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Columnist
Even in new role, he's just Joe Girardi
By Barry Rozner | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 11/6/2007 12:18 AM

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All Joe Girardi said was, "You're not helping us.''

Funny how a few words can change your life.

Those five syllables were in response to Florida owner Jeff Loria, who had been yelling at umpires from the box seats after Girardi urged his young Marlins all season not to blame umpires for their problems.

Before he could blink, a vicious smear campaign designed to justify firing the manager suggested Girardi swore at the owner and couldn't work with management, a strange concept to be sure since in the nearly 20 years I've known him I've never heard Girardi swear or have trouble getting along with anyone.

But the perception was born that Girardi was trouble.

The manager of the year was unemployed, and wondering if his managerial career was over. That was 12 months ago.

Today, he's the manager of the New York Yankees.

"I'm not going to talk about Florida. I'm not going to defend myself, because it serves no purpose,'' Girardi said Monday from Florida, fresh off his coronation in New York. "You know that saying, how perception is reality? I don't believe that. Reality is reality.

"My answer to that perception is give me a chance. Let New York give me a chance and then you make a judgment on what I'm like to work with.

"I hate that when people say perception is reality. Guess what? It's not.''

That's the Joe Girardi we know, extremely bright yet grounded and at the same time confident, undaunted by the task ahead.

"There are different challenges in any managing job, but the Yankees are not new to me,'' Girardi said. "I played in three World Series there. I coached for Joe (Torre) there. I get it.''

There is that Joe Girardi, and then there's the Girardi who was on his way to the grocery store when he called Monday morning, picking up doughnuts to bring to his son's school for a birthday party.

"Things have slowed down a bit after last week, which was a whirlwind,'' Girardi said of replacing Torre. "I want my life to stay as normal as possible. I'm going to fight for that. I'm not a different guy today because of my job, but people look at you different, and I don't want to be different.

"It's funny because I've been going into Publix four or five days a week for years, and people know who I am. They knew I was the Marlins manager.

"They've always been nice. They say hello. They treat me great. But the day the Yankees job was announced, they all came out from behind the counter to shake my hand and everyone stopped doing what they were doing and it was like I was running for president.

"I was like, 'I'm still the same guy coming here four days a week.' Same guy. It was crazy.''

Many thought Girardi was crazy when he turned down the Orioles this summer and the Nationals last winter. He considered only the open Cubs job a year ago before moving in with the Yanks last week.

"I didn't really rate the teams. I just knew I wanted to manage again,'' Girardi said, "and with my history in Chicago and in New York, it's human nature to want to be where you're most comfortable.''

Girardi had no shot at the Cubs' job last fall and was brought in mostly for public-relations purposes. It was only to satisfy the fan base, but Girardi was nevertheless grateful for the opportunity to interview.

"It meant a lot to me, getting that chance, and not just because I played there and started there,'' Girardi said of the Cubs. "This summer I took my son to Wrigley Field and it reminded me of my dad taking me.

"Baseball is all about generations, and there I was with my son in my lap eating hot dogs. For me, it was Ron Santo pizza.

"I think it was a blessing that I wasn't managing this summer. It brought back so many memories of being with my dad, fishing or watching baseball, and I'm lucky I got to spend time with my dad this summer.''

The 43-year-old Girardi enjoyed a considerable portion of the summer in the Chicago area so that he could be with his dad, Jerry, who has suffered from Alzheimer's and now is nearing the end.

"He can't talk on the phone and he can't even sit in a wheelchair, and every time the phone rings it scares me,'' Girardi said. "People can think whatever they want about me (passing on managing jobs), but I wasn't going to give up this summer. I wanted to be with my dad. My dad comes first, just like my dad always put me first.

"It's funny how everything comes full circle in life, and all the things I used to do with my dad, I got to do with my son this summer. Not working really was a blessing.''

But he is back to work now, the 32nd manager of the New York Yankees after signing a three-year deal worth $7.8 million.

A good guy rewarded with a good deal only a year after being put through absolute torture and misery by a wayward franchise that is more often lost than not.

"The way I look at it is, I got my feet wet managing and went through a tough situation able to stay focused on the task at hand, while learning a lot from going through that,'' Girardi said. "If it had been a great situation, I wouldn't have learned as much.

"Your faith and family carries you through it and you realize that if you were meant to manage again, you'd manage again.

"You learn a lot about people and you learn a lot about yourself. You realize you don't really have a lot of control over a lot of things in life.

"And you realize every day you wake up, it's a blessing.''

And these days when he wakes up, Joe Girardi is the manager of the New York Yankees.

Not bad for a guy who got spit on by the Florida Marlins and wasn't taken seriously by the Cubs.

Not bad at all.

brozner@dailyherald.com