David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
When it was revealed yesterday that Joe Girardi's father, Jerry, had passed away after a long struggle with Alzheimer's disease, the initial reaction was shock mixed with sympathy, and also a curiosity as to how the Yankees' manager would soldier through last night's Game 4 against the Orioles.
The loss of a parent is among life's cruelest blows, and to harness the emotional cyclone created by such an event would be tough to do under more ordinary circumstances, never mind while attempting to pilot the Yankees through another playoff obstacle that same night.
And then came the part that showed Joe is every bit Jerry's son, the stoic salesman-bartender-bricklayer who set the foundation for his career in baseball.
Jerry actually died Saturday, at the age of 81.
In an effort to shelter his team from distraction and also help him privately cope with the devastating loss, Girardi told only the most trusted members of his inner circle. When he learned of his father's death on the bus ride to Penn Station, the first stop of the Yankees' trip to Baltimore, Girardi slipped on sunglasses to cover the tears.
"I tried to focus on what we were trying to accomplish and what we were doing," he said, "because that's what my dad would have done."
Taking Jerry's cue, Girardi pondered lineups, did his daily interviews and fidgeted with the bullpen in getting the Yankees to the brink of a third trip to the ALCS during his five-year tenure. Through it all, he never cracked, and his own players didn't find out until the hours leading up to Game 4, which the Yankees lost to the Orioles, 2-1, in 13 innings. A few were surprised Girardi was able to stay silent.
"I'd like to think we would have heard about it, because we're tight in here," Nick Swisher said after the defeat, which forced today's winner-take-all Game 5. "But I can understand and see where he's coming from on both sides. For a lot of us, this is our escape."
It was for Girardi until yesterday's pregame news conference, when he choked up in talking about his late father. One of the favorite stories involved Jerry wrestling with a bathtub spigot, which resulted in a broken thumb from a slip of the wrench. His thumb bleeding, Jerry refused to go to the emergency room until the job was finished. He wrapped it in tape, and did just that. Jerry 1, Wrench 0.
Girardi is enduring a different pain now, a deeper one, but his determination to get the Yankees where they need to go comes from the same place.
Think of the past few days, when he has had to deal with an escalating A-Rod situation, among other various subplots, while keeping his secret under wraps. Despite a regular barrage of questions involving the slumping Alex Rodriguez, Girardi has maintained a cool banter with the media, matter-of-factly stating his belief in him as a productive member of the lineup.
As the frustration grew, how easy would it have been for Girardi to lash out, to challenge the questioners, to let the roiling emotions win? Everyone faces those moments, and for Girardi, it all came to a head in Wednesday night's Game 3, when he made the fateful decision to pinch hit for Rodriguez.
The move could not have worked out better, as Raul Ibañez slugged the tying and winning homers from A-Rod's spot in the order. When asked what his dad might have thought about that "gutsy" decision, the manager smiled.
"He would have been extremely proud," Girardi said, "and probably told all of his buddies."
Under his original plan, Girardi did not intend to tell his players until Monday, when the funeral will be held in Peoria, Ill. That's a scheduled off day for the ALCS, and if the Yankees were to advance, Girardi figured it would be an appropriate time -- between games, to lessen the distraction.
A local Peoria newspaper inadvertently foiled that plan Thursday by running Jerry's obituary, and Girardi was forced to confront what he had tried to hide. It wasn't easy, not on that stage. But even through teary eyes, Girardi didn't waver.