Joe Girardi mourns the death of his father

The Star-Ledger-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

The Yankees manager had kept his father's death a secret during his team's division series with the Orioles, but the story of a son's devotion to his father transcends baseball.

NEW YORK –- As the media filed into the press conference room in the bowels of Yankee Stadium, it was just after midnight on Friday, a literal new day. Only hours before, in this same room, Yankees manager Joe Girardi was fielding questions not about baseball, or his lineup, or the struggles of his star third baseman, but rather the death of his father, which he had hoped to keep a secret.

"One of the reasons I didn't say anything," he told the scrum a few hours before his team's playoff game, was "I knew talking about it would make it probably even harder."

It was five days ago that Jerry Girardi died in a nursing home. He was 81 years old, and had suffered from Alzheimer's disease for at least the past five years. Jerry's brother, Ronnie, died of the same illness just a few weeks ago, and it was on Saturday when Joe Girardi was sitting on a team bus and got the call that his father was gone. Between then and now, the manager of the New York Yankees, in the biggest media market in the country, was able to keep the death of his father contained to a small circle of trusted people, nothing but a small miracle.

And when he was forced to address it, just hours before Game 4 of the American League Division Series, a series in which his team was one win away from advancing, Girardi did something he never had publicly done here, either as a player or manager: he broke.

Struggling with his emotions — a sight as rare as any during his tenure — Girardi described the tender relationship he had with his father, how much he admired him and aspired to be like him.

And then just like that — roughly eight hours, 13 innings and a 2-1 loss to the Baltimore Orioles later — Girardi was back in this sterile room, being asked the same banal baseball questions he normally fields. Game 5 will be later today, and all the nuance of watching a man who had to publicly grieve while also manage a baseball team will be lost. It will be all about the game again, just as it was in the minutes following this one.

But that doesn't mean that the week Girardi and those around him had – and the organic exchange he shared with the media on Thursday – lost meaning. That doesn't mean that the impact of both Jerry Girardi's life and his death is tabled. Especially by those who know Girardi, and especially by those from East Peoria, Ill.

***

Each week, or as often as possible, Dave Rodgers would get in his car and make the short drive to Snyder Village assisted living facility in Metamora, Ill. Most times, Rodgers would usually bring one of his close friends for the ride because they always had a few people who lived there they wanted to visit. Yet each time, whether alone or accompanied, Rodgers always made sure he went into the room of Jerry Girardi.

It wasn't just because he coached all four of Jerry's sons in little league and remained close friends with one of them. It was more than that; it was about staying loyal to a family and a friend in Joe. It was Joe, who, Rodgers said, was the closest of the Girardi siblings to their dad and who also bore the weight of their father's illness while working a time zone away. Jerry had Alzheimer's disease, and while his mind had been unrecognizable for some time, he was still Joe's dad, the one whose side his son never left.

"Jerry was a very strong father to the kids," Rodgers said early Thursday evening by phone from East Peoria. "The affection Joe [was given] and the learning from his dad was fantastic."

It was that learning, those lessons of hard work, of finishing what you started, that guided Joe Girardi from being one of five siblings growing up in East Peoria, to a big league ballplayer, World Series champion and, eventually, manager of the Yankees.

"The one thing [my parents] always taught me was finish the job at hand," Girardi said.

One memory, in particular, stood out for Joe on Thursday: when watching his dad change a bathtub spigot, and the wrench in his hand slipped and he broke his thumb. There was blood, and there was pain, but Jerry refused to go to the hospital, taping the injury up and securing that new spigot.

So as Joe Girardi sat on a bus -- in a space in which testosterone and strength were inescapable -- tears starting to fall, he quickly adjusted. Girardi put on his sunglasses, realizing that, as a man and one who leads dozens of others, the very ones who surrounded him on this bus, he wanted to shield them from seeing his grief. He then worked the rest of the day, his players had no idea what news had just been delivered.

"I though that's what my dad would want me to do," Girardi said, "so that's what I tried to do."

***

Gay Talese has little use for much of modern technology. A cellphone is a device he does not own, nor a tape recorder. He prefers listening, talking and writing notes he sticks in his jacket side pocket. It's not just because he's 80 years old, and was born into a world where much of what we use to communicate now didn't exist. It's because he believes the methodology is flawed.

"Today so much of the media, so much of the nation is communicating through technology," he says. "I don't think there is any substitute for spending time with people in person.

"And getting to know them."

That is something Talese has done throughout his career with expert precision. He is perhaps best known for his Esquire essay, "Frank Sinatra Has A Cold," a masterful piece of non-fiction storytelling written 40 years ago about the singer, without Talese ever actually interviewing him.

Talese is the author of myriad books, articles and works, many of which traffic in father-son relationships. He makes it no secret it is a huge part of his identity as a writer. Yet when asked what intrigued him about Girardi, he pointed to what he saw, mostly on television, and also in print, of course, during the postgame media sessions on the Yankees' YES network.

"It was the same questions again and again, and he gave the same answers again and again, for a couple of years," Talese said on Thursday night while watching Game 4 in the pressbox. "Jesus, he's been here five years and I don't know anything about him."

Talese got the green light from The New Yorker, and a year ago began reporting on the story of Joe Girardi. He is adamant you have to always go to where your subject was raised. And so last November he headed to Chicago, where Girardi picked him up at his hotel and the two men made the two and a half hour ride to East Peoria. Girardi took him through a virtual family tree tour, and the result is a magazine portrait of a man with total devotion for his father and for his family. Each time Girardi was in town, Talese's story reveals, he always made time to drive over five total hours to spend an hour or less with Jerry.

He would drive those five hours to be with a father who could not speak, nor recognize his son. Most of the times, Jerry Girardi's eyes would be closed. But that pull, that desire to be by his dad's side never left.

"I don't know if you've ever had a relative live long distance," Dave Rodgers says, "you kind of think you should always be there with them. It's his dad. I'm sure even though Jerry wasn't always there mentally – Joe just wants to love him, to see him, to touch him."

The admiration came, in part, from watching his father work three jobs; as a bricklayer, a bartender and a traveling salesman. Talese wrote about Joe's trips on the road with his father as he sold gypsum products, and how they'd listen to Cubs games on the radio during the stretches to Iowa and back. How he'd help his dad lay bricks and later, when Joe's mother Angela was diagnosed with cervical cancer and her illness progressed, how Jerry quit the life of a salesman and opened an Italian restaurant, Girardi's, and Joe worked as a waiter.

The devotion was clear.

"I had a tremendous relationship with my father," Girardi said before Game 4. "Wherever he went, I went. When he stopped, I ran into him."

Talese put it simply: "He was his father's pet."

***

Dave Rodgers was supposed to visit Jerry on Wednesday, but other plans got in the way. When he heard of Jerry's death, a part of him was relieved, knowing the pain is gone, the battle in Jerry Girardi's mind now over. He also realized how, with all the other Girardi siblings living elsewhere, East Peoria is now changed.

"It's an end of an era in Girardi history," Rodgers said. "It's a sad day around here, too. There's not a Girardi left in town."

The restaurant closed years ago, all the children have left, but on Monday, in a church in East Peoria, the Girardis will be back. It's an off day for the Yankees, and once the family celebrates the life of Jerry and puts him to rest, Joe Girardi – if his team can beat the Orioles on Friday night – will be back at work the next day. Just how Jerry would have wanted.

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