Joe Girardi, manager of the New York Yankees, wrote an essay in third grade about his dream to play baseball for the Chicago Cubs; but after the death of his mother, he almost quit baseball altogether. That is when Girardi took a leap of faith instead.
Girardi grew up in a Catholic household in East Peoria, Illinois, where he attended a public elementary school before attending middle school at Sacred Heart/ Father Sweeney in Peoria, then on to Academy of our Lady/ Spalding Institute, a Catholic high school in Peoria. As a youngster, Joe was an altar boy at his church, and the family attended services faithfully.
“Mom and dad enjoyed watching my siblings and me in all our activities. In high school I played quarterback in football and was an All-State catcher in baseball.” When Joe was 13 years old, his mother was diagnosed with cancer and was given 3 to 6 months to live. She was a woman with a strong faith, and she fought to extend those months to six years before she succumbed to her cancer in 1984. Joe shares, “Mom was a woman of faith. At the end she had a vision the Lord had His arms open for her, and it was time for her to come home.”
Girardi adds, “That’s when things became difficult for me because all this time I thought I played ball to keep mom alive. I graduated from Northwestern University, and the Cubs had drafted me in the fifth round in 1986. But a couple years later while playing very well in the minor leagues, it hit me. Why am I still playing ball?”
Joe had his college degree in industrial engineering, and his mother was no longer living. He went home and met up with his girlfriend who was a senior at Northwestern at the time. “I shared with her what I was feeling, and there was no need to continue playing ball. Her reply to me opened my eyes. She said I was playing because God had given me the gifts to play baseball, and it will be my platform one day. By the end of the day, my girlfriend, who is now my wife, Kim, led me to Christ. I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior that day, and it will always be a special time in my life.”
Girardi is the fourth of five children born to Jerry and Angela Girardi. Joe has two older brothers, an older sister, and a younger brother. “We were all very athletic,” comments Joe, “however, our academics had to be up to par or we would be grounded. My mother was a child psychologist, and dad worked three jobs. I had a paper route when I was young, and we all even laid bricks on weekends. We grew up in a household where we all worked together, and everyone was expected to help out.”
Girardi, who was the National League Manager of the Year in 2006 when he was manager for the Marlins, adds, “My father and mother taught me the value of hard work, the value of a dollar, and the value of giving back to others. They were always trying to help other people. We were a regular middle class family where there was a lot of love and a lot of fun.”
In time, Joe married his college sweetheart, Kim. He started dating her the last quarter of his senior year at Northwestern University. She was there when he needed her most, and she brought Joe into a right relationship with Jesus. They have been married over 26 years and have been blessed with three children: Serena (16), Dante (14), and Lena (9).
“God, in a sense, really takes the pressure off you,” comments Girardi, “because He has a plan for your life. I thought I was going in one direction, but it did not happen. It ended up being the best for me. I came to realize that the Lord had a plan for me. He was going to put me where he wanted me to be. You know managerial positions are not always safe, but my faith and belief that the Lord places a person where He wants him takes the pressure off me.”
Since third grade Girardi dreamed of playing for the Chicago Cubs. Joe was drafted by the Cubs in the fifth round in 1986, and he spent four years in their minor league system. He debuted on April 4, 1989. “I played for the Cubs for four years; and then I was put on the expansion draft and was taken by the Colorado Rockies. But I thought I would be taken in the expansion draft by the Marlins. It was an example of God putting me where he wanted. After three years with the Rockies, I was traded to the New York Yankees, and I really did not want to go.”
Girardi admits that visiting players do not understand the beauty of New York. They understand they’ll be heckled all the time, and things are tough playing at Yankee Stadium. But for Joe, it turned out that going to New York really changed his life.
Joe explains, “I don’t think I would ever have been a manager of the Yankees or won a World Series if I was not a New York Yankee player. It was not my plan; I planned on playing for the Cubs for 15 years. I realized God was going to put me where He wanted no matter where I thought I should end up. The Lord was in control.”
Yankee third baseman, Chase Headley, had this to say about his Skipper: “It is somewhat unique that I can play for a manager who shares some of the beliefs I do. You can see it in his mannerisms, the way he deals with players, and his attitude when he comes to the field every day. Christ plays a huge part in his life, and I am fortunate to play for such a manager.”
