Over a Long, Arduous Season, Joe Girardi Wore His Humanity Well


Jason Zillo, the team’s director of communications, suggested during spring training that Girardi wear the T-shirts. Several years earlier, Zillo had noticed that Joe Maddon, then the manager for the Tampa Bay Rays, had developed a similar ritual, wearing T-shirts promoting charities in his postgame interviews with reporters.

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Many of the charities Girardi has promoted do not have much name recognition or financial heft.

Credit
Alex Goodlett for The New York Times

Zillo said he had been intrigued, except that he had recognized one thing: Girardi was agitated after some losses.

“I knew that wasn’t going to work,” Zillo said.

So he asked Girardi about wearing the T-shirts before games. Girardi liked the idea, so Zillo lined up charities. The team’s public-relations staff prepares notes for Girardi on each day’s charity, and he reviews them. He may do additional reading on his own.

“It takes about five minutes of my day to research the charity and understand what it is, that’s all,” Girardi said. “Some of the things I’ve never heard of, so obviously, I’ll research them. I want to make sure I know what I’m talking about.”

The charities Girardi promotes are diverse. They find their way to him in different ways. Some are causes dear to Yankees employees or their friends and families. Some charities approached the Yankees once the pregame ritual had gathered momentum. A handful came from Girardi himself.

Don Czerniewski, who founded Stella’s Wish Foundation, which grants wishes to adults with life-threatening diseases, found his way to Girardi serendipitously. His boss at an appliance parts distributor in St. Louis bought a trip at a charity auction to see the Yankees and passed Czerniewski’s business card on to Girardi when they met.

When Girardi highlighted Backpacks for Life, which seeks to provide homeless veterans with backpacks filled with daily essentials and resources for aid, he explained how it had begun: Sgt. Brett D’Alessandro returned home from a tour with the Marine Corps in Afghanistan and saw a man holding a sign that said he was a homeless Vietnam War veteran. So he returned to his hotel and filled his military backpack with clothes and gave it to the man.

Girardi noted the high suicide rate among veterans.

“He did a really good job of getting our point across,” said Alexa Modero, who runs Backpacks for Life with D’Alessandro, her boyfriend. She said Girardi “would pause a lot in a way that was powerful.”

“It’s an emotional topic,” she added. “People don’t want to hear about veterans struggling with homelessness.”

When Girardi wore a T-shirt on Tuesday promoting Know Pelvic Mass, which promotes awareness for ovarian cancer testing, he was particularly emotional. He had at his side the racecar driver Martin Truex Jr. and his partner, Sherry Pollex, who learned two years ago that she had ovarian cancer.

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Girardi spoke to reporters before a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 14.

Credit
Alex Goodlett for The New York Times

As Girardi began to weave the loss of his mother into a plea that women not ignore abdominal pain, he had to pause to regain his composure.

“I wasn’t ready for that,” Pollex said. “But I think it shows how passionate he is about bringing awareness about getting tested.”

Girardi’s interest in promoting charitable organizations stems from his upbringing, he said. After he graduated from Northwestern and embarked on a professional baseball career, he began to appreciate what his parents had done for him, his four siblings and others in their neighborhood in Peoria, Ill.

His mother, a child psychologist, used to test children who could not afford it, and the Girardi home was a center for wayward cats and dogs. His father worked three jobs — as a salesman during the week, a bartender at night and a bricklayer on weekends — to help make ends meet. He also cooked pregame meals for his boys’ high school football teams.

“We weren’t blessed financially as a family,” Girardi said. “But I had every opportunity to be successful in life, and I think every child deserves that, whether you come from a background where there are financial issues, a single-parent home or you’ve had to deal with sickness. We should do everything to give people a chance to be successful because I think that’s what gives people hope.”

Many of the charities Girardi promotes are small operations, without much name recognition or financial heft. Several said that while they might not have gotten a bump in donations from Girardi’s publicity, they appreciated the exposure.

“It means everything,” said Matt Hinton, who with his wife runs Brady’s Smile, which helps families in neonatal and pediatric intensive care units. “We are the very definition of a mom-and-pop charity. We don’t have a marketing machine behind us. We don’t have fancy social media strategy. We rely on word of mouth and things like this.”

The Yankees photograph Girardi in the T-shirts, which he autographs so they can be sent back to the charity to be used to raise funds. He does not often meet the people behind the charities, but he has left a mark that stands in contrast to the intense, hardened character that many see in the dugout.

“My impression of Joe is he’s the consummate pro who walks the hard line,” said Dino Verrelli, whose Project Purple organization raises awareness and money to help cure pancreatic cancer. “So it’s kind of cool to see him take a stand on something that is so impactful and speak from the heart. The guy’s tough as nails, but I think you see the humanity of who he is.”

Correction: September 30, 2016

An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of one of the people running Backpacks for Life. She is Alexa Modero, not Modera. An earlier version of the article also misidentified the branch of the military in which Brett D’Alessandro served. He was a sergeant in the Marines, not the Army.

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