Chicago fans may hate Yankees -- but they still love Joe Girardi

Publish date:

The late, great ink-stained orator Mike Royko was the wise-guy voice of Chicago on myriad matters large and small, pitch-perfect in articulating his city's sensibilities and proudly unwavering in his disdain for all things New York.

Most notably its sports teams.

Such Big Apple animosity was deep-rooted due to an unfortunate circumstance: Royko was born a Cub fan, a real Cub fan, a Lenny Merullo/Andy Pafko-era Cub fan, not some late-to-the-party socialite who embraced charming Wrigley Field and the lovable loser "Cubbies" as the very height of Yuppie chic.

"Cubbies?" Please. Mike Royko personified the genuine article, the "long-suffering" Cub fan, his passion matched only by his frustration with the team's chronically futile ways, which inspired some of his wittiest, most biting prose. During the 1981 work stoppage he claimed not to have noticed that his favored squad was idle; the Cubs being on strike, he said, was about as significant as buggy-whip manufacturers walking out. Later he suggested shooting a player a day until the two sides settled.

The 1969 season, the mere 61st of a 101-year championship drought, scarred Royko for life. A talented, versatile team built around Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Fergie Jenkins was running away with the National League East in the first year of divisional play, until LeoDurocher's stubborn refusal to use his bench caused the Cubs to wilt in the heat of late summer, enabling the "Miracle Mets" of Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman to roar past.

The pitiful collapse was hard enough on Cub fans. That the Mets were the beneficiaries was a stomach-turning side effect. Royko was traumatized. Cueing up the final scene from the movie Fail Safe and watching New York get nuked to smithereens always made him feel better, he said.

White Sox fans with slightly longer memories could relate. The entire South Side would crackle with anticipation whenever the Mantle-Maris-Berra Yankees arrived for a late-summer series circa 1960. Billy Pierce and Whitey Ford would duel into the late innings on Friday night, then some second-tier slugger like John Blanchard or Hector Lopez would pop one with a man on and the Yankees would win 2-1. They'd repeat on Saturday, split Sunday's doubleheader and leave town with a lead twice the size of the two-game edge they'd arrived with.

Happened like that every year, it seemed. Damn Yankees was a Broadway play to most of the country. On Chicago's Sout' Side it was a semi-official motto.

The Bears have had some success alleviating Second City angst on the football field. They knocked Y.A. Tittle around and beat the Giants 14-10 in the 1963 title game at chilly Wrigley Field, and the clip of Sean Landeta whiffing on a punt and handing the Bears a gift touchdown in the '85 playoffs at arctic Soldier Field was worthy of the campy "Super Bowl Shuffle" video.

On balance, though, and much to the chagrin of Mike Royko's memory, the New York-Chicago sports argument tends to be one-sided; HueHollins' phantom foul call on Scottie Pippen v. Hubert Davis in Game 5 of the '94 Bulls-Knicks playoff series is the perfect backdrop for a citywide inferiority complex. So it was rather startling to walk the streets these last few weeks and hear Chicagoans expressing grudging admiration for the hated Yankees during their postseason run. Joe Girardi, see, transcends bad memories and simmering resentment. He's one of ours.

"I hadn't really thought of it like that, but it's a good thing, I guess," said Dr. John Girardi, Joe's older brother, a physician who practices internal medicine and is involved in church work and youth counseling in the north suburbs. "Most of my friends are Cub fans. They probably still think of Joe as a Cub."

Why not? Peoria-born and Northwestern-educated, Girardi was the Cubs' catcher for seven seasons over two tours, including a division title-winning campaign in 1989, his rookie year. He did not evoke Johnny Bench with a bat in his hands, but his heady game-management skills and his efficient supervision of a pitching staff were apparent early on.

"Joe was the backbone of our team while he was here, a coach on the field," recalled Northwestern coach Paul Stevens, an NU assistant when Girardi was an All-Big Ten catcher for the Wildcats in the mid-'80s. "He always got pitchers to buy into what he wanted to do because he was so meticulous in his preparation. He paid attention to every detail and didn't miss a thing."

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 DustyBaker'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."