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updated: 12/24/2013 4:35 PM

For Girardi, now every day is Christmas

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  • New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi is a man of faith and commitment, and he gives all credit for that to his parents.

      New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi is a man of faith and commitment, and he gives all credit for that to his parents.
    Associated Press

  • Whether leading from the dugout as manager of the Yankees or talking about his family and his faith, Joe Girardi gives all credit for the person he is to his parents.

      Whether leading from the dugout as manager of the Yankees or talking about his family and his faith, Joe Girardi gives all credit for the person he is to his parents.
    Associated Press

 
 

For many, it's the most wonderful time of year.

For many others, it's a cold reminder that what's past is prologue, that the waves of time don't easily wash away the heartache.

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Behind the wide eyes of a child is all the wonderment a parent can remember, the future a greater gift than any wrapped and tied, than those stacked under a perfectly decorated tree.

It is that way for Joe Girardi, though even the very best day on the calendar is accompanied by some of the toughest recollections.

"Christmas has always been a little different for me," Girardi says now from his home in suburban New York City. "I was 19 when my mom (Angela) died of cancer, and a lot of my memories are of holding seats at the cathedral in Peoria, waiting for my parents to show up, always wondering if she would make it through one more Christmas.

"She was kind of a miracle anyway. She was given six months to live and she lived six years."

His father, Jerry, made it to the age of 82. He died last October after a 17-year battle with Alzheimer's, the last seven living in an adult-care community, the final three ravaged by the horrific disease and unable to recognize anyone, not even the son who visited his dad every time the Yankees were in town.

"The last few years, it was so bad that it was like not having him here for Christmas," Joe says quietly. "I miss my dad every day."

Jerry Girardi died as Joe was traveling with the Yankees to open a playoff series in Baltimore. He told almost no one outside his family and didn't inform the team for five days, holding funeral services on a day off from the ALCS against Detroit.

"We had a job to do and I didn't want to distract from that," Girardi said. "That's how my parents would have wanted it. Always finish the job first."

That is most of what you need to know about Joe Girardi.

His parents believed in a lot of things. Words mattered, too. Words like commitment, effort, love and God.

They built a life based on belief and sweat, raising five children, some of whom have gone on to become world-renowned mathematicians, doctors or even baseball players.

His mom arose daily at 5 a.m. to do laundry, clean house and make lunches -- before going to work as a full-time child psychologist. His dad worked as a salesman during the day, and labored as restaurant manager and bartender at night -- not to mention bricklayer on the weekends.

"I admire my parents so much," Joe says. "I saw how hard my parents fought to give us the best possible life and the best possible chance to succeed and the best possible chance to be good people.

"Their dedication to our family was remarkable. The amount of effort they put in to make sure we could be whatever we wanted to be was something that you look back on and just shake your head."

It's not terribly surprising when you understand from whence he came that Girardi was offered a baseball scholarship from Northwestern, where he was the first freshman president of a fraternity, earned a degree in industrial engineering and was a three-time academic All-America.

He wasn't a born leader, destined to win three World Series as a player and another ring as manager. He was raised to be one.

"My parents' eyes lit up when we got the news from Northwestern," Girardi remembers. "But right away there was an expectation about what kind of degree I would get and what I would be able to do with that after college."

No, there would be no easy route through school. See, the Girardi family didn't have much, but they had each other and they had work ethic. Perhaps more than anything, they had faith.

"I was an altar boy," Girardi says with pride. "I was confirmed and went to Catholic schools. Faith was very important in my family.

"When my mom was sick and she struggled, she had this amazing attitude because she was a woman of tremendous faith.

"She had a vision. She saw God with His arms open and a big, bright light every night as she was close to passing away. The peace she had and the way she dealt with pain was inspiring. I know my mom had a relationship with God, and she wanted us to be the same way."

This is more than Girardi normally says about his beliefs. It is not often popular in today's society -- and especially in sports -- to admit such religious commitment, and so he rarely speaks about it and is careful not to give the impression that anyone must think as he thinks.

"There are so many different beliefs in our country, and I think people are fearful of talking about their own faith," Girardi explained. "People are ready to criticize, thinking you're being critical of another faith by speaking about your own, but that's never been my intention. I don't try to impose my will on anyone.

"I think the best way to honor my faith is to be a good example. When you see people that have peace and have real joy in life, others will say, 'What do you have? How do you do that?' Just be an example. That's all I try to do."

There aren't many better people you're ever going to run across in life, let alone professional sports, than Girardi, and it was no accident that he turned out this way.

Now, he and wife Kim are raising Serena (14), Dante (12) and Lena (7) in much the same fashion.

"My parents had a huge influence over me," Girardi said. "I have a teenage daughter and everyone can remember what it's like being a teenager. You think you have all the answers. I thought I knew everything.

"Now that I'm a parent, it's even more clear to me that everything my parents tried to do for us was for our own good.

"Looking back, everything I know I learned from them. They taught me the value of family, relationship with God, giving back and the value of a dollar.

"They taught me all that even with everything they had to do every day. I saw my dad cleaning a restaurant at 6 a.m. after being up all night. It taught me the value of hard work and I'm extremely grateful.

"I know I wouldn't be the person I am without them.''

And as life comes full circle, the 49-year-old Girardi witnesses the pure delight of his children on his favorite day of the year.

"It's priceless, absolutely priceless, watching the excitement and anticipation," Girardi says. "The big thing now is "The Elf on the Shelf.' The elf moves around every evening while they're sleeping and is in a new spot every day, and it watches to make sure the kids are being good.

"My daughter looks to see where it is and every morning she says, 'Dad, did you find the elf?' I say, 'Not yet.' She can't wait to find it. It's just priceless. It doesn't get much better. A great way to start the day is seeing her excitement."

It's that way for Girardi now. He is surrounded by all that matters most to him. His heart is full. The smiles of his children bring precious joys that mask the memories and wipe away the tears.

It is, after all, Christmas.

brozner@dailyherald.com

•Hear Barry Rozner on WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.

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