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Yankees Magazine: The Showman

After a decade of his running the Yankees, you might think you know Joe Girardi. But why do his truest colors show up in the most ostensibly artificial setting?
Yankees Magazine

The roadways that wrap The Star in Frisco, Texas -- all with appropriate names such as Cowboys Way, Hall of Fame Lane, Gridiron Road and Avenue of Champions -- cover about a mile, and that's just one time around. We're hoping to keep this under two loops, but amid the sea of large buildings, new and glimmery, in this upscale suburb north of Dallas, you would understand if we're struggling to find our appropriate parking spot in this haystack of concrete. Everything's bigger in Texas, huh? You ain't lyin'.

At our route's northernmost spot, about 180 compass degrees from our prescribed resting point, Joe Girardi pops out from the front passenger seat of a bronze Chevy Impala. He's smiling, but sternly, as he approaches a security guard and calmly asks for directions.

The roadways that wrap The Star in Frisco, Texas -- all with appropriate names such as Cowboys Way, Hall of Fame Lane, Gridiron Road and Avenue of Champions -- cover about a mile, and that's just one time around. We're hoping to keep this under two loops, but amid the sea of large buildings, new and glimmery, in this upscale suburb north of Dallas, you would understand if we're struggling to find our appropriate parking spot in this haystack of concrete. Everything's bigger in Texas, huh? You ain't lyin'.

At our route's northernmost spot, about 180 compass degrees from our prescribed resting point, Joe Girardi pops out from the front passenger seat of a bronze Chevy Impala. He's smiling, but sternly, as he approaches a security guard and calmly asks for directions.

You don't have to know a whole lot about Girardi to know that this isn't good. It's right there in his military-tight haircut, in his bulging neck muscles from which veins scream out for help, in his precisely maintained weight and his daily devotional in the workout room. On the field, you can see it plainly on his back, No. 28, the digits he wears serving as a constant reminder of the team's ultimate goal.

This is a man who is supposed to arrive places on time.

Where are we? We're out of the box, you might say; off the reservation. This might be someone's comfort zone; it doesn't seem like it would be Joe Girardi's. But the Yankees manager returns to his car and directs the driver -- YES Network's Meredith Marakovits -- to finish the loop. Ever the manager, Girardi's got things under control.

"You could tell that he's a perfectionist," Marakovits says later that day. "There's no doubt about it, in whatever he's doing. And it seems like he's always been wired like that, even before he was a manager, even probably before he was a professional baseball player. He's just a guy who has always tried to do his best and strived to be at the top of his game in whatever it is." Perfection, in polite society, means getting the details just right. Departure from routine is OK, within reason. But get it together. "That's how I've always been," Girardi says later, his tone self-aware if somewhat sheepish. "I've been very pragmatic in everything I do. That's my personality. I'm very prepared. I'm very scheduled. Routine is very important to me. As long as those things don't get completely interrupted, I'm OK."

He's OK, and we're OK. One slight hiccup and turnaround later, we park and head inside. Problem solved.

Day to day, the real-life Joe Girardi show is a testament to precision, to accepting and meeting life's demands. And it has paid off. He has built a handsome life for himself and his family, centered professionally in his pressure-filled yet coveted Bronx office. You can't argue with a winning strategy.

But on The Joe Girardi Show that he films weekly throughout the season with Marakovits for the YES Network, another side peeks out. And it's hard not to notice that the TV version of the Yankees' skipper may actually be closer to the real thing than what fans have been used to seeing in the dugout for so many years now.

***

The Joe Girardi Show debuted on YES in 2008, when Girardi took over the manager's role, and for most of its run, the show's format couldn't have been more basic. Two cameras pointed at two chairs, with Girardi and a co-host bantering about all that was happening with the team. But very quickly, the evaporating nature of baseball's news cycle caught up to the show. Fans had access to Girardi's press conferences; to the Twitter feeds of writers who spent their entire days around the team and its manager; to increasing communications from the players themselves. By the time Girardi and Marakovits were filming after games on Friday nights or Saturday afternoons, it was almost impossible to cover any new ground.

