On Tuesday, March 20, after Northwestern softball run-ruled Massachusetts and Hartford during its Spring Break 2012 trip to Tampa and Clearwater, Fla., the Wildcats headed to George M. Steinbrenner Stadium to catch a New York Yankees spring training game and meet Yankees manager Joe Girardi.
Long in advance, head coach Kate Drohan contacted the former Northwestern All-America catcher to see if he could spend some the time with the team. Girardi could not have been more accommodating and welcoming.
First of all, the Girardi background: Joe Girardi is a Peoria, Ill., native who was a three-time All-Big Ten catcher and a 1985 All-American for Northwestern. As an engineering major, he also was a three-time CoSIDA Academic All-American and is a member of the CoSIDA Academic All-America Hall of Fame. He graduated in 1986.
We arrived at the game about an hour early and Joe sent his 12-year-old daughter, Serena, out to bring us in to meet him. She led us through the offices and out onto the practice field complex, where Joe held court for about 20 minutes. He started the discussion by asking what the two secrets to success at anything are. The team offered several guesses, with the right answers being "passion and hard work."
He also quoted John Wooden, whom he called "the greatest coach of all time," saying that your day is not complete until you have done something for someone who cannot pay you back.
A question and answer exchange began, and he offered his two most important aspects of pitching and hitting. For a hitter, focus on your back side and keep your swing tight. For a pitcher, get that first strike and make the batter's feet move; you don't want them comfortable in the box.
He was asked about his favorite Northwestern memories, and he started talking about three-time All-America pitcher Lisa Ishikawa, who led NU to three Women's College World Series and who graduated the year after Girardi (Joe graduated in 1986, Ishikawa in 1987). He said people always asked if he batted against her, and he said "no way!" I didn't want to embarrass myself, he said.
He talked about how much Evanston has changed since he was in school and about how much he loved Northwestern. "I love Northwestern University. It is such a special place," he said.
His daughter remained there and played an active role in the discussion. They talked about her achieving a goal of wanting to be an actress. She has a role in an animated feature film, Henry & Me, due out in April.
Joe talked about the importance of communication and talked about the Game On program run by IMG and how he uses it with his players. He has adapted it to where players will present quotes to the ball club every day in order to get them comfortable with public speaking and interactions, especially when approached by younger fans. He says all-star, future Hall of Fame players will get nervous in that situation and it is a good exercise to go through. He said he went first with the quotes and offered up "People who are good to you are not necessarily good for you."
His final thought for the team was that "In sports and in life, you will always struggle at some point. Just stick together and look out for each other." He then asked about our upcoming schedule, and when he was told we open Big Ten play at Nebraska, he said to "give them the same welcome to the Big Ten that we gave them in football and basketball." And volleyball too, for that matter.
One question we asked him was how former Northwestern pitcher George Kontos was doing. He said he had been out with a lat strain but was back and doing well -- he said he did not know if he was on the docket for tonight. In the eighth inning, Joe put George in the game, eliciting very loud and sustained cheers from the Northwestern softball group for the entire frame.
After the game, Joe called head coach Kate Drohan's cell phone to thank us for coming and to wish us luck against Nebraska. He said it was "special" to hear the whole team cheering for George.
From start to finish -- to just maybe putting Kontos in the game solely for our enjoyment (he already had pitched the night before, too) -- Joe Girardi could not have represented himself, his family, the New York Yankees and Northwestern University any better. We are grateful to him for taking the time to visit with our student-athletes. Go 'Cats!