Girardi returned to the Cubs in 2000, and he was named to play in his only All-Star game that year. As a player, he was on the Yankee World Series teams in 1996, 1998, 1999; and, as a manager, his Yankee team won the World Series in 2009. It was a special time for Joe when he caught Dwight Gooden’s no-hitter and David Cone’s perfect game.
“I feel it is important to grow one’s personal relationship with Christ,” states Girardi. “It can be built through fellowship with other people at home, at your church, or in the community. You build that relationship through reading the Bible and through prayer. I think you also build it by going out and witnessing or sharing your faith, but I know that is not easy or comfortable for some.”
Girardi, who was a three time academic All-American and a two time Big Ten catcher, looks at faith as God wanting your heart. He comments, “God really wants your heart; and if he has your heart, everything else is going to fall into place. And, you are going to do what He wants you to do.” Psalms 22:8 says: “Commit (trust) yourself to the Lord… let Him deliver…”
The beginning of the first chapter of James sticks out to be favorite verses of Scripture for Joe Girardi, especially the portion that reads: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance…” Joe comments, “That’s life. I have faced a lot in my lifetime with my mother’s death, my father’s death (during the 2012 playoffs), the threat of losing my job, and having to jump from team to team when I thought I was going to be a lifer as a Cub. You are going to go through trials and difficulties. Jesus talks about having trials. We are not immune to trials just because we are Christians. I suggest we try to learn from them and have joy in it because when you get to heaven, it will be great joy!”
Girardi, who managed his 1500th game May 21, 2016, has found the best way for him to witness his faith is by the way he lives his life. He goes to chapel and Bible studies with the players, and chapel in the Yankee Stadium is held in his office. Joe shares, “I am not going to hide my faith, but I am not going to force it on others because a person has to be ready to hear the Gospel.” He goes on, “For me, it is trying to live a Christian life. I try my best; but sometimes with umpires, I am not too good at it. With umpires, the temper my father gave me comes out, and I probably don’t use the language I should be using, especially when I’m upset. It is the passion in me. I know the Lord has passion. If the Lord played this game, He would have played as hard as anyone. However, sometimes that passion gets the best of me.”
George McGovern, the Yankees team chaplain, comments, “I’ve had the privilege of knowing scores of coaches and players in the world of pro sports. Joe Girardi sets the standard among these men when it comes to living a consistent Christ-centered life ‘on and off the field.’ He also has carefully integrated his faith in God into his leadership responsibilities. Thus, he’s held in high esteem by his players and others in the baseball world.”
One passion Joe and Kim have is a passion to help others. Joe has received many awards, like the March of Dimes Sportsman of the Year, Ben Epstein “Good Guy” award, community leadership award from Alzheimer’s Association, Sweetwater Clifton “City Spirit” award for aiding a stranded driver following the final game of the World Series. He collected donations at the Yankees food drive and helped assemble packets for our troops on Veterans Day. Kim has hosted events for charity that included one for stomach cancer research.
However, the one passion dearest to Joe and Kim’s heart is the Catch 25 Foundation. It began as an effort to raise money and awareness for research in three areas: cancer, Alzheimer’s, and fertility issues. They were areas very personal to the Girardi family: Joe and Kim’s first two children were in vitro, Joe’s father died of Alzheimer’s, Joe’s mother and Kim’s sister and her sister’s 2 boys died of cancer. Joe shares, “We were sitting on a plane one day realizing it was more than just the research in three important areas. It is what Jesus gives you… hope. If you don’t have hope, you have nothing. We felt we needed to give people hope with finances where a family lost their jobs or a cancer patient could not pay rent because money was spent on medicine and treatment. It could be a lot of different circumstances.”
The Scripture found on the Catch 25 Foundation website is a portion of Isaiah 61:1: “…He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted…” The website explains, “The foundation is dedicated to serving and supporting people in crisis. It is dedicated to serving God by loving others, providing hope, help, and healing to those living in dire circumstances.”
Joe concludes, “We realized we have been blessed financially, and we can help others through our platform to provide hope and emotional support. This is what we choose to do with our charity.”
Written by Bruce A. Darnall, Lake Mills, WI
Photos provided by the New York Yankees