"I'm here just about every day, asking him questions during pregame and postgame," says Marakovits, who is always tasked with the first inquiries in Girardi's press conferences. As a result, the televised banter for the YES Network show was inevitably redundant. "We both can feel it -- you know what's coming. I know what he's going to answer before he even answers it; he knows what I'm going to ask about. It's not brain surgery, it's baseball."

Marakovits, who relishes travel and sightseeing whenever she's away from the ballpark, had been nurturing her relationship with the manager since she joined YES in 2012. And along with producer Eric Roldan, she had been managing -- even under the tight constraints of the show's format -- to show Girardi in a light different from what fans were used to.

To be fair, Girardi's better angels are often there to see, just not in the most public ways. Grimly though he may walk to the mound in executing yet another emotionless pitching change, Girardi is also the man who begins every pregame press conference at home by devoting a few minutes to a charitable cause, wearing a shirt of some benevolent organization and giving the writers a quick breakdown of its history and mission. It's a small thing, and it attracts only spare attention. But imagine the impact it has. Or watch him pull kids from the stanchioned-off areas on the field during batting practice and bring them over near the cage, where he urges them to chat with the players. Girardi very clearly doesn't have to do this; he wants to.

Marakovits and Roldan had a notion: When Girardi is away from the real or imagined constraints of his job's public image, an entirely different person comes out. "We found out that Joe had a personality beyond what you see in the dugout," Roldan says. So they wanted to channel that into a better television program. It started small early this year -- one small "access segment" per show. Maybe it was Girardi giving a tour of his office, or a behind-the-scenes look at some part of the Stadium. But around those segments, the format remained static.

That changed when the team visited Chicago in early May. For the first time, the crew filmed the entire 23-minute show on location at Northwestern University, Girardi's alma mater. He gave Marakovits a tour of the campus -- including his old dorm room -- visited with the baseball team and met with a statistics professor. Barely a word about the 2017 Yankees crossed his lips during the entire broadcast. "That was a big turnaround for the show," Roldan says. "He looked like he had a good time."

Just like that, the wheels were in motion. In Kansas City, the duo hit up Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue, where they learned to flip briskets with the pitmaster. They got to peer behind the scenes at the Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room in Seattle, cooked pizza with the crew at Frank Pepe's in Yonkers, New York, and toured the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

"It's just been a lot of fun for me," Marakovits says. "I really enjoy that. I love baseball, I love covering baseball, but when you go through a whole season, it gets repetitive. So for me to be able to do something a little bit outside the box and have a little fun has been enjoyable for me, and I like that aspect of it. "It's cool because we thought for a while, 'How can we make this show a little different?'"

***

This is certainly different. It's September, the playoff chase. The Red Sox are threatening to pull away, while the Yankees try to improve their own position. Tonight, the Yankees will play the Rangers after arriving in Texas late last night. So the obvious question: Are you ready for some football?

Ready or not, we're here at The Star, the Dallas Cowboys' year-old training facility. If Jerry Jones, the team's owner, could incorporate his legendary franchise into a city, it would look something like this. Outside, three flags fly -- the stars and stripes of the United States, the Lone Star banner of Texas, and the Cowboys' own single star. There are three practice fields, including an indoor one that doubles as a performing arts center, a hotel, office space and all the accoutrements of a professional sports team literally unable to spend all the money it rakes in (to say nothing of the retail spaces and branded locations that, of course, only add to the revenue flow). You want Super Bowl trophies? They're all here, five of them, underneath a massive art installation that lights up the space when the sun goes down. Championship rings? Right this way, sir.

