(Updated May 26, 2014)
Joe Girardi and Mike Matheny have much in common. Both attended Big Ten Conference schools (Northwestern for Girardi; Michigan for Matheny). Both were catchers who played in the World Series for franchises they now manage (Yankees for Girardi; Cardinals for Matheny). Both were teammates for one season, with the 2003 Cardinals.
On Dec. 17, 2002, Girardi, a free agent, signed with the Cardinals to be the backup to Matheny. Because of injuries, Girardi appeared in just 16 games for the Cardinals in 2003, the last of his 15 seasons as a big-league player.
Today, Girardi is in his eighth season as a big-league manager (He managed the Marlins in 2006 and has managed the Yankees since 2008.) The 2014 season is Matheny’s third as Cardinals manager.
Six months before becoming a part of the Cardinals’ family, Girardi had helped them during one of their saddest days.
On June 22, 2002, just before the Cardinals and Cubs were to play a Saturday afternoon game at a packed Wrigley Field, the teams learned St. Louis pitcher Darryl Kile had been found dead in his hotel room. After officials agreed to call off the game, it was decided Girardi, the Cubs’ catcher, should inform the crowd.
Displaying his leadership skills, Girardi stood on the field, faced the fans and informed them through the public-address system that a “tragedy in the Cardinals’ family” had occurred, that the game would not be played and the spectators should show respect and “pray for the Cardinals’ family.”
Wrote Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Girardi’s statements helped turn what some club officials feared might be an unseemly response by a disappointed crowd into one of quiet sympathy.
Helping to recruit Girardi to the Cardinals was Tino Martinez, then the St. Louis first baseman, who had played with Girardi for four seasons with the Yankees. “Tino told me St. Louis would be a great place to play,” Girardi said to the Associated Press.
Girardi, 38, acccepted a one-year, $750,000 contract from the Cardinals. Strauss wrote Girardi “is considered a solid complement to Matheny.” (The Cardinals also had catcher Eli Marrero, but planned to play him primarily in the outfield in 2003.)
At spring training, Girardi indicated to Strauss he was picking up the vibe of a championship club. “To me, this is very similar to the feel in New York,” said Girardi, who played for three World Series-winning Yankees clubs (1996, ’98 and ’99). “They expect to win. Anything short of a World Series is considered a failure. Guys were here early before they had to report, working out. It’s just a good group and you can see that.”
Girardi was hitting .375 in 27 at-bats for St. Louis in 2003 spring training games. But after a March 20 exhibition against the Orioles he complained of pain in his side and stiffness in his neck. Medical tests showed he had an enlarged disc. The Post-Dispatch reported he would miss four to six weeks of the regular season “after undergoing a procedure to alleviate potentially career-ending pressure on his spine caused by a herniated disc.”
Wrote Strauss: When Girardi left camp with his family, those he left behind were unsure when, or if, he would return to uniform.
The Cardinals signed Chris Widger, who had been released by the Yankees, to replace Girardi. After missing the first 61 games of the season, Girardi was activated June 10. He made his Cardinals debut June 11 at Fenway Park and went 0-for-4 against Pedro Martinez and John Burkett. Boxscore
Three days later, at Yankee Stadium, Girardi got his first Cardinals hit, a ninth-inning single off rookie Jason Anderson. Boxscore
But on July 1 Girardi returned to the disabled list, suffering back spasms unrelated to his disc problem. He wasn’t activated by the Cardinals until two months later. “It hasn’t been the season I had in mind,” Girardi told Strauss. “I was really looking forward to contributing to a championship team.”
On Sept. 28 at Phoenix, in the Cardinals’ last game of the ’03 season, Girardi came to bat for the final time as a big-league player. He led off the ninth inning with a single against Edgar Gonzalez. It was Girardi’s 1,100th hit in the majors. (Girardi batted .130, 3-for-23, for the 2003 Cardinals.)
Unable to overome injuries to players such as outfielder J.D. Drew, pitchers Matt Morris and Jason Isringhausen, second baseman Fernando Vina and Girardi, the 2003 Cardinals finished third in the National League Central, five games behind the first-place Cubs. “This team doesn’t need heart,” Girardi said to Dan O’Neill of the Post-Dispatch. “It needs health.”
Girardi sat out the 2004 season. The Cardinals, with Matheny and rookie Yadier Molina catching, won the pennant for the first time in 17 years and went to the 2004 World Series. In 2005, Girardi became a coach for Yankees manager Joe Torre. Four years after that, in 2009, Girardi managed the Yankees to a World Series championship.
Previously: As player, Robin Ventura was tough on Cardinals