Girardi cherishes talks with father
Alzheimer's makes it hard, but conversations lift both men
The memories of Joe Girardi's father as a strict disciplinarian with a lesser-seen soft side continue to beat on in the Yankees manager's heart, even though that man no longer answers the ringing telephone.
Girardi's father, Jerry, is suffering from advanced Alzheimer's disease, but his son continues dialing the numbers, hoping to hear at least a brief flash of the role model who took him fishing and would listen along to Cubs games in the car radio.
"I think about my father all the time," Girardi says in a room adjacent to his Yankee Stadium office, leaning back in a padded chair after completing a pregame interview session with reporters.
"I think about all the things that he taught me about hard work, and fighting through adversity, and toughness. I carry all the things that he taught me as a little boy growing up. He was always there for me."
So it is now Girardi's vow to be there for his father.
"You have to understand, it's not something they want to do, and our job is to take care of them," Girardi said. "That's the least I can do. My dad took care of me forever."
Now 77, Jerry Girardi does not open his eyes much anymore, sleeping for most of the day in an assisted-care facility outside Peoria, Ill.
Girardi has been told that the best time to speak to his father is early in the day, so at 10 o'clock once or twice a week, he will pick up the phone and try. The conversations are mostly one-way, but Girardi keeps his father up to date on whatever is going on in his life.
When Girardi learned he had been hired as the new Yankees manager late in 2007, Jerry opened his eyes and smiled. Last week, Jerry said, 'Yes,' twice. Girardi said those two words boosted him through the rest of the day.
"There's always that little percentage where I think, 'Maybe he got it,'" Girardi said. "That's encouraging."
Jerry was Girardi's biggest fan during his playing days and proudly would show off a World Series ring. Updates on the Yankees' play are delivered regularly, but mostly, Girardi's favorite stories to tell his dad come from home.
After most afternoon games, the Girardi family takes to the field at Yankee Stadium. Dante, 7, already shows flashes of advanced baseball skills, fielding grounders and hitting line drives off his dad. Serena, 9, somersaults in foul territory and 2-year-old Lena looks on.
Jerry would have loved to hear about all of it. On the first day he met Girardi's future wife, Kim, he told her, "Good, I'm ready for grandchildren." The couple had been dating for a month at the time.
"I think the toughest part for me was that I knew how much my dad looked forward to grandkids," Girardi said. "I knew he wasn't going to be able to enjoy them the way he should."
There had always been a running joke in the Girardi family that Jerry's memory was slipping. Girardi has four siblings, and Jerry would frequently flub the names of his boys -- Joe, John, George and Jerry.
"There were things he'd do when he was in his 40s that you'd think, 'What, are you losing your memory, Dad?'" Girardi said. "I don't think I wanted to believe it. You don't ever want to believe that your parent is ill. But it became a reality to me."
Girardi's brother, John, is a physician, and he initially detected Jerry's early warning signs of Alzheimer's in 1996, 12 years after Girardi's mother, Angela, passed away. Medication helped stall the onset, but Alzheimer's -- which affects five million Americans -- inevitably crept in and began stealing Jerry's treasured memories.
The first inklings that Jerry was regressing came in a raucous San Diego clubhouse, as the Yankees celebrated sweeping the Padres to win the 1998 World Series. Drenched in Champagne and beer, Girardi told his father to wait for a moment while he showered and got dressed. Jerry wandered off in search of a bathroom and could not find his way back.
Girardi chalked the moment up to the unfamiliar facility, but by 2004, there was no denying that his father was having trouble. Girardi was hanging on for one last Spring Training with the Yankees and welcomed Dad in for a visit.
Each morning, Jerry would wake up in the two-bedroom Tampa, Fla., apartment and ask Girardi where the bathroom was. One day, Girardi walked in on his father smearing a stick of roll-on deodorant over his cheek, thinking it was shaving cream.
"That was probably the hardest day for me," Girardi recalls. "I knew how much he loved his life and his kids' life, and I just really knew that I probably wasn't ever going to be able to talk to my dad the same."
There are things that Girardi would love to be able to ask his father, a Korean War veteran who raised a family of seven during hard economic times. But whatever advice Jerry might have given on marriage, on the grand-kids, on last night's Yankees game -- has been erased.
"I knew the advice that I would want from my father, in all walks of life, just wasn't going to be there," Girardi said.
When the Yankees travel to Chicago, Girardi and Kim make it a point to bring the kids up to see their grandfather. Once a robust 240 pounds, Jerry has lost a significant amount of weight, though as Girardi laughs, chocolate candy has recently helped him put about 20 pounds back on.
"It's still great to see him and visit him," Kim Girardi said. "We want our children to see him, even though he barely opens his eyes. When there's life around him, he rises to the occasion and he responds, and that's wonderful to see."
Once, Lena's crying prompted Jerry to yell out, "Be quiet!" Girardi grinned. That was Dad, the same strict disciplinarian who once shattered his thumb with a pair of channel-lock pliers while repairing a bathtub. It is one of Girardi's favorite stories to tell.
Bleeding all over the Girardi's family bathroom that day, Jerry wrapped his hand in gauze and a towel and refused to seek medical attention until the spigot was in place. His thumb was broken, but at least on the way to the hospital, Jerry knew the job was done.
"There was a toughness there in my father," Girardi said. "What he set out to accomplish that day, he was going to do, no matter what he went through. He came home with his thumb in a splint, but that was my dad, never showing that he couldn't get done what he wanted to get done that day."
Girardi's "Catch 25" Foundation recently celebrated its second annual "Remember When, Remember Now!" evening in New York, to benefit Alzheimer's research, and it is a reminder that Girardi is not alone in this fight.
At this year's function, Jerry's caregiver Judy Shea was honored with an award bearing her name. It was her presence that permitted Girardi and his family to stop worrying, knowing that Jerry would be in good hands.
"You're worried that they could walk out the front door and disappear, or not take their medicine, or write a check to someone they shouldn't," Girardi said. "That's why care is important. It's important to have people that truly take care of people and watch over them and help them live with dignity."
This Father's Day, a telephone will ring somewhere in Illinois, and Jerry will be handed the receiver. He will hear his son and daughter-in-law wish him a happy Father's Day, and young voices he may or may not recognize will call him "Grandpa."
Momentarily removed from the stressful day-to-day duties of lineup cards, pitching changes and hit-and-run opportunities, Girardi's voice quivers ever so slightly as he imagines this scene.
"It's a thankful moment, because I know that I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for my father," Girardi said. "At this point, you never know when his last Father's Day is going to be. We'll see if we can get some words out of him."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.