THE OPENING OF spring training finds 2006 NL Manager of the Year Joe Girardi, who took the rookie-laden Marlins to improbable wild-card contention, busy with another youth movement. He's changing the diapers of his five-month-old daughter, Lena. It's the first time since he was studying for his industrial engineering finals at Northwestern in 1986 that Girardi will not be in uniform at the start of spring training. "It's going to be strange, but I'm going to enjoy it," says Girardi.
Girardi, 42, may not be long on diaper duty. Seen as a victim of a personality clash with owner Jeffrey Loria and G.M. Larry Beinfest, Girardi is the rare manager who emerged from a firing—and a first-year firing at that—without his reputation diminished. The hottest managerial candidate of last winter is the hottest managerial candidate of this season. Said one AL G.M., "He'll get a job. He just got caught up in a bad situation. But I bet he won't be willing to go to a situation like that again." Girardi never had a honeymoon with the Florida front office. Loria immediately ordered a full-blown fire sale, cutting the payroll from $60 million to $15 million, far deeper than he had led Girardi to believe. Beinfest, who was thought to prefer Braves coach Fredi Gonzalez, never warmed to Girardi and his intense style.
Girardi was as good as gone in August when he told Loria to stop heckling the umpires from his box seat. By the middle of September, with the Marlins still in the wild-card race, Beinfest was maneuvering to hire Gonzalez—who said upon his hiring that he has no problem with the owner barking at umpires. "They never gave me a reason," Girardi said of his firing, "and I never asked for one. I'm a firm believer that things happen for a reason."
Girardi ran a tight ship—no long hair or beards—and couldn't stomach his owner chirping at umpires when he did not accept such behavior from his players. His results were hard to argue with: The Marlins used 22 rookies and spent $20 million less than any other team. And any doubt of his standing with his players was removed when Hanley Ramirez, upon receiving his Rookie of the Year Award, nearly cried when he thanked Girardi and said, "I love you, Joe."
Said Girardi, "That touched me as much as anything that happened during the course of the year."
Meanwhile, Girardi's own hardware for being voted Manager of the Year arrived damaged, with a chip taken out of the plaque. Girardi sent it back to be repaired. He expects to have it returned soon and, like his own reputation, as good as new.