Joe Girardi's vacation was all set. Before getting swept up in the tornado of another nonstop baseball season, the Yankees manager and his wife, Kim, were going to take their three kids down to Florida for some fun and relaxation -- a welcome respite from the wintry weather in the Northeast.
The trip was scheduled for the week between Christmas and New Year's -- usually a quiet time in the Bronx, save for the annual college football bowl game at Yankee Stadium -- and would offer the skipper a chance to clear his head and recharge his batteries before embarking on the 2017 season.
Then, on Dec. 4, 2016, the teams for the seventh New Era Pinstripe Bowl were announced. No. 23 Pittsburgh, which played in the first-ever football game in The House That Ruth Built on Oct. 20, 1923, would be facing Northwestern, a small private school that had never been to Yankee Stadium.
"This changed our whole vacation plan," Girardi said, "and I'm really glad it did."
Northwestern isn't just Girardi's alma mater. To him, it's a special place that brings back memories, both happy and sad. It's where he became an Academic All-American but learned lessons outside the classroom that guide him to this day.
Northwestern, a cozy community with fewer than 8,500 undergraduates enrolled at its main campus outside of Chicago, is where he met some of the most important people in his life, forging relationships that will remain strong forever.
Girardi's college experience helped mold him and set him on the path that has led to a long, successful career in Major League Baseball, first as a player and now as a skipper. He loves Northwestern, and the Wildcats' trip to New York last December gave the Big Ten school a chance to show why the feeling is mutual.
The Road to Evanston
Joseph Elliott Girardi was born on Oct. 14, 1964, and grew up in East Peoria, Ill., about two-and-a-half hours southwest of Chicago. An intelligent and hard-working young man, he knew exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up: In an essay written in third grade, he stated that his career goal was to play for the Cubs.
Despite his dedication both on the field and in the high school classroom at Academy of Our Lady/Spalding Institute, Girardi was still undecided about his next step. As of June 1982, the senior catcher planned on playing college ball at the University of New Orleans but had not officially signed anywhere. Little did he know, one Illinois state tournament game was about to change his life's trajectory.
Girardi impressed a number of college coaches in attendance with his bat and his performance behind the plate. More than a half dozen of them lined up afterward to give Girardi their sales pitch, but none could match what Northwestern head coach Ron Wellman offered in terms of academic prestige. Wellman waited nearly two hours after the game had ended until he finally had a chance to speak to Girardi for the first time.
"I just said, 'Joe, what are your SAT scores and grade-point average, and would you be interested in Northwestern?'" said Wellman, who has been the director of athletics at Wake Forest since 1992. "He said 'Yes' and gave me his high school academic profile. I said, 'Why don't I just call you later, and maybe you can come up for a visit.'"
What Wellman did not yet know was that Girardi's mother, Angela, was a strong proponent of higher education and wanted nothing more than to see her son earn a college degree from the best university possible. She was also battling ovarian cancer.
The ability to play baseball in his home state for a school highly regarded for its academics made the decision a no-brainer. After hitting it off with the coaching staff during a visit to the campus in Evanston, Girardi declared, to his mother's delight, that he was headed to Northwestern. And while the Wildcats weren't anybody's idea of a baseball powerhouse, Girardi was about to have a say in that, too.
Forever a Wildcat
It's a couple hours before kickoff, and the parties responsible for making the 2016 New Era Pinstripe Bowl a success are gathered in the owners' suite overlooking the field at Yankee Stadium. University presidents and athletic directors exchange gifts with the Steinbrenner family. Yankees team president Randy Levine offers good luck to both teams during a Champagne toast. Pitt legends Dan Marino and Jimbo Covert attack the food spread.
A television screen shows clips of Northwestern football coaches during the 1950s, and when Yankees managing general partner/co-chairperson Hal Steinbrenner sees his buzz-cut dad -- George Steinbrenner was an assistant under Lou Saban in 1955 -- he is compelled to whip out his phone and press record.
The ties between the Wildcats and the Yankees are not lost on Jim Phillips, who has led Northwestern's athletics program since 2008. Phillips strives to strengthen bonds between the school and former athletes all the time, but his relationship with Girardi has proven just how substantial that connection can be.
Not only has he made sizable donations to the program, but Girardi also has become a trusted sounding board; he's someone Phillips can bounce ideas off of about anything from hiring a new coach to motivational and leadership philosophies without worrying that those conversations will ever be made public.
"It's hard to put into words what he has meant to Northwestern," said Phillips, who was dressed sharply in a dark suit and purple tie for the big game. "He has never forgotten where he came from. He's the manager of the New York Yankees. I don't know if there's a more prestigious position in sports, right? But he's as humble and as caring and as kind, always accessible, willing to do anything to help his alma mater.
"He has personally become a great friend, and somebody I just cherish. You could meet him for a minute or you could know him for a lifetime, and you'll get that impression of who he is and what he's about. He's a family man, and he has never forgotten about his Northwestern family. I just have great admiration and respect because of who he is and the fiber that makes him such a classy individual. And Kim is equally as classy and wonderful of a person."
It's become a tradition during the New Era Pinstripe Bowl to have notable alumni from the participating schools tape short messages in support of their alma mater to play on the center-field video board at Yankee Stadium during stoppages in play. When the 2016 game commenced on Dec. 28, purple-clad fans cheered seeing TV host Jerry Springer, and laughed as ESPN's Michael Wilbon struggled to stuff his head into a Wildcats helmet. But their biggest ovation was reserved for Girardi, and not just because they were at his office.
