range as when Kim served as his alarm clock nearly three decades ago in college, knocking on his door at 6:30 a.m. to hit the dining hall.

After he finishes breakfast, Girardi begins his 15-hour-plus work day with 90 minutes of video and statistical analysis. He searches for the little advantages that have almost implausibly allowed the Yankees to continue their quarter-century streak of winning seasons, even though their opponents have scored more runs than they have in three of the past four years.

Girardi spends a half-hour studying video of opposing pitchers. He then spends the bulk of the next hour deciding which relievers he wants to use that night against each opposing hitter. He writes everything down in a binder, because he thinks that's the best way to commit it all to memory.

He then works out -- rarely, if ever, with a partner, because Girardi never wants to veer off schedule. He's usually at the ballpark by 1 or 2 p.m. By the time he leaves, it's approaching midnight.

For 162 games, it is wash, rinse, repeat. Optimized systems a go!

SITTING ON A blue George M. Steinbrenner Field folding chair on the dirt behind home plate, Girardi insists he is not a good story. He is neither much of a conversationalist, he says, nor a storyteller.

When it comes to spinning a yarn he is quick to agree he falls at least a couple of weight classes below his Yankees predecessor, Hall of Famer Joe Torre. It is partly by design, even though, truth be told, Girardi does have a story.

His eyes moisten as he delves into why, as a 22-year-old minor leaguer, he quit baseball for a week and nearly retired. He explains how he tried to hide inside the game while the echo of his mother's final words reverberated in his head.

He details the meticulousness of his daily routine and speaks with excitement about the renewed young talent in camp this spring. All of it tells a story.

Girardi's life is centered on incessant preparation. A religious man, he believes God has a plan for him and he must follow it. Still, nine years ago, if you asked him if he would still be the Yankees manager in 2017, he wouldn't be so sure.

"Am I surprised I'm here?" Girardi says. "Yeah, probably."

Girardi knows the volatility of the position. His first job in 2006 ended after one season -- with a National League Manager of the Year award and a pink slip from Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria.

"I know that sometimes places you stay in baseball can be pretty short," Girardi says.

In 2008, Girardi replaced Torre. Girardi won a World Series in 2009, but since 2012, he has managed just one playoff game. At times, he looks like he is having about as much fun as someone working a graveyard shift.

"Oh yeah, I think that is a misconception of me is that I don't have fun," Girardi says. "Even my kids say, 'Daddy doesn't laugh out loud a lot.' That doesn't mean I'm not laughing and enjoying myself."

By the end of most regular seasons, he sure doesn't appear that way. He often looks like Joyless Joe. Friends have told him that his 5-foot-11 frame and 193 pounds look different by August. Commentators opine he seems emaciated.

He protests, saying his weight never changes and, if anything, his worn look is from sleep deprivation of balancing his odd hours with being a husband and a father to his son and two daughters, while trying to give back to the community.

"I love what I do," Girardi says.

The question of how much longer he will manage is a legitimate one. Girardi is in the final season of his four-year, $16 million contract. He is in good standing with his bosses, Hal Steinbrenner and GM Brian Cashman, though neither plans on offering him a new deal until after the season.

While some managers like the statesman aspect of the job, talking to the media and being the life of the party, Girardi isn't one of them. Girardi is a task-at-hand guy. But if misperceptions arise when he answers questions about pitching changes with a single word -- "strategy" -- so be it.

"This will tell you a lot about me: People say, 'Perception is reality,'" Girardi says. "I don't believe that. Perception is not reality. Reality is reality."

The reality is Girardi will try to squeeze every drop of information available to give the Yankees an edge during the next seven months. His leadership style is almost robotic. He only cares about the runs, not style points.

"Everything is consistent," Girardi says. "That's my personality."

IN 1977, GIRARDI was a 13-year-old in East Peoria, Illinois, two-and-a half hours outside of Chicago. He was a standout athlete, playing baseball, football and basketball when his mother, Angela, 42 at the time, was told she had ovarian cancer -- and six months to live.

When the Yankees manager recalls his mother's final days, his grief is mixed with the pride of his mother's fight: She lived six more years.

