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Posted: Thursday November 12, 2009 2:12PM; Updated: Thursday November 12, 2009 5:35PM
Dan McGrath

Chicago fans still love Girardi (cont.)

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Girardi met his wife, Kim, at Northwestern, but he wasn't in school to chase girls, drink beer and play ball. His degree, achieved in four years, is in industrial engineering, hardly a jock curriculum.

"To earn an engineering degree while playing a varsity sport is incredibly challenging, but that's Joe -- once he commits to something, he's going to do it and do it well," Stevens said. "I've been around a lot of really intelligent people at Northwestern, and Joe is as sharp and as motivated as anybody. He'd have been a big success in anything he chose to do."

Including manage a team of Yankees for whom anything less than a World Series title would have been a crushing disappointment. The addition of big-money free agents CC Sabathia, Mark Texeiria and A.J. Burnett enhanced the Yankees' win-it-all-now imperative, but Girardi said he welcomed the expectations.

"All three of those guys are really good ballplayers, and I was happy to have them -- there's no question they made us a better team."

Girardi also got a kick out of being an exception to Chicago's built-in New York animus. "Growing up a Cub fan, I was very much aware of it," he said, "and if I hadn't been, Ron Santo would have reminded me of it, just about every day."

Santo, the Cubs' standout third baseman in 1969, is their long-suffering radio analyst today. Like Mike Royko, he never got over the '69 collapse, and trips to Shea Stadium used to traumatize him.

"Remembering how Ronny and Ernie Banks and Billy Williams never got to experience a World Series made me appreciate how special it is," Girardi said.

Lord knows he never had the feeling as a Cub.

Though his head-in-the-game hustle made him a fan favorite with the Cubs, Chicago remembers Girardi for an act of statesmanship. On June 22, 2002, as a festive sellout crowd was filing into Wrigley Field for a Saturday matinee with rival St. Louis, word reached the park that Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile had been found dead in his hotel room that morning. There would be no game that day, as the stunned Cardinals grieved for their teammate and his young family. Someone had to explain to the crowd that some things were simply more important than baseball.

"Joe was a unanimous choice, among management, the coaches, the players, everybody," said longtime Cubs executive John McDonough, now the president of the Chicago Blackhawks, who has known Girardi for more than 20 years. "He's an old soul, serious, emotionally grounded and very instinctive about people."

In brief, touching remarks, Girardi informed the suddenly subdued crowd of Kile's death and expressed condolences to his family. He was emotional yet remarkably composed, his message a reminder that ballplayers are human beings like the rest of us, subject to all that entails. Afterwards, members of both teams lined up to thank him for his sensitive handling of an unspeakably difficult moment.

"Not many people are equipped to deal with a situation like that, but Joe was perfect," McDonough said. "Leadership comes naturally to him."

The Cubs thought so and interviewed Girardi for their manager's job when it opened following Dusty Baker's dismissal in 2006. General manager Jim Hendry opted for the more experienced Lou Piniella, but Girardi clearly made an impression.

"I've known Joe since he was a player, and I think anyone who's been around him could see he had the stuff to manage a big league club if that's what he chose to do," Hendry said. "He has a great knowledge of the game, great passion for teaching it and seeing that it's played the right way. Plus he's great with people, just an outstanding human being. I couldn't be happier for him."

The one man who might be happiest of all for Joe Girardi is sadly oblivious to his latest achievement. Jerry Girardi, Joe's dad and his baseball inspiration, resides in a Peoria nursing facility, several years into a debilitating struggle with Alzheimer's that has robbed him of his memory and turned family members into strangers. Joe has always tried to fit side trips to Peoria into his teams' visits to Chicago, but the trips have become more difficult as his father continued to lose touch with his past.

"He has no clue, he's totally unaware [of the Yankees' World Series title]," Dr. John Girardi said of his father's condition. "It's probably just as well. Joe's sports career meant the world to my father. He'd be so ecstatic and excited he might have died of a heart attack."

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