NEW YORK -- On Wednesday evening, new Phillies manager Joe Girardi was the guest of honor at the Italian American Baseball Foundation’s fourth annual dinner in Brooklyn.
The IABF, a nonprofit charity established in 2016, is committed to developing and promoting youth baseball and softball in the United States and Italy by sponsoring clinics supervised by Major League Baseball players and scouts as well as college coaches. The foundation also donates equipment to organized youth teams and individual athletes, arranges showcases for high school students in front of top college baseball and softball programs, and even provides citizenship documentation assistance for players to compete internationally.
The 55-year-old Girardi, who is the 55th manager in Phillies franchise history, followed in the footsteps of previous honorees, Hall of Famer Mike Piazza, former manager Bobby Valentine and Mets Hall of Fame reliever John Franco -- all of whom were recognized for their contributions to the sport both on and off the field.
“I feel honored to be a part of that group,” Girardi said. “Those guys have obviously done a lot more in the game than I have, so I feel pretty lucky. I think the growth of baseball in Italy is real important. You think about the long heritage of Italian-American baseball players -- [Joe] DiMaggio, Yogi Berra and Joe Torre, and how important they have been, and guys of my era Mike Piazza, John Franco and Mike Pagliarulo -- it’s really important that we continue to grow our game. Italy is such a wonderful place, and they love the game over there.”
Girardi has been working closely with the foundation for several years, participating in camps both in New York and Italy. This past summer, the IABF went on a 10-day trip overseas to run five clinics in five cities to support the growth of more than 300 Italian youth ballplayers. For the skipper, it’s a way to give back while honoring his roots, as both of his parents and his wife of nearly 30 years are all Italian-American.
Girardi nearly had the opportunity to manage Team Italy in the World Baseball Classic in 2006, but he said he had to pass on the offer because it came at the same time as his first managerial job in Major League Baseball -- with the Florida Marlins, where he would win the National League Manager of the Year Award before being subsequently fired at season’s end.
It all worked out, though, as he was then hired by the Yankees, where he would win the 2009 World Series as part of a storied, decade-long tenure with the Bronx Bombers. It was in New York that Girardi began to see how international the game had become.
“I would see pitcher-catcher meetings and you had a Japanese pitcher, his interpreter, a Latin catcher with his interpreter and then the American pitching coach -- it was like the UN meeting to go over how we were gonna get a guy out,” Girardi said. “But that’s how we’re supposed to work together. What every team does is what we’re supposed to do as a society, because we come from so many different backgrounds.”
Coincidentally, the recognition from the IABF was the second big prize of the day for Girardi, whose Phillies reportedly agreed with starting pitcher Zack Wheeler that afternoon to a five-year, $118 million contract -- the third-largest free-agent contract in franchise history behind Bryce Harper (13 years, $330 million) and Cliff Lee (five years, $120 million).
“I’m really excited. When I think of Zack Wheeler, he’s a pitcher who has dominant stuff and is just really starting to come into his own,” Girardi said. “He went through some injuries, but he has been back the last two years and pitched really well. What was most impressive to me about Zack Wheeler was all [he] wants to do is win. And those are the kind of players that you want on your team, who are willing to do whatever it takes to win.”
In their conversations, Girardi said Wheeler opened up about being with the Mets when they went to the World Series in 2015 but missing out on the experience as he recovered from Tommy John surgery. The Mets lost that Series to the Royals, and then Wheeler had to sit out all of 2016 and much of '17 as well. Although he has put those struggles behind him, starting at least 29 games and pitching more than 180 innings in each of the past two seasons, the injury history certainly has influenced the 29-year-old’s desire to win now.
“He felt like the Phillies would give him a great opportunity, and we believe we will,” Girardi said. “We have an ownership group that really wants to win, and we have a GM that really wants to put together the best team possible. [Wheeler] is the first big addition, and I’m really excited to see him do his thing.
“We will continue to try to improve our team whatever way we can, because again, we have an ownership group that really wants to win and wants to bring a trophy back to Philadelphia.”