Roldan prepared four segments that he hopes to shoot in about an hour, the coup de grâce being a planned conversation between Girardi and Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett. "I have a rundown in place, with a caveat -- subject to change," Roldan says. "You have to be prepared. You cannot waste Joe's time." For the 23-minute show, Roldan hopes to film about 35 to 40 minutes of footage, which he'll cut down later.

"These shoots a lot of times are flying by the seats of our pants, hoping that in a perfect world, this, this and this will work out," Marakovits says. "Well, maybe you'll only get A and B, you won't get C or D. You make the most of your environment."

So it's barely of notice to anyone when a change in plans brings a twinkle to the manager's eye. A detour into the weight room (where we are surprised to run into CC Sabathia and Sonny Gray taking a tour of their own) gets Girardi's wheels spinning, particularly when Cowboys assistant strength and conditioning coach Brett Bech volunteers to walk him around the mammoth room. We may be on a distant Star, but the weight room is home. Checking out the Keiser air resistance equipment and the technology all around the room -- to say nothing of the 175-pound dumbbells -- the real Joe Girardi emerges. Marakovits is there to enjoy the show; Girardi is the one interviewing Bech, asking all the questions.

It recalls the segment they filmed several weeks back with NYCFC head coach Patrick Vieira. The legendary French soccer player and Arsenal star was teaching Girardi some skills as the two chatted while passing a ball back and forth. Over in the corner, wearing her powder blue NYCFC jersey, Marakovits didn't have a whole lot to do.

"At the end of the day, it is The Joe Girardi Show," she says, laughing. "Did I want to play soccer? I don't know. I could have, if they asked me, but they didn't ask me. So I was just making sure that no one got injured there. They had a good thing going on there. There was no need for me to interrupt that rapport if it seems like it's working. Sometimes you know when to insert yourself and keep the conversation going, and other times, you take a step back and let Joe be the lead, and let Joe take control."

But Girardi pushes back - "I think Meredith is the star," he says. "Actually, Meredith and Lena."

***

Lena is Girardi's youngest child. She was front and center at Pizzeria Due in Chicago, sneaking bites of cheese and asking the tough questions of the pizza chefs demonstrating proper technique. Or there was the time she shot hoops with her old man for the Father's Day episode, then visited with Marakovits in the YES booth at the ballpark for a series of trivia questions about the manager. (Was Girardi a .300 hitter for his career? No, Lena recalled.)

"I think it's important they're involved," Girardi says of his family's participation. His motivation is simple, a function of his own upbringing. "My parents worked really hard in life to provide for five kids and give us a better opportunity to succeed and to get a great education. But I never remember a time of them not being there for us and doing things with us. I used to travel with my father -- he was a salesman. We'd listen to Cubs games on the radio.

"For me, I was always a part of their life, part of what they did, and they made us a priority."

That same ethos is ever-present up and down the Yankees' roster. Matt Holliday's kids spend more time around the clubhouse than some coaches do. Same with Sabathia, whose children are a regular sight. There's a refreshing belief among the players that baseball is important, but family is the top priority, and -- despite the stakes and the attention -- that is fostered by the man in charge.

"The first thing he told me was, 'If you've got any problems, focus on your family, and let the rest take care of itself,'" Sabathia says. "That makes it easier when you come into the clubhouse."

But Joe Girardi is Joe Girardi. Ever the doting father, he insists that he's doing more by incorporating Lena into the show than simply showing a lighter side. There are practical considerations, as well. "It may be something that Lena wants to do some day," he says, "so I think the experience for her is really good. To be involved in public speaking, not to get nervous, to be comfortable in front of the camera. You never know what may happen in life." Mind you, Lena is 11 years old.

Such is life in the Girardi clan, going back generations. Even just listening to the man talk about pizza -- "It's one of my loves in life," says the 52-year-old whose current weight is within five pounds of where it stood during his playing days -- it's evident that family is everything. Girardi's father, Jerry, used to make homemade pizza. It was always a treat, and Joe, determined as ever, installed a wood-fired pizza oven outside his house so that he could create similar memories for his own kids. It's an art, pizza, and Girardi seeks out help from the best. To hear him gush over the pepperoni at Frank Pepe's -- how the coal curls the pepperoni into little, perfectly burnt cups of meat -- is to understand the pursuit of transcendence.

