Joe Girardi is tough. Just ask someone that is even tougher.
It was 1989. Girardi was a rookie catcher with the Chicago Cubs and Don Zimmer was his manager. When he was the Brooklyn Dodgers' backup shortstop in 1956 behind Pee Wee Reese, Zimmer was hit in the face with a pitch that broke his cheekbone. It ended his season and almost ended his life.
Zimmer relates how Girardi refused to allow a bruised thumb keep him out of the lineup.
“One time he had a bruised thumb, and he had that big plastic thing on it so it wouldn’t get bruised more,” Zimmer told Tyler Kepner of the New York Times.
“He went to reach for a ball with a runner on third, and the ball bounced off his glove and went to the backstop, and I was hot. I said, ‘If you want to catch for me the rest of the year, you’ll catch without a plastic guard on that thumb!’"
Girardi got rid of the thumb guard. Zimmer wondered if he had been too severe, but as he got to know the rookie better, Zimmer knew that almost nothing could intimidate Girardi. The two became so close that Zimmer said, “He’s almost like a son to me.”
“Everyone knew he was smart, but he was one of the guys. He didn’t talk down to you. If there was something you didn’t understand, he would explain it. But intelligence doesn’t mean you know everything. Sometimes, it means knowing when to ask a question instead of faking it.”
Girardi was an average hitter at best, but he was a great defensive catcher. His knowledge and leadership qualities make him one of baseball's best managers. Girardi is performing wonders with the 2012 Yankees' pitching staff.
Don Baylor gives a reason for Girardi batting only .267 during his career.
“The way he handled pitchers, I really thought he gave himself up a lot for them,” said Don Baylor, who managed Girardi with the Colorado Rockies and the Cubs. “He was a team guy. He put the pitchers before himself."
Girardi is meticulous. His famous binder records the tendencies and strategies of opponents and his own players. When he ordered CC Sabathia to intentionally walk Sean Rodriguez to load the bases to face Carlos Pena on opening day, Girardi knew that Pena had only one hit in 29 at-bats against the Yankees' ace.
Retired catcher John Flaherty, who was Girardi's equal on defense, has no desire to manage or coach. He thinks he lacks the competitive fire that drives Girardi.
“With him, or even with a Joe Torre, I think it’s that competitiveness, that desire to compete during a ballgame,” Flaherty said. “You could definitely see it in Girardi."
Many fans, even younger ones that grew up in a baseball environment steeped in statistics, criticize Girardi for relying too much on his binder. It must be realized that Girardi accepts the fact that human scouts must be integrated into a holistic approach to create a world championship team.
There is an excellent chance that will happen this season.