Leading by Example
It didn't take long for Wellman to realize he had made a wise decision, offering the brainy Catholic school catcher a full scholarship despite having seen him play only once. Even as a freshman, Girardi stood out in nearly every facet of the game. When the Wildcats needed someone to make a play, he came up big again and again.
"So often, you think that your seniors are going to be your leaders, but Joe came in and really became, I think, the leader of the team his freshman year," Wellman said. "He just led by example. His hard work, his determination, and his belief in himself and in his teammates -- that we were going to win every game -- all led to him being a great leader his first year. It just grew from that point on, and by the time he was a senior, you can imagine what kind of leader he was. I didn't have to do much by then!"
During the 1984 season, Girardi batted .396 and led the Wildcats with 17 doubles, earning second team All-Big Ten honors and an invitation to the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League. But back home, Angela's health worsened, and while Girardi was honing his ability to hit with a wood bat in Massachusetts, she passed away.
By that time, Wellman and his family had become very close with the Girardis. The coach had seen how so many of Angela's strengths and attributes -- her toughness, her high expectations, the love she had for her children -- manifested themselves in Joe. And Wellman will never forget the sight of his own wife, Linda, who thought so highly of Joe, hugging him as he cried at his mother's funeral.
"You see a different side of somebody when they go through a tragedy like that," Wellman said. "That incident in his life, of losing his mother at too young of an age, certainly impacted him. But I didn't see any massive changes in him as a result of that, because his mother had established the foundation that was so important for him to get through that experience. He didn't crash; he didn't do anything out of the ordinary. You could tell that it affected him, but it did not change the way he pursued the game, the way he worked academically or athletically."
In Girardi's final two years at Northwestern, he, quite simply, became the most decorated player in school history: an ABCA/Rawlings All-America Team selection as a junior, two first team All-Big Ten selections and an academic performance that would lead to his induction into the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA) Academic All-America Hall of Fame were just some of his noteworthy accomplishments.
But as is often the case with the ever-humble Girardi, personal accolades are not what he values most.
Girardi credits his experience as a student-athlete for teaching him the importance of discipline and time management -- two essential ingredients to being "everything you can to everyone" as a Big League manager, husband and father of three.
"But also," he said, "Northwestern taught me the importance of relationships, what good friends are, who you can always count on, and you can laugh, and you can cry, and there's so many things that you can go through together as a group."
Girardi said this while standing in Suite 9 at Yankee Stadium, far above the dugout he normally patrols throughout the summer. He was surrounded by the friends and family he invited, all of whom were wearing purple to show their 'Cats pride.
"We've stayed in touch with a lot of our friends from Northwestern -- Joe especially because baseball's a tight-knit group, and I think it was a special group," said Kim, who grew up in Lake Forest, Ill., and met Joe at Northwestern when he was a sophomore and she was a freshman. They started dating two years later. "They're great people at Northwestern. Joe's baseball coach when we were there was in our wedding. They have just really solid people with great values, and I feel really blessed that I was able to go there."
Steve Crabbe and Ab Igram were freshmen infielders on the Northwestern baseball team when Girardi was a junior. They said that beyond the immense talent, Girardi was the hardest worker they ever saw, a guy who was always up for extra reps after practice. But his leadership went beyond infield drills and lengthy cage sessions.
"As a freshman, you're kind of clueless and not up to par," Igram said. "Joe went out of his way to treat us the same way and show us how to act, what to do, and point us in the right direction, so that was critical for my development as a student, too."
Working hard. Leading by example. Treating everyone fairly. Valuing relationships. The core tenets that have led to an enormously successful managerial career in New York are rooted in Illinois.
"I think maybe the best way to describe it is, if I ever needed something, if I ever had to talk seriously about a matter, he would be at the top of my list to call, because of the way he treats people, the way he understands situations, the way he understands me and the relationship that we have," Wellman said. "He's someone I have thorough confidence in and trust completely.
"The relationships that he continues to have with his teammates from Northwestern … It's just remarkable what he will do for them, and the way he relishes those relationships. He really values those guys, and he's there for them whenever they call on him for something. Joe is a guy that is easy to trust, easy to like, easy to want to have an ongoing relationship with. So, I guess the best way I could describe my attitude toward him is, obviously I respect him, but more importantly than respecting and liking him an awful lot, I trust him completely. Whether it be professional situations or personal situations, I have complete trust in him."
A Busy Day
Girardi graduated from Northwestern in 1986 with a bachelor's degree in industrial engineering. The Cubs took him in the fifth round of the draft that summer, and on April 4, 1989, his childhood dream came true. As the starting catcher on Opening Day, he went 2 for 3 at Wrigley Field, singling in his first Big League at-bat and scoring two batters later to help the Cubs beat the Phillies, 5-4.
Yet he would probably tell you that that performance wasn't even the highlight of his day. He also proposed to his college sweetheart, and she said yes.
And so, nearly three decades later, when the 2016 New Era Pinstripe Bowl teams were announced and it came time to choose between the warm clime of the south or Northwestern, Girardi once again followed his heart.
And once again, it worked out.
Northwestern 31, Pitt 24.