***

You need watch only a few clips from The Joe Girardi Show to realize that there's nothing he respects more than expertise. Whether talking with Garrett, a successful NFL coach; or kicking a ball around with Vieira while discussing their respective successes as players; working with chefs at the top of their fields; or even examining artifacts from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Girardi's eyes light up when they focus on something truly worthy.

"I think you appreciate greatness," he says. "And I think it comes in all walks of life, whether you're a player, a coach, an educator -- whatever you do -- I appreciate greatness. And it's kind of what you look for in people. What makes them great?" At the Cowboys' facility, he walks along the Nike Star Walk, a hallway lined with quotes and stats celebrating legendary Dallas players, and he marvels at the accomplishments. "They're just revealing greatness. There's greatness here. There's an expectation to win a Super Bowl every year. And these are reminders." To Girardi, it felt familiar. "This is what the Yankees stand for. The Yankees stand for greatness."

Some people might struggle with that burden. And maybe, when you see Girardi managing -- and know that his ability to impact a ballgame was far greater during his catching career -- that stress causes the blank, stern stares or the fiery rage with which he defends his players in the faces of umpires. When he can study it, or when he used to be able to engage with it on the field, the responsibility lifted him up. Now, the man who trained to be an industrial engineer at one of the country's finest universities (while also working toward a career in the highest level of baseball) can only write a lineup card and try to work some mental gymnastics to get the most out of the guys on his roster. "I've always found it easier to be involved in the game, to play the game, than to watch it," he says. "And my job is long term, too, in a sense. It's not always one game. I've got to get the best out of them for the whole year."

You'd be forgiven, then, for wondering which is the performance. It seems easy enough to feign a detached distance while juggling relievers in and out of the game, often without concern for their own feelings. But to light up as Girardi does when he gets to discuss management strategies and leadership with the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys? To hear him gush over that pepperoni, the burnt edges, the tiny, beautiful pools of oil it holds? Nobody is good enough to fake that. Months back, Marakovits and Roldan suggested a trip to the top of Toronto's CN Tower. Girardi, no fan of heights, wasn't interested. He'd rather be at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, making an impassioned case for Dire Straits' induction.

During their chat in a conference room at The Star, Marakovits asks Girardi and Garrett how they feel about pressure. Girardi insists that the pressure comes from within, from a passion for winning. Then he nods approvingly as Garrett lays out what might as well be carved into the Girardi family seal. "We want to be the best," Garrett says. The Yankees' manager couldn't have said it any better.

So they'll finish their chat, they'll remove the microphones and converse a bit in private. Then Roldan will take the film down the road to the YES Network truck at Globe Life Park, where the Yankees and Rangers will play in a few hours. He'll upload some tape that they can use for promos, then fly back east, where he'll spend the next day editing the show down for broadcast after Sunday's game. Girardi will return to his day-to-day. He'll brief the media, he'll write the lineups, he'll use up as much of the expanded September roster as humanly possible, and he'll do it all again the next day -- workout and everything. The camera will catch him plenty during the games over the weekend, expressionless and determined. And no one would or could blame you for seeing only intensity, only fire, a professional driven only by baseball.

After that Sunday game, though, you can tune in to YES and watch a man giddily tour a weight room. And you can remember, as he stares longingly at a piece of machinery that simulates a 180-pound tire flip, that you simply can't fake that. Joe Girardi is driven by a disciplined yearning to be the best at everything he does, from fatherhood to body maintenance to pizza-making to baseball. And believe it or not, he's loving every minute of it.

Jon Schwartz is the deputy editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the October 2017 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

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