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Cubs’ catcher no ordinary Joe

by Jack Gallagher

Life has come full circle for Chicago Cubs catcher Joe Girardi and he seems pretty happy about it. The owner of three World Series rings — earned during his last four seasons as a member of the New York Yankees — Girardi is a profile in success.

A native of Peoria, Ill., Girardi is back with the team that he began his major-league career with. The Cubs drafted Girardi out of Northwestern University in Chicago in 1986 and he made his first appearance in the majors during the 1989 season, when the Cubs lost to the San Francisco Giants in the National League Championship Series.

That was the beginning of Girardi’s association with a string of playoff teams and after spending a few minutes with the muscular backstop, you get the feeling that it’s not luck that his teams excel. There is something about a winner that is exemplified in the way they play and conduct themselves throughout a career.

Girardi, who had three hits in Wednesday’s season-opening 5-3 win over the New York Mets, gives you that kind of feeling. He goes against the stereotypical image of a baseball player.

How many guys in the major leagues have a degree in industrial engineering from a major university? Girardi does.

Having played professional baseball for 14 years now, the 35-year-old Girardi, a lifetime .270 hitter, understands winning baseball is not about “me” but rather “we.”

“I don’t worry about personal goals, I worry about getting back to the World Series,” Girardi says. “If you get back to the World Series, everything usually takes care of itself.”

The cerebral catcher, who boasts a career fielding percentage of .990, is enjoying the opportunity to visit Japan, but realizes he came here to continue doing what he does best — win. Despite the different environment, Girardi has his sights firmly set on that goal.

“This is actually my second time in Japan. I got the chance to play here in 1985 when I came with the USA team. I didn’t think baseball would take me this far, but I’m glad I’m here.

“It’s a little different for us, but we understand that these games count. It’s no longer exhibition season or spring training. We came here to win two games. At the end of the season, those games could be very important.

“Last year, in the National League there was a playoff to determine the wild card (in which the Mets beat the Cincinnati Reds) and the year before that (when the Cubs defeated the Giants) there was a playoff too.”

Despite the Cubs’ last-place finish in the National League Central last season, Girardi is optimistic about the chances of the Windy City nine this year.

“I think our starting staff (Jon Lieber, Kyle Farnsworth, Kevin Tapani, Ismael Valdes, Kerry Wood) has a chance to be pretty good if we can remain healthy. Scott Downs will probably start until Wood is ready (following arm surgery last year). Our bullpen has some young guys and we have to see what they can do. We have a closer in Rick Aguilera, who has been around a long time, so he understands how it’s done.

“But you usually go as far as your pitching takes you. If the pitchers remain healthy and throw the ball well, we have a chance to be there in October.”

Girardi is very familiar with Don Baylor — the new manager of the Cubs — having played under the fiery ex-major leaguer for three seasons with the Colorado Rockies (1993-95). Baylor had a reputation for being able to bring that missing ingredient to a club late in his career as a player that could help get it to a World Series, and Girardi says the skipper commands respect in the clubhouse.

“You get a real understanding for what he’s like if you just remember the way he played. He’s very intense and he played the game the right way. He took out an infielder when he had to be taken out, he would take the walk, he would get hit by a pitch when you needed to get on base.

“If you understand his personality, you realize that he is very easy to play for and if you play hard, you will have no problem.”

Girardi and Baylor are cut from the same mold. Guys who know what it takes to get the job done and lead by example. That’s why some day, Girardi himself would be a good candidate to become a manager in the majors.