Joe Girardi had just completed his sophomore season at Northwestern University, and he was two years away from graduating with his degree in industrial engineering, when he traveled to Louisville, Ky., for the last round of tryouts for the 1984 United States Olympic baseball team.
Girardi, a 19-year-old from Peoria, Ill., was in the company of the most renowned amateur baseball players in the country. Barry Larkin. Will Clark. Mark McGwire. Cory Snyder. Bobby Witt.
“I made it to the final cut,” Girardi recalled this week. “B.J. Surhoff wound up being the starting catcher. That was a wise choice on their part. I still remember seeing all those great players there. I was disappointed that I didn’t make the team, but I understood.”
Consolation arrived the following summer, as Girardi played for the U.S. collegiate national team at the 1985 Intercontinental Cup in Canada. Then came a 15-year Major League playing career, including three World Series rings with the Yankees and an All-Star Game selection with the Cubs. Girardi managed the Yankees to another World Series title in 2009.
Now, 35 years after the tryout in Louisville, Girardi can chase another Olympic dream.
Wednesday, USA Baseball announced Girardi as the national team’s manager at the 2019 WBSC Premier12 tournament in November -- where the top finisher among the Americas region will qualify for the six-team baseball tournament at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.
“This is a huge thrill for me,” Girardi told MLB.com in a telephone interview. “I love our country. I think we live in the greatest place in the world. When the opportunity came up to represent our country and work to qualify for the Olympics, I was so honored to accept it.”
In 1984, Girardi tried out for the first formal U.S. Olympic baseball team, competing in a demonstration sport added for the Los Angeles Games. This fall, he’s committed to ensuring Team USA competes in the first Olympic baseball tournament since 2008. Baseball was absent from the 2012 and 2016 Summer Olympics but will return next year, due to the sport’s extraordinary popularity in the host city and country.
As USA Baseball officials considered managerial candidates in recent months, they expressed a preference for the same manager to remain with the national team through the 2019/2020 cycle — including the qualification phase (i.e., the Premier12) and Olympic tournament next July and August, should the U.S. earn a bid.
Thus, USA Baseball’s ideal scenario involves Girardi managing in Tokyo next summer. Of course, Girardi is likely to be a strong candidate for Major League managerial openings this fall. If he’s managing in the Majors next year, USA Baseball likely would elevate a member of the Premier12 coaching staff to the managerial role for Tokyo.
The Premier12 features the world’s top 12 national teams, as ranked through performance at all age levels by the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC). Team USA, second to Japan in the WBSC rankings, will compete against the Netherlands, Dominican Republic and host Mexico during group play beginning Nov. 2 at Estadio de Béisbol Charros de Jalisco in Guadalajara. The group’s top two teams will advance to the six-team Super Round in Japan to determine the Olympic bids, with the final game scheduled for Nov. 17.
The Premier12 was conceived as a successor to the Baseball World Cup, which was last contested in 2011. Now, either the Premier12 or World Baseball Classic is staged every other year. Team USA lost to South Korea in the gold medal game of the inaugural Premier12, held in 2015. The next World Baseball Classic is set for 2021.
When Girardi told his wife, Kim, and their three children that he’d been offered the job as manager of Team USA, the conversation shifted to a discussion of how the entire family could be involved with the tournament. Girardi’s youngest two children are home schooled, which will help with the travel logistics.
“I want them all to have the same opportunity I’m getting,” Girardi said. “I want them to see how big this can be, to represent our country and the game of baseball around the world.
“I had a great opportunity [to play for Team USA] when I was 20 years old, and I want other ballplayers to have that same opportunity now. It’s very similar to what my feelings have been as a Major League manager: I was fortunate to win the World Series as a player, and I wanted to see my players enjoy the same thing. Now I want to watch my team have the experience of winning a gold medal.”
The role of national team manager carries great personal significance for Girardi, whose late father, Jerry, served in the U.S. Air Force and was a veteran of the Korean War.
Jerry, who died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2012, had not traveled outside the U.S -- except for his military service -- until watching Joe’s games with Team USA in Japan, South Korea and Canada during the summer of 1985.
“Dad was extremely proud of that,” Girardi said. “We had lost my mother that previous summer, in 1984, and we’d never been out of the country on a family vacation. For us to do that together, he was so excited.”
In honor of his father’s service, Girardi has maintained connections with U.S. military veterans throughout his playing career, 11 seasons managing the Marlins and Yankees, and current work as a broadcaster with MLB Network and FOX Sports.
“It’s really important,” Girardi said. “I had a chance to see what so many military personnel families sometimes have to go through. I’ve been to Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center], and you see how eager the men and women are to get back to their group. I remember one soldier who was shot in the back of his head, and the bullet came out by his ear. All he could talk about was wanting to get back to his unit.
“That’s something I’ll never forget. When you talk about loyalty and pride for our country, they are the ultimate teammates.”
Team USA has one gold medal and two bronzes among the five formal Olympic baseball competitions. The victory came at the 2000 Sydney Games under Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda, who had retired as Dodgers manager four years earlier.
The most recent U.S. Olympic team, in 2008, included future All-Stars Stephen Strasburg, Jake Arrieta, Dexter Fowler and Trevor Cahill, on a roster comprised mostly of Minor League players. USA Baseball is preparing for that to be the case again, although the WBSC, Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association have not announced formal agreements on which players are eligible.
Girardi said he expects the U.S. roster to be young -- which suits him well, after coaching his son, Dante, over the two seasons since the Yankees parted with him following the 2017 American League Championship Series.
“It definitely helps,” Girardi said of working with Dante, who is about to begin his senior year of high school. “The more time you spend around high school kids, the more you get a sense of where they’re coming from and what their thought process is. Some of the players [on Team USA] probably won’t be too far removed from high school. How they communicate will be different from the way it was 20 years ago.”
Girardi had one previous opportunity to manage internationally, but he had to turn it down: The Italian baseball federation asked if he could manage their World Baseball Classic team in 2006. Girardi declined, since he couldn’t take time away from the Marlins during his first Spring Training as a Major League manager.
But he’s always been interested in representing his country, and helping to promote the game around the world, when the circumstances were right.
They are now.
“I’ve always loved international baseball,” Girardi said. “You want countries to compete against each other in a way that is healthy. I think it’s a way of showing how we can all get along and relate. It’s a blueprint for what we should be doing in our world. The competition is so healthy for everyone involved. I’m so excited about this.”