As a 19-year-old, Joe was told by his father, Jerry, to rush home from summer ball. He made the 18-hour trip from where he was catching in the Cape Cod League, picking up a speeding ticket along the way. He was alone in the room with his mom when she died. Her last words to Joe were, "Don't forget me."

To this day, Girardi prides himself on knowing how to react to any situation, but he wasn't ready for his mother's final words. He was lost.

Instead of slowing down to figure it out, Girardi sped up. He didn't take extra time to grieve. He returned to Cape Cod and tried to hide behind the plate.

"I can't deal with this," he said to himself.

In some respect, Joe, the fourth of five children, did what his mother and father taught him to do -- "to ignore the noise and finish the job," he says -- putting his head down during the next three years. He starred at Northwestern, on and off the field, earning his degree and a selection in the fifth round by his hometown Chicago Cubs in 1986. But his mother wasn't there and her final words reverberated in his ears -- "Don't forget me" -- until they ground him to a halt and the walls collapsed.

It was in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 1987 that Girardi finally had to figure out his mother's death. He had his college degree but was making just $900 a month. He wasn't having fun. In the lonely life of minor league baseball, emptiness was his companion.

"I hid myself in baseball and then it hit me," Girardi said. "I didn't know what it meant."

He went home to the other major female influence in his life: Kim, not yet his wife.

"What am I doing?" Joe asked her.

"You are playing," said Kim, religious like her future husband, "because God gave you a gift."

It finally started to make sense for Girardi. His mother's last lesson cemented all the previous ones. She wore three hats as a wife, mother and child psychologist. Even when she would have chemotherapy, she would wake up the next morning and make everyone lunches.

"She had a responsibility and took care of it," Girardi says.

Girardi played 15 seasons in the majors, winning three World Series rings with the Yankees and making one All-Star team.

Girardi's father worked three jobs (salesman, bartender and bricklayer), but always found time for his children. Joe followed him around like a puppy.

"If he stopped, I ran into him," Girardi says.

Jerry introduced him to baseball. Joe dreamed of playing for the Cubs. The two would play basketball and Jerry treated each play like it was Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

One time, Girardi remembers his dad was changing a spigot in the bathroom. The pressure wrench slipped and broke his dad's thumb. His dad grabbed a towel to wrap it. He finished off the spigot and then went to the hospital.

"That's how I feel," Girardi says. "Finish what I'm supposed to do."

IF GIRARDI IS going to follow Torre as a Hall of Fame manager, he will need a second act as the bridge from the Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez years to what could be the Yankees' next championship nucleus.

The Yankees have the most young talent since Jeter's crew made its way to the majors. They're clearing payroll to build up to a potentially historic 2018 free-agent class led by Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. They're weeding out who will be in and who will be out for their next big run. No one is on scholarship, which is how Girardi -- who says he would want to be an athletic director if he weren't a manager -- likes it.

"In a sense, everyone's job in here is in jeopardy in a year, two years, that is the quality of player that we have in camp," Girardi says. "People are starting to pass people up."

Girardi won't fully commit to continuing beyond this season, but he does speak about the Yankees' youngsters as if he will be their manager for years.

In the meantime, he is trying to build a sense of family. Girardi has always told his players if they need a day off in spring -- even if they think it may sound inconsequential -- they should ask him for it.

"There are moments that you never get back in life, so I think that is really important to me," Girardi says.

It's one reason he keeps such a dogged schedule, Girardi says. He wants to have as much time as a 162-game schedule allows for family, and for charity -- without losing an ounce of edge.

"I think he enjoys when we win and he detests losing," Cashman says.

With A-Rod and the Core Four gone, the Yankees don't have a signature player anymore. CC Sabathia is no longer an ace, while Gary Sanchez has just a few amazing months on his résumé. This makes this Yankees team, in Girardi's 10th year, his own.

"I don't think I would say it is my team," Girardi says. "I would say it is our team."

Despite what it might look like sometimes, Girardi says he's having fun and loves what he's doing. And he insists he's not thinking about next year.

"There is no guarantee we are going to be here tomorrow," Girardi says. "Why worry about it?"

Related Video